Memorial Candles for “You Will Be Whole Again,” the one-day retreat held at St. Kateri parish, were donated by Kathy and Abel Rodrigues in loving memory of their daughter, Erin.
Memorial Candles for “You Will Be Whole Again,” the one-day retreat held at St. Kateri parish, were donated by Kathy and Abel Rodrigues in loving memory of their daughter, Erin.

Planning for an Emmaus Ministry retreat in the Diocese of Albany began more than a year ago, and an early Nor’easter nearly derailed it. But early Saturday morning on Nov. 17, more than 35 people gathered at St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schen­ectady for a one-day retreat for grieving parents seeking peace and comfort. 

We welcomed 29 parents and honored 26 children, whose cause of death included illness (9); suicide (6); prenatal (5); accident (3); and overdose (2). Two mothers had lost more than one child. The time since death ranged from four weeks ago to 46 years ago. Age at the time of death ranged from prenatal to 57 years old.

The retreat team was one of our largest ever, with more than 20 parishioners and friends generously and graciously offering their time and talent to support the grieving parents. Rev. Bob Longobucco, pastor of St. Kateri, served as our host, spiritual leader, celebrant, and confessor. Harley McDevitt, director of Pastoral Care Ministry for the Diocese of Albany, and Kris Rooney, St. Kateri Pastoral Associate and mother of Matthew, provided leadership for the day.

Father Longobucco graciously welcomed us during the opening prayer service. He quoted from Genesis, saying that we were like Jacob wrestling with God, wrestling with the struggle of being a grieving parent. “There is a blessing in struggle,” he said. “The gift of the Spirit is at work whether we feel it or not.” 

Like the psalmists we ask...Why? How? There are no answers, said Father Longobucco. We have to find a way to trust in God, to believe that heaven will be even more beautiful than we could ever imagine. Our tears come from love, he added. We have been born and ordered to love, but the universe wobbles and sin and death come in all forms. God does not want us to die, said Father Longobucco, but we have free will.

Another theme of the day was “finding joy again.” JoAnn Bemeisl, Emmaus Ministry Team member at St. Kateri parish, gave a thoughtful parent witness presentation during which she shared her own spiritual journey after the loss of her daughter, Stephanie.

“If I stayed with my head under that rock, I would never be able to feel joy again,” said Mrs. Bemeisl. “If I focus on her loss, rather than all of the joy that she brought me, I would always be sad.” 

She explained that right after Stephanie died, she had a dream. “In the dream, God came to me and said that I had the choice of never knowing Stephanie and consequently, this searing pain — or, in choosing to know her, having the joy of her being and presence for 15 years. What parent wouldn’t choose to have their child, no matter how much pain,” she said. 

Parents had the opportunity throughout the day to talk to each other (if they wished) in pairs, in small groups of mothers and fathers, and together as a large group. It was comforting to hear the perspectives of others and to have them know and understand our pain somewhat.

Fathers, in particular, found peace in being able to talk about their children and their spouses, possibly for the first time — and to cry in public without being judged. 

One mother who ministered to her son during a long, particularly difficult illness resulting in death, said taking care of him was the most painful experience of her entire life. Another mother who had a similar experience with her son said that, for her, it was a gift. It was comforting to have both experiences validated.

Throughout the day, we were reminded that the central mystery of our faith is that death is followed by life. No matter how difficult and chaotic our world becomes, we are invited by God to wait for and expect new life. In the midst of our struggles, we turn to him to see what gifts will come from the deepest of all losses, the death of our children. After a wonderful meal and a moving closing prayer service, the retreat ended with joy, hope, and lots of hugs. 

For more information on adopting Emmaus Ministry at your parish, call Harley McDevitt at (518) 641- 6823 or Diane Monaghan at (617) 542-8057. 
Diane Monaghan is one of the founders of The Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents, Archdiocese of Boston, Mass.