Caring for those who grieve the loss of a loved one

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, November 1, 2015

Caring for those who grieve the loss of a loved one

Ministers of consolation from 39 parishes throughout the archdiocese met for a day of reflection, "Celebrating the Call", sponsored by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago at their Hillside Central office on Oct.17. Ministers of consolation assist their fellow parishioners with the wake, funeral liturgy and committal as well as offer hope and comfort to all who grieve the loss of a loved one. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Carol Schuberth from St. Denis Parish looks over information during the reflection. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
The work of ministers of consolation is highlighted during the month of November when the Catholic Church traditionally remembers the dead. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

When Dorothy Spencer’s husband died in 1999, she understood she had to go to St. Kevin Parish and organize a funeral, but she didn’t really know what to do.

“I knew I had to talk to Father (Alberto Gundrum, then the pastor) about readings and things,” she said. “But I remember thinking that nobody should have to do this by themselves.”

Three years later, Spencer was one of the founding members of what became St. Kevin’s ministry of consolation, walking families through the process of planning a funeral and wake service, being there to assist at the services and touching base with them for at least the year following the death. Such ministries of consolation are of particular importance during the month of November when the Catholic Church marks the commemoration of All Souls and traditionally remembers the dead.

St. Kevin, 10509 S. Torrence Ave., has one of the longest-running ministries in the archdiocese, said Eva Bustamente, who coordinates such ministries for Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Bustamente offers training for parishes that want to start such ministries as well as resources and outreach to existing ministries. Members of 39 different parish ministries of consolation came together for a day of renewal hosted by Catholic Cemeteries at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines on Oct. 17.

Ministries of consolation have become more widespread in recent years, Bustamente said, with an estimated 40 percent of parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago offering some kind of outreach to the bereaved.

“It’s something that everyone goes through,” Bustamente said. “If you experience love, you are going to experience loss eventually.”

Many of the volunteer ministers, like Spencer, choose to get involved because they wish someone had been there to walk with them through the funeral and grieving process. Others do it as a way to honor those who helped them, whether as part of a formal ministry or not.

John Buchanan said that was why he got involved when St. Felicitas Parish, 1526 E. 84th St., started its ministry of consolation three or four years ago.

“I come from a family of mother, father and six boys, and I’m the only one left,” he said. “There were people that were there for me when I lost people.”

Emily Salley, also a member of St. Felicitas ministry of consolation, has her own litany of losses, and wanted to be there for others experiencing the same thing.

She said the training offered by Catholic Cemeteries helped her understand her own grieving process.

“It explained to me what I was going through,” she said. “Although I don’t know if I would have appreciated that at the time.”

Most parish ministries of consolation have people who meet with families to help them plan the funeral Mass, choose readings and music, and plan a vigil service if the families want one. Ministers of consolation often lead the prayers at the vigil services, and some also lead prayers at the cemetery committal service.

Ministers of consolation also often act as altar servers and as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at funeral Masses.

In some parishes, the ministers of consolation also will help serve a funeral meal following the Mass, if the family chooses to offer a meal at the parish.

Following the services, some parishes send cards or make phone calls to the bereaved families at three, six and 12 months following the death, and several host special Masses or observances, especially around All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2.

Some of them offer support groups for people who have lost a loved one, or workshops on topics such as how to survive the holidays in the wake of a death.

It can be a challenging ministry to coordinate, because a parish can’t plan for a funeral more than a few days in advance, Spencer said.

“I try to never schedule appointments in the morning, because that’s when funerals usually are,” she said.

Our Lady of Hope Parish in Rosemont has tried to make it easier by dividing its ministers of care into three teams who generally work together on funerals, said Terri Kaisling, coordinator of the ministers there.

The ministers’ first job is to figure out what the family needs, she said, while helping them make arrangements.

“There are things we need to accomplish,” she said. “But families are different. Some might know who they want to do what, some might need help picking a family member to do a reading. So much of what we do is just sitting and listening.”

Libby McGuire Giovanni, a minister of consolation at St. Stephen Protomartyr Parish in Des Plaines, agreed that listening is the most important part, especially in the weeks and months following the death. Giovanni’s first husband died when she was quite young, and she would have appreciated a friendly ear.

“They want you to listen to them, to pray with them,” she said. “They want to know they can call you and say they’re not having a good day. Sometimes people want to talk to someone not in their family. I have a loving family, but they have their own lives.”


  • st. kevin
  • grief
  • accompaniment
  • st. felicitas
  • our lady of hope
  • st. stephen protomartyr
  • catholic cemeteries
  • funerals

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