Deacon Michael and Barbara share the prayerful and pastoral journey with the grieving and their families
Coping with the death of a loved one or a loss of any kind can be one of the most challenging experiences people face. In those difficult times, a parish ministry of consolation can be a source of comfort and support to those who have suffered a loss.
Offering spiritual, emotional, social and practical support to parishioners who – for whatever reason – are working their way through loss and the grieving process involves being a good listener, say Deacon Michael and Barbara Turner of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Roseville, grief ministry trainers for the Diocese of Sacramento.
“We teach consolation ministers to listen,” Barbara says. “Grief can come with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of health or simply the loss of independence as one gets older. When you listen, you journey with people as they tell their stories.
“Listening is important because we live in a culture that doesn’t want to talk about death, doesn’t want to give us time to grieve, and doesn’t even want us to get old. So sometimes people shove their grief aside or swallow it, not seeking support when they need it or dealing with their grief in unhealthy ways.”
“Listening is key,” adds Deacon Michael, who was ordained in 2014. “Those of us in this ministry don’t have the answers, but the answers are within the person who is grieving. We try to help them bring the answers out.” Deacon Michael and Barbara, who have been married for 46 years and have five adult children and seven grandchildren, have been leading free two-day workshops on the ministry of consolation. Their aim is to train parish ministers in the prayerful and pastoral journeying with the dying and their families, as well as preparation and planning for all prayer rituals of the Order of Christian Funerals. Their most recent workshop, provided by Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services, was held in June at St. Mary Cemetery and Funeral Center in Sacramento.
“Ministry of consolation” is taken from the church’s Order of Christian Funerals. Deacon Michael and Barbara encourage parishes to develop a ministry of consolation (or grief ministry) program, taking its inspiration from the OCF. They note that outreach at the time of death brings comfort to those in mourning, can evangelize those who have been away from the church, and revitalizes parish life for those who are involved in the ministry. Encouraging lay parishioners to minister to families experiencing the loss of a loved one offers the sense that the whole parish is supporting the deceased’s family, they add.
One of the exercises for participants in the ministry of consolation workshop is writing their own obituary, Deacon Michael notes. “This helps people reflect on their entire lives and the reality of death,” he says. “We also emphasize that the greatest gift you can give your children is to pre-plan your own Catholic funeral services and burial, to give you and them peace of mind and they will know your wishes.”
In their home parish of St. Rose of Lima for the past 16 years, Barbara has coordinated a eucharistic ministry to the sick and homebound. The Journey in the Spirit ministry offers daily hospital visits to Sutter Roseville and Kaiser Roseville hospitals; weekly visits to retirement centers, board and care homes, and parishioners in their homes; daily visits and assessment of the spiritual needs of clients on hospice care and their families; and grief counseling for those suffering a loss. Barbara says some 35 parishioners are now involved in various aspects of the ministry, with some laypeople involved in more than one aspect of the ministry.
Father Michael Cormack, pastor emeritus of St. Rose of Lima, and Deacon Peter Silott, who died in 2016, initiated the ministry in 1988. Deacon Peter was chaplain at Sutter Roseville Hospital for 30 years. In the early days of the ministry, Catholic patients would receive visits from lay ministers who would bring the Eucharist, holy cards, rosaries and offer prayer. Over time, the ministry began to focus exclusively on the Eucharist.
Lay ministers involved in Journey in the Spirit are “people who are called by the Holy Spirit to be of service to the lonely, sick, dying and those suffering from loss.”
With the ministers’ dedication, compassion and love for the work they do in this sacramental ministry, “all things come together for the greater glory of God and his church on earth,” Barbara writes in an announcement she places periodically in the parish bulletin. “When we share in the presence, prayer and the sacrament of the Eucharist, we are bringing support, comfort and hope. Listening with compassion and letting Christ lead us, we strive to do nothing except let him speak, let him touch, and let him heal his people.”
“In the past 16 years, we have had four lay ministers who did their ministry up until a week before they went on hospice care themselves,” she notes. “I didn’t even know they were sick – that’s how this ministry touches people and those who work in it. And then we became ministers to them. It’s just beautiful.”
When Deacon Michael retired in 2006 after a 29-year career with the California Highway Patrol, “little by little” he was encouraged by Barbara to be involved in the eucharistic ministry. They also decided to expand their knowledge by attend training workshops and seminars in grief ministry, including one led by Sandy Heinisch, grief minister/counselor in the Diocese of Oakland and longtime trainer with the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved.
Their own training as grief ministers helped them realize that the ministry of consolation needed to be added at St. Rose of Lima. So three years ago, the long-standing eucharistic ministry expanded to include grief ministry. Journey in the Spirit is “more extensive and all encompassing,” Barbara notes.
“We found that once lay ministers touched the family by bringing the Eucharist to someone, whether in the hospital or at home, or if the person who was visited went into hospice or some other care, they wanted support to continue. We observed a disconnect between our ministry to the sick and dying and what happens after death occurs, so we knew we needed to add in this element.”
“There are different needs — grief comes in many shapes and forms,” she adds. “Some are dealing with the death of a loved one; many elderlies grieve their loss of independence. They might be grieving the loss of a person declining in health or seeing your spouse put on hospice care. Every person we meet is a new and exciting challenge. We do a lot of praying and we trust in the Holy Spirit to give us the words and energy to get the work done.”
Some people require one or two individual grief counseling sessions, while others may want several or on a continuing basis, Deacon Michael says. “We leave the door open and say give us a call. I try to do less talking and more listening and try to read their needs. There’s no sense in saying let’s meet again in two weeks if they don’t want it. It’s also helped me recognize again the different things we can grieve.”
Barbara reflects on the lasting impact serving in the ministry of consolation has had on their lives.
“This ministry has opened our eyes as to the many different ways we see grief, how many times we see grief in one day, and how many people out there are grieving,” she says. “We never realized the full extent of it before. It has also taught us how we want to die and who we choose to have around us at the final stages of life. It has taken the fear of death away. You start asking yourself questions and changing the way you live.
“The awesome gift of journeying with someone as they are dying, and being with people who open their grief-stricken hearts to me, has taught me to how to live better,” she concludes. “I live without regrets and all my affairs are in order ready to die. What freedom that gives me to live each moment as if it were my last! My eyes have been opened to the simple joys around me.”
About upcoming workshops on the ministry at consolation by contacting Nicole Zamora at Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services at 916-840-2138 or email@example.com
About bereavement and consolation ministry in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/bereavement