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August 30, 2009

Parishes offer help to grieving members

By Michelle Martin


Kathleen Tyrrell has been a minister of care at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Wilmette for more than 20 years, visiting people who are sick and homebound and bringing them the Eucharist.

But she and other parish volunteers long saw a need to do more, to accompany the families of parishioners who died as they grieved. They tried to start a bereavement ministry, but had a hard time getting it going.

“This is a ministry we’ve attempted to launch for quite a few years and we just never got it off the ground,” Tyrrell said.

Then Debbie Armenta was hired to coordinate the ministers of care at the parish. One suggestion was that she try to start a bereavement ministry that would go beyond funeral planning and delivering covered dishes to houses of mourning.

Armenta, a parishioner at St. Raphael Parish in Antioch, started doing research and putting the new ministry together. After getting input from the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved, Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago and other dioceses, she found a core of about nine people who have volunteered to accompany grieving families on their journeys, along with a support group for people who are grieving and regularly scheduled large-group meetings on topics related to bereavement.

Armenta said she knew that starting a group might be difficult, because most people don’t want to talk about death, and many shy away from approaching people who have experienced a recent loss.

“Death is hard. It makes all of us uncomfortable. It makes us face our own mortality,” she said.

“There was interest from people who had suffered significant losses who wanted to reach out to people in similar situations.”

Unlike in some other parishes, St. Francis Xavier’s bereavement ministry doesn’t do wake services or funeral planning. Those functions were already handled very well, Tyrrell said.

“The parish does a fine job with getting you through the wake and the funeral. They’ll help you with a Mass and picking some music. But after that, there was really nothing.

There was no definite place to go. There was no definite person to call. People maybe feel abandoned.”

Offerings vary

While dozens of parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago offer some form of bereavement ministry, the services they offer vary widely. Some, like St. Ailbe on the South Side, focus on the wake and funeral services and providing a funeral luncheon. Other parishes have discontinued their groups because they have seen hospitals and hospice agencies offer their own services.

Others, like St. Alexander Parish in Palos Heights, offer services similar to those at St. Francis Xavier.

At St. Alexander, Diane Ostrowski, the parish’s minister of health, coordinates bereavement ministry services as well as ministry to the sick. As a registered nurse, she offers some medical help, but said “I do a lot more ministry than the nursing piece.”

As a parishioner, she gets to know people when they are well, and then often accompanies them and their families through illness and death, continuing to offer help to their grieving families.

“I’m with them for the whole continuum,” she said.

Ostrowski said she doesn’t generally do funeral planning, unless a parishioner wants her help in planning for their own funeral. The bereavement team she works with conducts wake services, and they send letters to family members several times over the year following someone’s death.

They also coordinate short-term grief support groups at the parish, and monthly coffee meetings when the support groups are not in session.

Ostrowski does a lot of one-on-one grief support, she said, and refers people for professional counseling when their needs call for it.

A separate “Martha and Mary ministry” offers help for families with meals, errands and other practical needs following a death in the family.

At St. Francis Xavier, Armenta said, most families rally together to handle the practical needs.

But a member of the bereavement ministry tries to attend the wake and funeral Mass whenever a parishioner suffers a loss, and sends a Mass card and a note, offering to stay in touch into the future.

Having someone who is specifically asked to keep in contact is different from going to a grief group, Tyrrell said. It’s an open-ended relationship.

“Sometimes people say the first year is the hardest,” Armenta said. “Then they say, OK, no, it’s the second year. We don’t put any limits on this.”

When the bereavement ministers wanted to know what to say to people who were grieving, Armenta said, “The most important thing is just to let them know you are there.”

Tyrrell has grieved the loss of a baby granddaughter and of her husband, and said she remembers what she needed most.

“You just look for someone who doesn’t say a word, maybe, just to be there. It isn’t what they say. … People might be comfortable, even crying for the first time. For those people that are mourning, these are hard days and hard times. That sounds so simple, but that’s really what people need.”