A beautiful little girl with long brown hair dies unexpectedly, as does a precious baby only a few days old, a troubled young man with a wife and two children, and a stunning, 20-something woman with the world by the tail, along with 13 others. All are gone too soon, leaving behind devastated parents agonizing over what happened and why. 

The life of a grieving parent definitely has a “before” and an “after.” Ministering to them can be daunting. What do you say? What do you do? How can you possibly help? 

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and St. Bartholomew Church in Long Beach recently introduced a powerful ministry to serve the spiritual needs of parents whose children of any age have died from any cause, no matter how long ago: the Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents. 

On an overcast Saturday morning Dec. 7, 19 parents, including 14 mothers and five fathers, hesitantly gathered at St. Bartholomew for the ministry’s first spiritual retreat, not knowing what to expect. 

The retreat honored 17 children, including 10 sons and seven daughters. Age at the time of death ranged from prenatal to 56 years old. Time since the death ranged from 11 weeks ago to 26 years ago. Cause of death included miscarriage, stillbirth, and infancy death (7); suicide (4); illness (3), overdose (1); murder (1); and unknown (1). 

During a very moving opening prayer service, we were reminded that the light of Christ pierces the darkness and the light of our children continues to brighten our lives. We lit beautiful memorial candles, carrying photos of our children, and received comfort crosses reminding us: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” 

Father Reardon served as our spiritual leader for the entire day. He began with a very comforting and inspirational reflection on the spirituality of the grieving process, emphasizing the fact that death is not the end. While he has never lost a child, Father Reardon said he lost two siblings and a nephew and saw how it devastated his parents and his sister. The pain is extraordinary, he told us, but it is not without hope. We are all on a journey that ends not in death, but in the fullness of life. Love is a contradiction, he said. It is as painful as it is joyful because the more we love, the more we grieve. How we react to grief depends on whether or not we have faith and hope. 

Pope Benedict XVI said that Jesus’ cross reminds us that there is no gift without pain. Each of us lives in the divine image of Christ. So, when the body passes away, all is not over. We are much more than flesh and bones, he said. 

The retreat ended with a poignant closing prayer service during which we extinguished the wick of our memorial candles, but never the light of our children, which will shine brightly forever. Parents who entered tentatively in the morning seemed to stand and sit taller by the end of the day. There was a lot of laughter and joy. “It is easy to laugh with other people,” said Charley Monaghan at the closing, “but you really feel comfortable crying only with close friends and family. Today we have found many new friends who feel like family.”

After the retreat, parents had great things to say. 

“This beautiful retreat provided acceptance, love, spirituality, and hope, all in one warm setting.” 

“I did not expect much from this retreat, but it turns out that I got so much from this experience. Thank you so much.” 

“It felt like a life-changing experience. I felt transformation within me and it has fired my motivation to reconnect with God.” 

“I feel that I am about to begin a new way to live the loss of my beloved son.” 

“It helped me to strengthen my faith.” 

Editor’s note: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and St. Bartholomew Church, as well as several other parishes in the Long Beach area, are currently discerning how best to adopt the Emmaus Ministry to serve the spiritual needs of its grieving parents. For more information on upcoming programs, please visit emfgp.org or call Eva Hernandez at 213-637-7547 or Sr. Mary 

Full story at Angelus News.