Stock photo
Stock photo

Story by Christina Leslie | Correspondent

Doris Hudak has learned a few valuable lessons during her 35 years in the field of bereavement ministry, the most important of which is that finding the right words to say to survivors after the death of a loved one is not the most important goal.

“It is important to have someone who listens to serve as a sounding board,” she said. “We must promise we will be there on their journey no matter how long it takes.”

Hudak’s own bereavement journey began in 1983 upon her graduation from Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, with an associate degree in human services. While serving as a hospice volunteer with Riverview Medical Center, Red Bank, she recognized the need to minister to the patients’  loved ones as well.

“I started to work with senior citizens, the volunteers in the nutrition program, that were sick and dying. I had thought, ‘That’s where I’ll find the words,’ but I didn’t know what to say to them,” Hudak admitted. “There were a lot of people helping people die, but not that much about helping the survivors, no follow-up after the funeral.”

After speaking with other bereavement ministers, attending seminars and reading literature in the field, Hudak created a first-of-its-kind bereavement manual she shared with New Jersey funeral directors. She was invited by the Board of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved (NCMB) to give training seminars and to serve as its chair of fundraising and special events.

Hudak’s NCMB manual was named as the official manual of the Trenton Diocese, and she was honored by Bishop Emeritus John M. Smith for her work. The document, written in English and Spanish, was adopted by numerous parishes of the Diocese, including her own, St. Mary, in Colts Neck.

Professionally, Hudak returned to work for Brookdale Community College as a cooperative education coordinator, and later served for more than 20 years with its Alumni Association. She received the college’s prestigious Barringer Award in 2009, and last month was honored with the college’s Distinguished Alumni award.

A member of St. Mary’s Ministry of Consolation since 1989, Hudak and other counselors meet with the bereaved nine times, including just after the funeral, a few months later and on the one-year anniversary of the loved one’s death. She has found regular group meetings and sharing one’s emotions with others aid members to travel together through the grief process.

“We ask them to write about their feelings, give them homework, see that there is movement,” Hudak said. “Sometimes, if they don’t share with us, we have them do another session.”

The counselor noted one such repeat workshop attendee, a father mourning his drowned son, turned out to be one of the program’s success stories.

“He was a basket case,” Hudak said frankly. “He didn’t participate or do any writing. After the initial nine weeks, he decided to do an additional nine. We could see the grief passing. He did the work and eventually took over from me to run the group.”

She continued, “If people don’t move [through the grief process], they can be grieving for years and years. They have to stop thinking about what was lost, and think about what they have.”

An unexpected absence of a fellow counselor also had positive results, Hudak recalled.

“During one session, we had two groups of widows, divided into young ones and older ones. One week, the nun who ran one of the groups was not there, so I had to run both groups,” she said. “Afterward, one of the widows who had been married a long time told me she had really absorbed what the young widows said, and told me it had helped her appreciate how lucky she was with her long marriage. Two of those widows have gone on to volunteer with the group.”

Now approaching 89 years old, Hudak has stepped back from running the larger St. Mary Parish bereavement group, but still occasionally ministers to those in need either via telephone or one-on-one meetings. Whether ministering to one or to a group of mourners, her message has remained the same: listen.

“People talk to me on the phone or at the parish,” she said. “I listen and tell them what they are feeling is normal grief.”

The semi-retired Hudak is nonetheless preparing to someday ease the bereavement journey of one last group of beloved mourners: her children.

“I’m putting together my obituary, and even picked out the dress I want to wear,” Hudak said. “It is important to let my children, the survivors, not wonder about, ‘What would Mom have wanted?’”