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Parish follows companioning approach for grief support

Moderated Facebook group keeps members together after sessions, easing others' grief

Published: December 20, 2023   
Maryanne Meyerriecks
Deacon Charles Kuehl (left) and Robert Maestri plan for upcoming meetings of Immaculate Conception Church's Grief Support Group at the church office Dec. 13.

FORT SMITH — Immaculate Conception Church has started a grief support group where parishioners and area residents can share their sorrows in a faith-based, non-judgmental atmosphere.

“After my son died in 2021, I attended a grief support group at my church in Broken Arrow,” Donna Davis said. “When we moved to Roland (Okla.) and rejoined Immaculate Conception, I asked Father John (Antony) if we could hold a similar group there.”

The pastor asked Deacon Charles Kuehl, who had attended a workshop on healing in grief with Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Love and Life Transition in Colorado, to facilitate the group. Kuehl asked parishioners Robert Maestri, Patty Frala and Connie Post to join Davis as the core team, and the Immaculate Conception Grief Support Group began meeting in the summer.

“Everyone’s grief is different, but there is something in the camaraderie of sharing experiences so that you know you’re not alone,” Kuehl said. “Dr. Wolfelt introduced the companioning approach of grief support. We tell our stories without judgment. We don’t interrupt. We’re not trying to fix anything; we’re trying to let people say what they need to say.”

The group, which meets on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 6:30 p.m. on the second floor of St. Anne Building, begins with prayer. 

“We might begin with a reading, or the Christophers’ Prayer for the Grieving, or spontaneous prayer. Then we ask what’s going on in people’s lives and participate in an open sharing. There is never an awkward silence. People share their memories of the person they love, ask us to remember an upcoming death anniversary, or ask for help with something they’re struggling with. Their loved ones are on their mind every day, and the group gives them an outlet to talk in a safe, confidential environment.”

Maestri, who lost his wife five years ago and his mother two years later, said learning the principles of companioning, such as listening with the heart, walking alongside the griever and discovering the gift of sacred silence has helped him to interact with friends and family members who have lost a loved one. 

“Keep all the wonderful things that happened in your memory,” he said. “My son’s friend just lost his dad, and he asked us to share stories of his dad with him so he could share them with his daughter.”

Kuehl added that group members reach out to parishioners who have had a recent loss with handwritten notes on a sympathy card with a picture of the church on its cover. They mentioned a few things that helped them heal, and they put a group stamp on the back of the card. 

“We want people to know that God is there, and the Church is there for them. When you lose someone often the only person who is there for you unconditionally is God,” he said. 

In November, the group held its annual prayer service of remembrance. Participants had a candle for each person they were praying for. In the Litany of the Saints, the group added namesake saints for each loved one represented by a candle and asked the saints to pray for them.

Davis started a moderated Facebook group for members called Immaculate Conception Fort Smith, Arkansas Grief Support Group. The group posts death anniversary remembrances and words of wisdom and inspiration. Those who are interested in learning more and joining the group can ask to join the Facebook group.

Davis, who is originally from the River Valley and who had been a parishioner at Immaculate Conception for most of her life, said, “What I missed most when moving back home from Broken Arrow was my support group friends. It doesn’t matter who you’ve lost — a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling. Everyone who grieves goes through the same stages and experiences, even though they process them uniquely. Knowing that we can support one another and, by sharing our stories and what has helped us, gives us comfort and strength.” 

For more information, contact Kuehl at .

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