In times of grief, Catholics find hope, encouragement

When Marie Bobak first got involved in funeral ministry at St. Paul Church in Tampa, Fla., 20 years ago, it was mainly to assist with the physical aspects of arranging funeral Masses. But that work soon grew into a ministry of deep and prayerful connection to people walking the difficult path through the earliest stages of grief and mourning. Although Bobak especially is adept at helping families pick readings and songs for their loved one’s funeral Mass, what is much more significant to the success of this ministry is her willingness to listen and to simply be present to people who are caught in the throes of sadness, confusion, anger and fear.

Sensitivity to survivors

“Mainly I am the first contact at church. I listen to their stories and try to get the dynamics of the family, where they are spiritually. I try to be present to them,” said Bobak, explaining that every person’s grief and reaction to it is different — some have been away from the Faith for years; others are deeply involved.

The ability to listen and let people express themselves is key in bereavement ministry. Shutterstock

“It’s planning a meaningful funeral, and it’s also ministering to people who are at different levels with their faith. It’s so important because so many people come back to Church because of this ministry or come back to the sacraments.”

She recalled one man who didn’t want a funeral Mass for his father; he simply wanted to take his father’s ashes home.But another family member was pushing for a funeral. Bobak suggested that instead of a funeral Mass, the man bring his father’s ashes to a regular daily Mass, where they would include just a couple of special songs in his memory and nothing more. The man had been away from the Catholic Faith for 30 years, but that experience made him want to return. He asked to go to confession and received Communion, an experience that Bobak says is not as unusual as it might sound. People who are touched by the funeral ministry, she said, will sometimes ask to enter the RCIA program, or they will start attending Mass on Sundays once again.

“You minister to families in their grief, but you are also able to minister much further beyond that once you hear where they’re coming from,” said Bobak, 70, who told OSV that being an older adult gives her certain advantages when it comes to this ministry.

“When you’re more mature and you’re in this ministry, you really are finished dealing with all the big things in your own life. You’re able to set yourself aside and just be there for them. We’re motherly, nurturing. I’ve had people who have lost their parents, and they’ve sort of adopted me,” she explained.

Good listening skills

In the formal bereavement groups, the facilitators — also older adults — lead the sessions, but it’s really the participants who help each other. The most critical aspect of this ministry, said Bobak, is the ability and willingness to listen and to let people express themselves, even if angry.

David Aaker, author of “The Bereavement Ministry Program” (Ave Maria Press, $49.95) along with Jan Nelson and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Le Center, Minn., said that listening is without question the most important skill or gift anyone can bring to a bereavement program or to an individual person who is grieving, and seniors tend to do that better than most.

“Their gifts are manifold — the experience of loss and their faith and the history that the person has gone through. Seniors have so much to bring to the table. The experience of loss helps them to connect with others who have had a loss in their lives,” he said. “Seniors can give so much hope to others who journey into and through the grieving process. They can provide a wider perspective, a fuller picture.”

And for those who aren’t quite ready to become so emotionally invested in bereavement ministry, there are all kinds of ways for seniors to provide support and assistance to parish programs. Aaker suggests seniors make calls or write notes to offer words of hope and encouragement to someone in grief. Some seniors he works with are even using Skype to communicate via computer with grieving peers in order to help prevent the isolation that often accompanies loss for older adults, especially when a spouse dies. Even those who are confined to nursing homes can play a critical role in bereavement ministry.

“I tell my nursing home people in worship to pray for others, intercession. Some will say, ‘What can I do? I can’t leave here.’ I say, ‘You can pray,’ and then I add, ‘You ain’t dead yet!’ That gets their attention,” Aaker told OSV. “They need to know that they are worth something and needed.”

Aaker, who has been involved in bereavement ministry for 40 years, often refers to a quote by Quaker author Parker Palmer with regard to this work: “Violence arises when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.”

“If you and I don’t listen to the grief or the suffering that a person who has experienced the death of a loved one is feeling, if we don’t listen, that turns into violence. It turns into becoming totally disengaged, or it turns into drinking or drugs or any number of things that seniors or any of us can get involved in if we don’t find ways of dealing with that suffering,” he explained.

Simple actions

For those in bereavement ministry, even the simplest actions can have deep and long-lasting impact. Once, when Aaker was working with a hospital bereavement group, he decided to make simple Valentine’s Day cards on his computer. He brought them to the hospital, along with some gummy bear candy, and left them on the table where the group would share a meal. As the people sat at the table, several commented that it was the only Valentine’s Day card they had received that day, or that their husband had always bought them cards.

“It was such a small gesture on my part. God used that small gesture and turned it into an amazing gift,” said Aaker.  

When it comes to grief, seniors have their own particular needs as well. Many times, with longer-term relationships their identity is so tied to that of their partner that when the partner dies, they are often lost and don’t know who they are.  Bereavement ministry can help them regain that sense of identity.

“People want to belong, and they want to be part of a community. When the loss comes, that community is often interrupted, so bereavement contacts are ways in which we can help reestablish that sense of belonging and community,” said Aaker.

And by immersing themselves in parish life and, eventually, in bereavement ministry, seniors can use their own pain to help someone else navigate their way through it.

Building family, parish

Jeanne Pitkin has been involved in bereavement ministry at St. Pius X Church in Loudonville, N.Y., for 15 years, although she’s preparing to retire this year. She recalled one particular instance that really summed up the special ways seniors can benefit bereavement ministry. She remembered a young woman who came to the grief support program after losing a baby through stillbirth. 

“As we did the eight-week grief session, these wonderful women rallied around her. The joy of seeing her loved by them and understood by them — and the transformation that happened there — was so powerful,” she said.

Part of the grief program included a session where participants were asked to bring an “imaginary gift” to share with everyone. Some people, however, brought concrete gifts, a poem or flowers from their garden, for example. One older woman brought a prayer shawl for the grieving young mother. She passed the shawl around and everyone prayed over it, asking for blessings for the young woman. The young woman took the shawl and hugged it to herself. Then she took out a pair of baby booties as a symbol of the baby she lost, and she gave them to an older woman in the group who was expecting a grandchild.

“The healing and the beauty that occurred there — that’s the kind of thing that happens in grief groups,” said Pitkin, who also stressed the importance of bringing people together, especially seniors, who may feel disconnected and alone after a devastating loss.

“You have lost the opportunity to be with people the way you used to be, so part of our ministry is to bring people together,” she told OSV, saying that once the official grief program is complete, she invites participants to continue meeting on their own. So far three groups continue to meet and have developed into small faith communities. “This ministry is about building family and building parish.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of Parenting a Grieving Child: Helping Children Find Faith, Hope and Healing after the Loss of a Loved One" (Loyola Press).