Comfort and Consolation -- Number of parish bereavement ministries on the rise across Diocese
By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
When Diane Mazzarella lost her son, Christopher, to suicide at the age of 33 after a long-running battle with bipolar disorder, grief seemed insurmountable.
A devout Catholic, she looked to the Church for help and found it, not at her own parish, which lacked a bereavement ministry, but in St. Maximilian Kolbe in Toms River, a spiritual home to thousands of older adults.
The ministry, which meets for six Fridays in the spring and fall, turned out to be the balm in Gilead that Mazzarella and her husband, Anthony, so needed. In fact, it brought them so much comfort that she completed a course in accompanying the grieving.
The enthusiasm kindled at St. Maximilian Kolbe led Mazzarella to further enhance her skills by attending a four-part bereavement training sponsored by the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care in the Chancery.
When the spring session begins, she’ll be present to offer her help and insight to those who have lost an adult child.
The training sessions are four in an overall series of 12 workshops in pastoral care offered by the department.
During a brief break at the final session March 18, Mazzarella shared how the Catholic approach to grief and healing has helped lift their spirits, especially in the case of her husband. “The process was so fantastic that it helped him greatly.”
She decided to come to the diocesan program to glean as much information as possible to take back St. Maximilian Kolbe in order to help others the way she has been helped.
Surprisingly enough, despite the overwhelming population of senior citizens, the bereavement ministry there is not a long standing one.
It started only four “seasons” ago when Father Stephen Piga, the pastor, accepted the offer of Madeline Gardner, a new parishioner and registered nurse with a long history of involvement in bereavement ministries, to start one in St. Maximilian.
The relatively new ministry in the Toms River parish may be one reflection of a growing trend in parishes around the diocese.
“With 62 people in attendance from over 30 parishes in our Diocese, and others from nearby dioceses, I would say there is a huge resurgence in interest in bereavement ministry,” said Deanna Sass, director of the department of Pastoral Care, as the bereavement training session concluded.
At the moment, 42 parishes in the Diocese offer grief support groups in all four counties and approximately seven more are going to be starting them as a result of the recent training. “This means that close to half our parishes have grief support … so that anyone seeking this road to healing should be able to find a group somewhere near their home, even if not their own parish,” Sass said.
Part of the reason for this resurgence, she said, “is that as our parishioners are aging and priests are officiating at more and more funerals each year, they recognize that help is needed. Having trained laypersons who can meet with families to plan the funeral of a loved one and to walk them through those first days, weeks and year after a loss is most helpful,” Sass said.
“It is also the appropriate outreach from the faith community, to care for its members in moments of great pain and suffering, such as when a loved on dies,” she said.
Sass noted that consolation ministries consist of two parts – immediate outreach when a loss occurs and then bereavement ministries when trained facilitators gather the people in the parish who have a shared experience of loss.
“Together, they become beacons of comfort, light, hope and healing for one another,” said Sass who pointed out that training persons to facilitate those groups is a serious responsibility as “there are countless fine points to communicate, each extremely important to the success of such a group.”
The four-workshop training program is “barely a beginning,” she said. “But it is a good one, and it is better than sending untrained folks out to do the important task of accompanying grieving hearts without knowing the terrain they will be traveling.”
Among those attending were five members of St. Monica Parish, Jackson, who, like Mazzarella, called the sessions informative and inspirational. Linda Thompson said the mountain of materials and books on the subject they were toting home to the parish were especially helpful.
Her group appreciated presentations at the concluding session by Father Michael Hall of the diocesan Office of Worship, who spoke on funeral liturgies, and Mark Wilson, director of Diocesan Cemeteries.
“We have so much more information to share,” Thompson said. “This has been eye opening.”
For a full listing of Bereavement Support Groups currently up and running in our diocese go to www.dioceseoftrenton.org/pastoralcare/bereavement. For more information about training for this ministry, contact Deanna Sass, director of Pastoral Care at: [email protected] or 609-403-7157.