Families experiencing loss find a safe place to share

| April 26, 2016 | 1 Comment

Bonnie Serio, a parishioner and pastoral care specialist at St. John Neumann in Eagan, comforts 8-year-old Max as he hugs his mom, Debbie Gonsioroski, during a March 3 session of Partners Around Loss through Support, or PALS, a support group sponsored by the parish and Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan, where the group meets. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Walking through grief

Part six in a 14-part Year of Mercy series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

In 2014, Veronica Rosa and her family were hit hard. Three months after their divorce, her ex-husband died.

Rosa, 40, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist in Savage, sought help for her grieving 12-year-old son. She found it in Partners Around Loss through Support, or PALS, a bereavement group primarily for children sponsored by St. John Neumann in Eagan.

Debbie Gonsioroski, 43, also brings her 8-year-old son, Max, to PALS. Her husband committed suicide in their home five years ago.

“Max has a lot of friends that come from a two-parent household [and] a lot of friends that have single parents. But he doesn’t have any friends who’ve lost a parent to death, so he can’t really talk to anybody about it,” said Gonsioroski, who also has two daughters, ages 22 and 19. “And it’s just a place that he can come and talk.”

Gonsioroski said Max doesn’t generally talk to her about his dad’s death or his feelings. But after leaving Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan, where PALS sessions take place, he opens up to her about his anger, grief, sadness and even happiness.

“This is just another piece to the puzzle to help Max in his grieving process,” said Gonsioroski, who attends a Christian church. “There’s just a new way to do grief, and it’s not about hiding your feelings and being sad alone,” she added, noting how expressing grief has changed since she was Max’s age. “It’s about being allowed to be sad with other people, but also to be happy and rejoice. Grief is so complicated.”

The PALS sessions also prompt conversations for Rosa and her son, whom she asked The Catholic Spirit not to name, usually on the ride home afterward.

Veronica Rosa and her 12-year-old son, parishioners of St. John the Baptist in Savage, share a moment after receiving prayer shawls during a session of PALS March 3.

Veronica Rosa and her son, parishioners of St. John the Baptist in Savage, share a moment after receiving prayer shawls during a session of PALS March 3. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“We are closer from everything that’s happened,” Rosa said.

And while she sees how the group has helped her son, she said she’s also benefiting from talking to other parents about trying to manage grief — her son’s and her own — amid daily life.

“For me, it’s been the only thing,” said Rosa, who has also seen a psychologist. “I don’t want to be the crier anymore. It was definitely comforting. At least I’m not alone.”

“They’re so great here,” Gonsioroski said. “I feel like they’re family. They’re really good people.”

Delving in

Alongside the families of PALS are the facilitators, a handful of dedicated women and men from St. John Neumann and St. Thomas Becket, also in Eagan, who devote hours of their time to comforting the sorrowful, regardless of religious affiliation.

Leading the charge is Bonnie Serio, 72, a parishioner and pastoral care specialist at St. John Neumann.

In 2002, Serio left her job as director of a grief program through the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to become the faith formation director at St. John Neumann. She brought Rainbows, an international, Christian-based program, with her, but transitioned it to PALS in 2014 to avoid what she thought was unnecessary red tape and to make the program more engaging for youth. She had brought Rainbows to a number of parishes in the archdiocese, starting with All Saints in Lakeville in the 1980s. The Rainbows program in those parishes has since dissolved, Serio said, which she calls a “shame.”

Although not every family PALS serves is Catholic or even Christian, Serio identifies the program as Christian. The Serenity Prayer, she said, has become its mantra.

“You truly have to delve into your own faith and your own heart and your own life,” she said. “The Catholic faith — that presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit — is ever present. I think you have to have life experiences that would draw you to something like this. My sadness is for people who don’t [have faith].”

Gearing up for the evening sessions, Serio, who has a master’s degree in education, prepares the lesson plans. She also screens and trains facilitators, and works with her parish to ensure PALS is using resources wisely. The program is offered free of charge, but they ask for a free-will offering for some meals. Participants must sign a confidentiality agreement and abide by PALS guidelines.

She said she’s grateful for support from pastors, too.

But there was a time when Serio was ready to quit. She changed her mind after meeting with a former participant who interviewed her for a high school psychology class assignment.

“I had no idea what effect we had on this kid,” said Serio, adding that many former participants ask to return as facilitators to “pay it forward.” Facilitators must be 21 or older.

Serio knows firsthand how important support can be during difficult life events, especially when that support comes from a faith community.

“I have, frankly, healed through so many grief issues that I didn’t even realize I had as a child, due to my faith and due to the experience of working with kids,” she said. “I think that’s God’s miracle working through these people. They are all such wonderful people.”

