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Mary Ann Vail, coordinator of Mary Our Queen Parish’s Ministry of Embrace, places a cross in the Omaha church’s sanctuary in remembrance of a parishioner who has died. Photo by Mike May/Staff.

Grief ministry provides comfort and support

You can’t fix grief, but you can accompany and support the grieving.

That’s how Mary Ann Vail, a member of Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha, describes her mission the past 13 years as coordinator of the parish’s "Ministry of Embrace" grief ministry.

Comforting the afflicted, which includes the sorrowful, is a spiritual work of mercy, and Vail and five other parishioners offer that mercy through support and hope in several forms of outreach to those who have lost loved ones.

The letters of the word "embrace" sum up their efforts: empathy – ministry – bonding – reassurance – affirmation – compassion – and encouragement, Vail said.

One avenue of the ministry’s support involves memorials to the recently deceased, Vail said, where crosses with the names of the deceased and their dates of death are placed in the sanctuary of the church for a year.

"Many times, people will just come and sit by their loved one’s cross and pray. They find it very comforting," she said.

On the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s death, the ministry has a Mass for the deceased. Vail also meets and prays with the family and gives them the cross.

"It’s a remembrance of that person, but also a reminder of the love and support that’s always here for them at Mary Our Queen," Vail said.

"One of the corporal works of mercy is to bury the dead," she said. "But once you do that, you also need to take care of the people who are still here.

"People need to process through the grief," she said, "but you can be there to walk with them and to listen."

Vail said the most fulfilling part of her ministry is seeing that it’s helped people survive their loss and smile again. "In a few months when I meet them, I can see that some of the hurt has dissipated."

It’s also a form of evangelization, opening a door for people who know they can come to the parish for support and help, Vail said. "I’ve seen people who have become more involved in the church afterwards – people responding who have been away from the church. It seems to draw them in," she said.

And the door always is open, she said.

"I’ve had people stop me in church or at a parish gathering and say, ‘I think I need to talk.’ And it helps them to know there’s someone who’s been there and done that," she said.

Vail can identify with their pain. She and her husband, Terry, also suffered loss and grief with the 1997 death of their 18-year-old daughter after her battle with leukemia.

"I had a pretty rough time for about four years after our daughter’s death, and I couldn’t even go to church," she said.

But Father Carl Salanitro, her pastor at Mary Our Queen at the time and now pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha, encouraged Vail to get involved with a group of widows who attended Mass together and met informally several times a year, as a means of support.

So she got involved, and over time, the group evolved into a more organized grief ministry.

Other forms of outreach include an audio recording of the funeral, which the priest gives to the family at the cemetery in a package with care notes and a sympathy card from the parish, Vail said.

And on the first Saturday of November, the parish holds a remembrance Mass for all who have died in the past year.

"We have candles on the altar with the names of the deceased," she said. "We read the names and light the candles after the homily, and at the end of Mass, the families are invited to come forward to receive the candles."

After Mass, a continental breakfast is served where families can sit down and share camaraderie, she said.

Vail feels a sense of joy in helping others through their grief. "It’s this inner feeling that I’m doing what God wants me to do," she said. "I am where he wants me to be, and I think my daughter has a hand in all this too.

"This is a labor of love," Vail said. "It’s in memory of my daughter and it’s the love for her that keeps me going."

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