Bridges support us, protect us, provide safe passage, connect us and assist us in arriving at a new place.
This is the foundation — and the name — of a recently formed group at St. Francis Xavier Church in Sartell designed to provide support and social activities for those who have lost a loved one.
The idea for Bridges began as a conversation between a few interested parishioners and Deb Rudolph, pastoral associate at St. Francis Xavier.
“The parishioners who approached me really did not want to call it a bereavement group, and I, too, preferred something with less emphasis on grief and somehow more on the building of relationships among people who shared a common life experience,” Rudolph said.
Through prayer, Rudolph reflected on what the group could offer to the parish’s widows and widowers and decided it was “an opportunity to be with others who had experienced a loss, a safe place to express feelings knowing that others would understand how difficult it is to find a ‘new normal’ in their daily life,” she said. “The image that came to me was that of a bridge — providing safe passage from one place in life to another.”
Laughter, crying, support
Shortly after Barbara Keegan lost her husband, Bill, three years ago, she moved from Clearwater to the St. Cloud area and began looking for a parish to call home. She settled on St. Francis Xavier.
One of the first things she noticed in the bulletin was an announcement about Bridges.
“I just felt like it was a group of people who had something in common with me,” Keegan said. “So I decided to give it a try.”
Bridges meets monthly, alternating between time spent together at the parish and social outings. On months they meet at the parish, participants begin by lighting a vigil candle for their deceased loved one and placing it on the meeting table. The candles burn for the duration of the meeting which ends in a common prayer and a litany of the names of the deceased.
Before each meeting, Rudolph chooses a word or theme like joy, anger, dancing, frustration. The opening prayer includes Scripture centered on the theme.
“Then participants share life stories; they laugh a lot, they cry, they reach out to support one another. As the facilitator I need only to provide a path and the participants provide enriching conversation, support, compassion and understanding to one another,” Rudolph said.
At a recent meeting, Rudolph chose the word “dancing” and found Scriptures that referred to dance. After spending time reflecting on the verses, she brought in a group of women who taught the participants line dancing.
“It was a lot of fun,” Keegan recalled.
On other occasions, the group — currently about 20 people — attends social gatherings, often including a meal.
“The group agreed at the very first meeting that this would be a ‘casual, no commitment’ gathering; come when you can, no explanation needed if you do not attend,” Rudolph explained. “I believe that honors participants in their journey of grieving. Some days are just better than others to step out and socialize.”
Although Keegan said for her it has always been easy to make new friends, she is grateful for the camaraderie of the Bridges’ members.
“One month we went to a restaurant and had companionship with each other over a meal, which is referred to a lot in the New Testament. Jesus often ate with people,” she said.
The group brings her joy and she hopes that she is also bringing joy to others.
“In the Bible, it says to take care of the widows and orphans. It is part of our mandate to provide comfort for each other. In that respect, the church is handing out a degree of mercy just by having this group, providing us with the opportunity to meet and allowing us to give joy to each other,” she said.
Kay Stang, another participant in Bridges, said she appreciates the opportunity to “get out and do something” and hopefully, make a few new friends. She hopes that more people will get involved and that the group will grow.
According to a survey done at the parish, Stang said she recalled that 179 parishioners identified themselves as widows or widowers. She wants others to know that it’s not just for people who have recently lost a loved one but for everyone who has ever lost someone close to them.
“It’s really a way for people to get to know other people in the same situation,” she said. “I want people to know that we are all at different stages in our aloneness. Everyone is welcome, whether it’s been a month or 20 years.”
A blend of prayer and social activities, Bridges includes not only prayers for the deceased but prayers for one another, Rudolph said.
“I have witnessed many times, those who attend Bridges reaching out and embracing another widowed person after Mass or at a church gathering. I believe being part of Bridges makes them more aware of others who share their path in life,” she said.
“The beauty of Bridges is that it was born out of a desire of faithful people to offer love and compassion to another who has experienced deep loss,” she said. “At the same time, it encourages the grieving to care for themselves as they now navigate a new way of living.”
What does the church teach about praying for the living and the dead?
As a pastoral minister, I have been privileged to accompany families as they mourn the death of a loved one.
Often, as people try to make sense of death and assimilate the finality of this moment, I find myself intrigued by the use of the past tense when referring to the person who has died — “He was such a devoted husband,” or “she loved a good laugh.” Of course, the immediate explanation is most obvious: in speaking this way, those who grieve are coming to terms with the seemingly insurmountable distance that now separates them from their loved one.
During our yearly celebration of the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, the church invites us to be mindful of the communion of saints, that reality we profess each time we say the Creed.
By our baptism in Christ, we are already “citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). This household encompasses those who have gone before us in faith — our deceased relatives and friends — as well as those who comprise the church on earth. Though death may separate us, the mercy and love of God together with our faith in Christ keep us united for eternity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “‘So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods’” (CCC, 956, quoting “Lumen Gentium,” 49).
In other words, those of us who are still on our pilgrimage to the Father are nevertheless united to the faithful departed, those who “sleep in Christ.” The catechism goes on to say, “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (CCC, 958).
We won’t know, this side of heaven, exactly what effect our prayers have had — how they have helped others. But we do know that Jesus enjoins us to “pray always and never lose heart” (Luke 18:1) even as he modeled prayer to his disciples.
And we also know that each of us is capable of prayer: We are not limited by our income, our physical strength or even our time (I pray often at red lights!). Here is a spiritual work of mercy that anyone can participate in.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this work of mercy is the way it brings the subject of our prayers, both the living and the dead, into the same frame of reference.
Because our prayers affect everyone for good, the communion of saints takes on the eternal present tense. And speaking of our deceased loved ones as they are, not as they were, may be one of the greatest mercies of all.
Maureen Otremba, a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.