COMPASSION AND CONSOLATION • Grieving individuals and families find support through parish bereavement ministries. Stock photo

COMPASSION AND CONSOLATION • Grieving individuals and families find support through parish bereavement ministries. Stock photo


By David Karas |Correspondent

Cetta Lieb knows full well that most of the people she meets won’t consider the introduction a pleasant experience.

But, in many ways, that’s what drives her to do her job.

Lieb is director of the cemetery and mausoleums of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, as well as an active member of the parish’s consolation ministry.

And while her professional duties involve her meeting with the families of deceased loved ones in the hours and days following a loss, her ministerial role involves extending the comforting presence of faith in the months and years following the hardship.

“As part of my job, I get to meet the people at their worst time, and because they visit frequently and I am out and about here, I get to monitor them, see how they are doing,” she says. “We are very friendly and welcoming to the families that come here.”

Lieb’s role with the cemetery and mausoleums – which serve a wide community of Catholics in Ocean and Monmouth Counties well beyond the confines of Lakewood – dovetails, in many cases, with the parish’s consolation ministry.

She is just one of more than 300 who are involved in consolation and bereavement ministries across the Diocese of Trenton, in some 80 parishes with programs aimed at comforting and supporting those suffering from a loss.

There are groups of various names for adults and children, as well as specific ministry meetings or groups focused on men and women, but the main objectives are the same: to walk with individuals and families as they cope with the loss of a loved one, and provide them the support to help them make it through the difficult time.

For Mary Ann Collett, a grief counselor who helps to train folks for bereavement and consolation ministries across the diocese, the approach is multi-faceted.

“I try to take a holistic approach, of mind, body and spirit,” she said.

Collett, a parishioner in St. William the Abbott Parish, Howell, teaches ministers in various parishes about the skills required for such outreach, through lecture formats and more hands-on experiences.

“The skills that are pertinent to use, like listening skills, are essential,” she said, adding that the ministers serve mainly as a source of support for those suffering a loss. “They are a point of contact.”

Trainings also include details on funeral services and other technical aspects of the days and weeks following a family loss, she said.

“They are all the different aspects of what it is to meet with a person who is going through a grieving process,” she said.

Between her parish ministry and the cemetery and mausoleums, Lieb says that a series of programs are offered to engage those who are grieving, including special Masses on Mother’s and Father’s Day, as well as remembrance Masses throughout the year. There are also ample opportunities for folks to meet others in similar positions – a critical part of the mission, she believes.

“They get to see that they are really not alone,” she said. “We have had people break out of bereavement groups that formed their own friendships, and they still continue to support each other even years after the fact of losing their spouses (or others).”

The most rewarding part for Lieb, she shared, is seeing the progress made by folks.

 “(At first), the people are so distraught, and they believe they are never going to get better, (that) they are never going to survive this tragedy that occurred,” she said. “(As time passes), you see them, and maybe though bereavement support groups or whatever they choose, you can see that they have grown.”

“Most of them have returned to Church, which I find very exciting,” she continued. “They are finding their solace in the hands of God.”

From parents of suicide victims to men and women who have lost spouses of many decades, Lieb says that the individual cases vary greatly but the results seen in many of the clients are equally rewarding and inspiring.

 “It is just a phenomenal thing to see them go from not being able to say more than a sentence without breaking down in tears, to seeing them laughing…they can laugh again, they can move on with their lives,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that the hurt has disappeared, but they can function.”

 Deacon Mike Mullarkey, of Epiphany Parish, Brick, has been involved in bereavement ministry and counseling for close to 30 years. While he is presently working mostly with counseling Superstorm Sandy survivors – many of whom have lost homes and most of their possessions, and are in somewhat similar processes of grief – he said that the resources available at the parish level for those in grief are extraordinary.

Those involved in ministering to the grief-stricken have often experienced losses themselves, he added, including some who have lost multiple spouses in their lifetimes.

“I think it just opens the door for people when they realize that the people on the team have been there,” he said. “What helps people to begin to build the relationships and be open and vulnerable, is that they realize the people on the team have been through it.”

 Losses can affect each individual person in vastly different ways, he said, and such ministries provide support that can be tailored, in a sense, to each person.

He echoed Lieb’s comments when talking about how rewarding it is to see the progress in participants.

“Clearly, they never get back to where they were before the loss, yet there are some people that get even greater spirituality or faith than prior to the tragedy,” he said. “That gives hope to those people … it gives hope to families and friends.”

Deacon Bob Tharp of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish, Hamilton, has been involved in bereavement counseling for more than 18 years now, and he helps coordinate his parish’s group that meets once a month.

 “It really is an opportunity for the people who are grieving to share their experiences and reality with other grieving people,” he said, adding that the moniker “grief shared is grief diminished” rings true. “As they see other people dealing with the issues they are dealing with … they get a great deal of healing out of it.”

 Like Lieb, Tharp understands the somewhat paradoxical nature of the ministry.

 “The greatest reward we get is when someone has healed and doesn’t need us anymore,” he said. “The greatest reward I get is when someone no longer comes.”