OLYMPIA – People suffering stress caused by COVID-19’s restrictions, job losses and remote learning — or the death of a loved one from the virus — will soon be able to turn to a new grief support program at St. Michael Parish.
“People are increasingly stressed and they frequently only have a vague notion of why,” said Benedetta Reece, steward for pastoral care and community outreach ministries at the Olympia parish.
Those who are out of work, facing financial pressure and an uncertain employment future may be dealing with depression, anger or anxiety, Reece said. And teens whose senior year of high school was cut short face a type of very real grief, she said.
The new program aims to help people deal with their emotions through the lens of faith, Reece said. Groups of up to seven people will meet at the parish office, once the archdiocese gives its approval under parish reopening plans, she said. Each session will begin with a video presentation featuring insights from a panel of experts. Then participants will be invited to engage in a conversation about faith, grief and COVID-19.
“These losses raise larger questions for us as Christians,” Reece said. “How do we understand and process grief as people of faith? How can we support vulnerable and grieving members of our community while practicing physical distancing?”
Keeping faith through grief
Reece and her team have dedicated years to helping people at St. Michael’s share and move through their grief.
The parish has separate grief support groups for those dealing with cancer, the loss of a loved one or illness in the family, and the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death.
The parish uses both male and female facilitators, which allows men and women to express their emotions more openly, said Carolyn Morrison, a retired social worker with experience helping those who have lost newborns or suffered miscarriages. At St. Michael’s, she meets participants in groups as well as one on one.
The grief support groups usually meet between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a time when many people experience additional grief after losing loved ones, according to Reece. Groups are organized at other times of the year if there are enough requests.
A decade ago, though, St. Michael’s didn’t have any grief support groups.
Reece was a volunteer Communion minister to the homebound when she received a call from someone wondering if the parish had a grief group.
When Reece said no, the caller asked why not.
“That ‘Why?’ stayed with me,” Reece said. “It hounded me for many days.”
She prayed about the concept of a grief support group, proposed it to Father Jim Lee, St. Michael’s pastor, and got approval to move forward. Reece said she learned as she went along, later receiving formal training.
When her father died in Italy three years ago, Reece joined the parish sessions for personal support.
“What comforted me after his death was stories of people in the group,” Reece said — how they coped, how they prayed and “especially how they kept their faith.”
St. Michael Parish in Olympia offers three regular grief support groups, organized by Kenny Broussard, left, Carolyn Morrison, Benedetta Reece (steward for pastoral care and community outreach ministries) and Bill Moreland — who were photographed pre-COVID-19. Photo: Julie A. Ferraro
Paying it forward
Others who received help with their grief through the parish groups are now giving back as group facilitators.
When Kenny Broussard was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, it prompted him to help the parish start a grief group to support cancer patients and their families. Through his own experience, Broussard said, he discovered that it’s hard to relate to people who aren’t going through the same thing.
“I wanted to give something back,” Broussard said. “I saw no way to repay what I had received from the parish.”
Bill Moreland said he helps in any way he can, after receiving “great solace” from a parish grief group after his daughter died in 2009. He participated in the group along with his wife and their other daughters.
Now Moreland admits to being somewhat of a fanatic about the concept. “I really believe in it,” he said.
The support groups welcome anyone in need, and Reece said she and her team have seen people return to the church because of the help given, friendships nurtured and community created.
“We are the ones leading the group, but we are in the group together,” Reece said.
“It’s an incredible grace that happens as a result of the sharing. It renews your faith and strengthens it.”