Grieving Parents Find Comfort at Emmaus Retreat

By Joe Pisani

DARIEN—Grieving parents gathered recently at a day-long retreat to pray, share their stories and discuss their spiritual journey after having lost a child.

The Bereavement Ministry of Catholic Cemeteries sponsored the event at the Convent of St. Birgitta, which was conducted by the Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents.

“We opened our doors and hearts to anyone who has lost a child of any age—from infants to adults—for any reason, no matter how long ago,” said Carolyn Killian, director of bereavement of the Diocese of Bridgeport. “The retreat gave them the opportunity to participate in small and large groups and talk about their spiritual journey as people who have lost a precious child.”

Run by grieving parents for grieving parents, the retreat let people share with one another and see where God is in their lives, Killian said. Deacon Don Ross, a grieving parent assigned to St. Pius X Parish in Fairfield, served as the spiritual leader.

“Our goal is to reach out and support people who are in pain,” she said. “Grieving parents suffer a lifetime of pain. Research has shown the loss of a child is one of the greatest and lasting stresses a person can experience.”

Almost 30 people participated in the retreat, which was the third Catholic Cemeteries has sponsored. A number of parents returned for a second time. Killian said those who took part had lost children of every age, from infants to adults, due to COVID, cancer, suicide, overdoses and accidents.

On Mother’s Day, the participants were invited to Mass with Father Paul Holland, SJ, at St. Timothy Chapel in Greenwich. Father Holland, who had celebrated Mass at the retreat, remembered the sadness of so many mothers on this day of celebration.

In his homily, Father Holland said: “Today, I remember all the women whose children I have had to bury: infants, teenagers, college students, even adult children. Some suffered protracted illnesses, others were struck down without warning by drunk drivers, careless companions, even a murderer.”

He also recalled those who suffered a miscarriage or surrendered their child to adoption.

“Today has a special poignancy for them, as well as for the adopted children, for it marks the unselfishness of both the woman who entrusts her child to another and the unselfishness of the woman who accepts that awesome responsibility,” he said. “Of such women I think this Mother’s Day.”

In addition, Father Holland remembered “women I know who terminated their motherhood in aborting their child, and now struggle to find the forgiveness of God, and of the Church, and most of all, the forgiveness of their aborted child. With special sadness, I remember them this Mother’s Day.”

He said that “to those mothers, those who have mourned the death of a child, those whose love led them to surrender their child to the care of another, those whose child never came to full-term, to those mothers, this secular feast is embarrassingly mute … For our secular culture knows nothing about sacrifice or suffering. It denies death and anesthetizes anguish.”

The Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents was begun by Diane and the late Charley Monaghan, whose son Paul died unexpectedly in his 20s. The couple spent 15 years ministering to other people who lost a child from before birth to any age, regardless of the cause of death. The couple also wrote the book Sorrow Like No Other: Supporting the Grief of a Parent Whose Child Has Died. Since it began, the ministry has served some 2,500 parents from 26 states, Canada and Ireland.

Parents suffer from emotional, health and social challenges and have a higher incidence of “prolonged grief,” which can last a lifetime. By age 70, more than 15 percent of parents in the United States have experienced the death of a child.

Killian stresses this is a spiritual retreat and not a support group.

“People are not required to introduce themselves and tell their story,” she said. “They are invited to attend sessions that are offered, as well as prayer services and Mass, but what they participate in is completely their decision. One part of the retreat involves lighting a beautiful memorial candle in memory of their child.”

Even though the purpose of the retreat is to serve the spiritual needs of parents, it is open to people of all faiths or no religious belief. “Very often, grieving parents turn to God or run from God,” she said. “Intense grief impacts your relationship with God. Everyone is welcome, no matter where they are on their faith, or grief, journey.”

(The next Emmaus retreat is scheduled for December 7. For more information, visit emmaus-ministry.)