Forever Loved: Grief Ministries Offer Hope for Advent, Christmas

Wendy Healy Around the Province


St. Anthony Shrine held a candlelight service of remembrance earlier this month for those mourning a loved one. (Photo courtesy of the Shrine)

The holidays are difficult for those who have lost a loved one. The void left by the deceased can grow more pronounced during the festive season. To help care for those who are in mourning, ministries around the Province offer grief programs, many with special events at the end of the year.

“I believe that Christmas is for healing,” Joseph Quinn, OFM, told more than 200 people who attended the Candlelight Service of Remembrance at St. Anthony Shrine the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

While the holidays can feel very sad for people who are grieving, Joseph offered them hope in the Christ child. “The child of our dreams came to heal. From the manger to the cross to the empty tomb to our hearts,” he told the attendees. The special service, part of Joe’s grief ministry, lets people know their loved ones will never be forgotten. He acknowledged that although hearts may be broken this holiday season, there is hope.

Celebrating Gifts of Love
The Christmas season is particularly hard on the bereaved, said Joe, who has been running the ministry for three years. The licensed funeral director and former college professor of mortuary science said that people don’t always feel the holiday spirit and the worst thing they can do is deny their feelings.

“I remind people that they do not grieve if they have not loved,” he said, pointing out that the name of the remembrance service was “Forever Loved.” “You cannot grieve over someone you never loved.”

The service, he said, was about celebrating the many gifts of love, and realizing that the deceased are always with you. “The greatest way to remember is to share memories of life, not death,” he said in his homily.

The purpose of the holiday service, he said, is to help people prepare for the joyous season ahead. “Held the first week in Advent, it helps people prepare for the world outside of the doors of the church that says this time of year is joyful and happy, even though their hearts are broken.”

The service is part of a broader grief ministry, according to Joe, who meets with 12 people in a group setting for six weeks, three times a year. The group, open to all parishes in the archdiocese, includes people who have lost children, spouses, friends and other family members.

“It’s extremely intense and they come in as 12 different people with 12 different stories,” he said. The program is so popular that it has a wait list, he added, because it is the only program of its kind in Boston.

While the program is only three years old in Boston, Joe has been doing grief work and running support groups for individuals and seminars for friars for more than 30 years. “I’m from Long Beach Island, N.J. That’s my home parish. I managed a funeral home there and met the friars 37 years ago and started doing grief support groups for LBI. I found there was a great need.”

Help for Community Torn by Violence
In New Jersey, Karl Koenig, OFM, of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Camden, has also found a great need in the community. Many parents are coping with the loss of a child from violence in this high crime city.

Karl organized his program around the Pieta Ministry, now called The Emmaus Ministry, at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, where he once served. The Shrine’s program is designed for parents who lost children. Karl’s ministry is for grieving parents and since his parish is mostly Hispanic, he translated the Pieta materials into Spanish. When a parishioner lost a child to violence two years ago, Karl realized this type of program was much needed in the community.

He began the ministry in November, with a full-day seminar for eight people who had lost five kids among them. “Using the symbolism of a candle, we started out by lighting the candle and putting it on the altar in our chapel,” he said. “It was the symbol of the presence of the loved one deceased.”

Two weeks after the seminar, the group met to evaluate the first session. Karl said the reviews were all good, and he feels certain the program will be valuable.

Embracing Grief to Handle Pain
Similar programs are being developed throughout the Province. Among them are a bereavement ministry at Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Fla., supervised by Frank Critch, OFM, and an ongoing group at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, New York City.

The Sacred Heart program, part of the parish’s outreach ministry Franciscan Cares, meets monthly to give participants a safe and open environment, according to Frank. This month, he arranged a retreat in collaboration with Tampa General Hospital’s Pastoral Care Team.

As Christmas gets closer, these ministries are bound to be more integral to people’s lives.

“Holidays can create a void in the family,” said Joe. “We don’t always understand why someone has died, is ill, is not speaking to us or walked out of our lives. We don’t have the answers, so the pain becomes more difficult to handle.”

But, he added, the only way through the feelings is to embrace the grief. “Running away from the reality of pain will only make it worse. The healthy way is to recognize that I have no choice but to confront the pain, because until I do, I won’t get on with life.”

Wendy Healy is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. She is the author of Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9/11.