“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
Steve and Ann Day know how the pain of losing a child can crack the foundation of one’s life, no matter the child’s age or how long ago it happened.
In 2016 they lost their son, Christopher, age 34, to cancer, and searched for ways to deal with their grief. A powerful healing experience became available to them a year later.
When they attended their first day-long Emmaus Journey retreat for grieving parents in 2017 at Church of the Redeemer, Mechanicsville, they found comfort in the company of other bereaved parents who understood their sorrow. They also felt so comfortable at Church of the Redeemer that they moved to that parish and remain there today.
“I’m sure it was God’s hand that led us there when we needed it,” said Steve.
“Grief really is a journey,” said Ann. “My grief challenged my faith, and it was wonderful to have the Church and diocese offer these opportunities for people in their time of loss.”
From darkness to light
One important element of the 2017 retreat was that it was led by the founders, Charley and Diane Monaghan of Massachusetts, with help from former diocesan staff member Daniel Whitehouse. The Monaghans formed Emmaus Ministry after the death of their adult son, Paul, and it has now reached parishes nationwide.
With their help, the retreats in the Diocese of Richmond have been shaped to fit the needs of participants. “Emmaus Journey: A Retreat for Grieving Parents” is currently offered three times a year at different locations.
Out of respect for attendees’ privacy and pain, no one is required to speak; the day may be one of quiet reflection and listening. Others wish to talk about their grief journeys.
“They are called by the Holy Spirit to come, whenever they’re ready,” said Diane Atkins, minister of outreach and pastoral care at Church of the Redeemer, who has organized the retreats at her parish. “Being able to talk to others who have had a similar experience is very powerful and life-changing. It’s amazing to me how they can be such a support to each other.”
The day begins with attendees gathering in the worship space to light candles and lovingly set out photos of their children. “We are surrounded by their spirits all day long,” Atkins said. “It is holy and sacred.”
The morning begins with darkness and remembrance, like Easter, she explained. The spiritual leader – a priest or deacon – will offer a reflection, and the retreat continues with prayer, Scripture readings, music, and optional discussion. After lunch, “parent leaders” give their own witness, followed by more spiritual reflection and time to meditate upon how to move forward.
“We talk about ‘Where do you want to go from here? You’re still here,’” Atkins said. “It’s a movement from the darkness to the light.” Mass follows, and the day ends with dinner together.
“I think people leave a little lighter in spirit,” Atkins said. “We realize it’s only one day, but we hope it will help to heal their hearts and open them up to the presence of Christ.”
Honoring children they’ve lost
Christa Blomstrom, pastoral care minister at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News, has also been offering retreats since 2017. “The retreat offers peace, understanding, hope, compassion, and a way forward,” she said.
“They just want a chance to honor their child’s memory with other grieving parents, and to draw closer to God with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There are not many places where they can do that,” said Blomstrom.
She emphasized that the retreat is for anyone who has lost a child of any age – even before birth – and for any reason, however long ago. “The loss could’ve occurred a year ago or 30 years ago; the pain is the same,” she said.
She noted that attendees have come from all over the diocese and that many friendships have grown among them. “We encourage them to keep in touch with us and with each other,” she said.
The experience also helps deepen the organizers’ faith, Blomstrom noted, even if they have not lost a child. “It’s given me more compassion; we don’t know what others are going through,” she said. “It’s a very brave step for someone to sign up.”
Those who help organize this ministry are increasing, as many attendees return to help others. “Parent leaders” and “parent companions” like the Days help facilitate the retreats.
“Part of the healing is helping other people,” said Ann Day. “People often want to tell you about their child, and it makes you feel so good when you see them smile.”
The Days hope to see more opportunities for grieving parents to gather, share, pray and support each other on a regular basis.
“It brings a sense of purpose and hope for us to share what we’ve been through,” Steve said. “And it’s a way of honoring our son, Chris, too.”
Walking forward together, with Christ
Maggie Crescentini’s 21-year-old son, Bryce Baker, was killed six years ago while on active duty with the U.S. Army. Although the grief will never go away, Crescentini said enough time has passed that she is now able to reach out to other bereaved parents and help them in their pain.
In 2017, she attended the first retreat held at Church of the Redeemer. It was so helpful that she now serves as a parent leader and companion.
“I want others to know they are not alone; other people understand,” said Crescentini, a parishioner at St. Ann, Ashland. “Grieving parents speak the same language. These are people you can talk to and they understand you and uplift you. We can speak the truth with each other.”
Her personal loss, plus her work as activity director at an assisted-living and memory-care facility, have made her more comfortable talking about the end of life. “I talk about death almost every day, and I talk about my Catholic faith, too,” she said.
She describes putting on a “cloak of faith” to get through each day. “As you go along on this journey, Jesus is with you. He calls us to love him and trust him.”
Contemplating the Emmaus journey in the Bible, in which the grieving disciples do not recognize that Jesus is walking with them, has taken on a new meaning for Crescentini. Once they recognize him, they are comforted, she said.
“The Emmaus ministry is so profound. It helps you move forward when you feel like you can’t take a step,” she explained. “We are walking that journey together.”
The next Emmaus Journey retreat is Oct. 21, 2023, at St. Edward the Confessor, North Chesterfield.