ORLANDO | “In the Beatitudes Jesus said: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted,’” (Matt. 5:4) notes Missionary of Mercy Father Anthony Aarons. “As Jesus shares in the grief and pain of all, so must we as His disciples do the same.” After a year of epic loss and forced isolation, comforting the afflicted can often be a tall order.
Mental health counselor and Annunciation parishioner, Regina Boyd, points out, “Loss is a difficult thing for anyone to experience, no matter how it occurs or when it occurs. Because of the pandemic, it makes it a whole different level of challenging because there are less resources and because we’re already under a certain level of stress. Then, if you experience a loss in the midst of that, it compounds the effect of that grief.”
Exacerbated by the need to temporarily shut down ministries to ensure safety, one cannot lose hope. Even without these ministries, the faithful can carry out these spiritual works of mercy for one another by being intentional about the effort. As the homepage of St. Joseph Parish in Winter Haven’s website notes: “You can be a light during this time. ‘For you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light for light produces every kind of goodness, and righteousness, and truth’” (Eph. 5:8-9).
Boyd notes, “Scripture tells us we rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). That is part of the process joining our faith community- reaching out to anyone in need whether feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison or caring for those who have lost others.” She assures, “There is a lot we can do,” and points to simple examples of frequent calls or providing a meal. “We pray with them, cry with them… whatever it is to offer support and a listening ear.”
“This is exactly a spiritual work of mercy, to be with those who are grieving,” pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Viera, Father John Britto said. He wants his parishioners to know their parish community will “stand with (them); grieve with (them); cry with (them); and share our shoulders to lean on.”
After a somewhat floundering and inconsistent bereavement ministry came to a halt at St. John the Evangelist due to the pandemic, Father Britto observed his parishioners – mostly elderly – were struggling. “Over the past year our parish has gone through a lot of suffering in terms of losing people – some due to COVID and others due to natural causes,” he explained. “Many are shut in because of COVID. When you lose someone and you stay home, you are frustrated, already discouraged and disappointed. It is the perfect storm when you are alone. Knowing that, I call to check on them and became increasingly aware of the need to accompany them at this critical juncture.”
As he contemplated how to revive the ministry, he thought it was a moment “to reimagine how we can be substantially present to them.” He elicited the help of Toni and Ken Donovan, knowing they had navigated loss. Toni Donovan was married for 42 years when she lost her first husband. At the time, her parish offered no bereavement support, so she sought it elsewhere.
When Ken Donovan’s wife of 35 years died after a long illness, he found solace in several programs, among them Hospice of St. Francis. “It allowed me to express myself and express what I had gone through being the primary care provider for my wife the last three years of her life. Bringing my emotions out relieved me,” he reflected.
Ken Donovan said, “Christ put it in our hearts to bring the people grieving to a more joyful outlook in life.”
Charged by Father Britto with the task of reigniting the bereavement ministry, the program launched two weeks ago and everyone was surprised at the overwhelming response. The group had to be capped at 24 to follow social distancing protocols.
Boyd is not surprised. “We know part of healthy grieving is being able to connect with people who can listen and support you, to have that space to process what’s happened,” she said. “For some that looks like a support group. With social distancing it’s hard to find that resource.”
For some parishes, reopening their bereavement ministry is a slower process requiring some creativity. At St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Altamonte Springs, Mary Huhn, pastoral care minister, helped host an Evening of Remembrance for all who lost a loved one in the past year. “We are trying to create an opportunity to grieve,” she said. With many people calling with requests for support, she spends much time on the telephone, listening and praying with them, but she wanted to do more. Unlike other ministries, she noted, “Grief and Zoom don’t work. People have a hard time speaking in person.” She says it is even harder to speak to a group on a computer screen.
Pam Flesch, a lay minister at Our Lady of Hope, Port Orange understands. She, too, has been comforting parishioners on the phone and sometimes a few at a time outdoors on campus. “People are still dying and people still need help. People need something immediately,” she explained. “Being available” is the key. “Helping them is what it’s all about,” she noted. “It goes beyond that loss, because there is loss of more than just the person.”
Realizing it is tough for those mourning to ask for assistance, Boyd says, “You’re not alone. Whatever pain or grief you are experiencing is real and valid. You are worthy of having a place to feel and process that in a way that is safe and healthy. It is really challenging because people experiencing loss often put pressure on themselves or receive pressure from the wider culture to ‘get over it’.”
She assures, “We all grieve differently. Give yourself permission to be where you are and feel what you feel, and allow the people in your life to help you through that… It’s important to honor the loss and recognize that person we loved dearly impacted our lives.”
Knowing all Christians are called to share in that loss, Father Aarons recalls the Third Eucharistic Prayer:
“Keep us attentive to the needs of all
that, sharing their grief and pain,
their joy and hope,
we may faithfully bring them the good news of salvation
and go forward with them
along the way of your Kingdom.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, March 10, 2021