Shared sorrow

Serio also lines up donated meals for the families who attend.

“Families would usually be rushing, not having a chance to eat supper,” Serio said. “Or, they’d eat junk.”

Serio and the other facilitators didn’t realize how important providing a meal would be to the group dynamic.

Miranda Noll, 33, a parishioner of St. Thomas Becket, said she feels more connected to the parents when she sits down for a meal with them. The parents become more comfortable with the facilitators, so they’re willing to share information that’s helpful for the facilitators as they work with the children.

“Their lives, their situations are in flux,” said Noll, a mother of three who’s volunteered with PALS for four years. “So, everything is constantly readjusting. We’re as flexible as we can be, and I think that’s comforting.”

While grief is the common denominator among the kids, they go to PALS for a variety of reasons, mostly divorce, death or mental illness in the family. With those issues come pressure, worry and frustration.

This past year, 12 kids ranging in age from 4 to 14 attended the hour-and-a-half sessions one night a week from October to March. With their group leaders, they went through a variety of topics; a specific emotion served as each evening’s theme. Using age-appropriate games, crafts and the occasional science experiment, the kids talked about how to deal with their feelings. At the end of each session, the kids took home a trinket to remind them of the lesson: a deflated balloon representing letting out steam when angry, or a plastic candle to show how they can “let their light shine.”

“The biggest thing with this program is the fact that these kids feel different because of their loss,” said Annmarie Tenhoff, 60, who has volunteered alongside Serio since 2003 and also is a St. John Neumann parishioner. “And when they are in these groups with kids who have suffered the same loss, it’s finally an environment where they can talk about it because they’re not different in that group. So, it’s kind of heart-warming to see that.”

As a wellness practitioner specializing in stress resilience, Tenhoff leads the parent group, an addition to the PALS program. She knows what some of them are going through. Her own husband died in 2001 when her three kids were in grade school and middle school. She said having the opportunity to talk about challenges and strategies is valuable for single parents, who are “in a club they never wanted to be in.”

“I think they’re finding there’s a lot of comfort in that,” she said. But for facilitators, she added, “It’s all about listening, and not advising. And I think that’s the difference. We’re all equipped to listen.”

Tenhoff’s daughter, Christine Tenhoff, 24, has a passion for working with kids. But the St. John Neumann parishioner was hesitant to become a PALS facilitator because she thought the experience would trigger her own emotions.

She was right.

“When I went through that whole grief process, I tried to block it out of my memory. I didn’t want to revisit it,” said Christine, who was 10 when her father died. “But I think the kids made me realize that some of the worst experiences you go through can be tools to help others.”

A prayerful walk forward

By the looks of PALS’ last meeting March 3, one would have a difficult time guessing the families gathered in the cafeteria at Faithful Shepherd Catholic School were there for grief support.

A group of boys huddled together, laughing. Parents showed each other and facilitators pictures on their smartphones. Their evident bond was a culmination of the opening meals and conversations they had shared over the months. The group’s last meeting went through the familiar order: meal, craft and lesson.

But this night was special.

First-year participants received a prayer shawl from St. John Neumann’s prayer shawl ministry. Parents gently wrapped the shawls around their children’s shoulders and vice versa. Families who had been in the program the previous year received an olive wood cross.

A family creates labyrinth art March 3 during a session of PALS.

A family creates labyrinth art March 3 during a session of PALS. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The night ended ceremoniously with families walking a labyrinth to symbolize their path forward together in prayer and gratitude. Parents and children who embraced in the center of the labyrinth shed tears, proving the exercise was powerful.

“You’re never going to get lost in a labyrinth,” Serio said. (See Retreat director: Labyrinth prayer ‘a calming, healing process’)

The families departed with a Serenity Prayer card. Many plan to return next year.

For facilitator Sean Davy, 28, the last night brings sadness and hope.

“When I’m driving home, I think these poor kids are carrying around this heavy, heavy weight, [and] I just have had to pray, ‘Jesus, it’s you who’s helping them; it’s you who’s there for them,’ and just try to remember that at PALS, I’m there for an hour or so to help them carry it for a little bit,” said Davy, a St. John Neumann parishioner who’s a former leader with the Catholic organization NET Ministries. “You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away.”

“At the end, I’m so relieved we got through it, but then I wonder what’s going to happen to these dear folks from March till October,” Serio said. She gives families her phone number, so if they request to contact their facilitator, she’ll connect them.

Parents usually exchange information and get together in the off-season, Serio added.

“Even these moms, these parents, don’t realize that what they’re doing are works of mercy,” she said.

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy