Diocesan bereavement ministry offers
weekly grief support group

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — When her daughter Rachel died 12-and-a-half years ago, Rose Mary Saraiva was understandably sad, shaken and grief-stricken.

“I believe I have a very deep, Spiritual faith — but I said, please don’t tell me this is it,” Saraiva said. “Please tell me there’s something after death. I knew there was, but I was so shaken that that was one of my questions. Eventually I was able to make peace with it, but it shook me and it has shaken a lot of people of strong faith. But, by the same token, it’s our faith that keeps us strong.”

So when she began working for the diocesan Family Ministries office, she felt she needed to establish a grief support group for those who have similarly lost a loved one.

“I always said I’d love to do something with grief work, so when the opportunity presented itself, I ran with it,” Saraiva recently told The Anchor. “I got my certificate in psychology in 2011 and I originally started the support group at St. Michael’s Parish (in Fall River). When it started to grow, we came here (to the Diocesan Education Office), which is more convenient and easier for me because everything is right here.”


Now, seven years later, Saraiva oversees five seven-week sessions a year that help people cope with loss and grief. The meetings draw an average of 10 to 12 people and are open to all, regardless of age or religious affiliation.

“I know it’s a faith-based support group, but it’s open to all denominations,” Saraiva said. “I don’t want people to think because it’s diocesan-sponsored they can’t come because they’re Lutheran or Methodist. I mean, we’ve had people who are Protestant and I had a Buddhist in the group, and I respect that. Grief doesn’t care who you are, how old you are, what your status is or what your religious beliefs are. Grief is grief across the board. When someone loses someone they love, it is hard to comprehend and hard to understand. I start off with a poem or prayer or something to that effect, but for the most part, it’s pretty much neutral ground.”

It didn’t take long to realize there was a serious need for a grief support group in the area, and Saraiva was only too happy to help make it happen.

“There’s a need and sometimes people don’t realize it,” she said. “They get that ‘support group’ mentality and they think, ‘Oh, I don’t need a support group.’ They don’t realize that it’s just there to help them say what they can’t say outside in the normal world. It just gives people an outlet, someplace where they can talk.

“Last week one of my participants summed it up beautifully. She said it’s a place where you can literally come and be yourself in your grief without worrying about judgment, without worrying about what other people think, without somebody telling them you have got to stop crying now or any of that. It’s like you can be where you need to be in your grief.”

Saraiva said one of the reasons people have a difficult time handling grief is that society treats death as a taboo subject and encourages everyone to just move on.

“We unfortunately live in a world where you don’t talk about death and for bereavement you get three days if you lose a family member,” she said. “After three days, you’re still numb. I tell people after the funeral that in two or three months is when all of a sudden it will hit you, because nobody’s calling, nobody’s bringing you food and that’s when it hits you. And that’s where the support comes in, because now the people you expect to be there for you have kind of gone on with their lives, which leaves you in a frustrating situation.”

According to Saraiva, many of us are conditioned from an early age to avoid the topic of death and dying, whereas other cultures treat death as a part of life.

“We live in a society where you don’t talk about it,” she said. “‘Oh, you lost someone? Well, how about that game?’ We tend to change the subject. Whereas in other cultures, death is an integral part of who they are. I grew up going to funerals as a child and when somebody asks me should I bring my child to the funeral, I say yes. They need to say goodbye to grandma, they need to say goodbye to uncle John. We were all born to die, which sounds macabre, but that’s what we know.”

As a prime example of how society views death, Saraiva noted how even the use of the word “died” is avoided.

“They don’t even want to know when it comes to being told that somebody is going to die,” she said. “They’ll say they ‘passed away,’ or they went on to Heaven. And I tell people, when you can say my daughter died without even cringing, then you know you’re well into the healing process, because now the word death doesn’t have the same impact.”

In her experience, Saraiva said people are often so wrapped up in their own lives they don’t want to listen to someone talking about death or grief.

“Everybody’s in a hurry,” she said. “Everybody wants to get onto the next page and let’s not talk about it because nobody wants a Debbie Downer around them, depressing them. But (grieving) people just want to share the story of their loved ones.”

Saraiva added that the grieving process may be an ongoing thing for many.

“I’ve had people tell me that somebody said, ‘Oh, it’s been six months. You should be over it by now,’” she said. “But I said, you know, there’s only a couple of things that you get over in life — obstacles and bridges. You don’t get over the loss of a loved one. How can you? How do you package away years of love?”

To that end, Saraiva said one of the key parts of coping with grief is to acknowledge and remember the one who dies.

“Funerals are almost non-existent,” she said. “A lot of people say, when I die I don’t want anything. But they have to realize, it’s not about them — it’s about the living. They need to know the stories, they need to know what’s happened. I just recently had someone share that their husband didn’t want anything when he died, and now almost a year later people are asking about him because nobody knew that he died because they wanted something quiet.”

Much of what is discussed in the bereavement group meetings that Saraiva facilitates focuses on these issues, but it also provides a forum for people to share their own experiences.

“I have formulated questions that I use to start the group with, but then I let it go where it needs to go,” she said. “Yesterday it was a lot of religious questions: is my loved one in Heaven or how do I know? And then some weeks it’s just: I don’t know how to pay bills or I don’t know what I should do with my car. My husband took care of the car or he took care of everything and I don’t know what to do. So we even get into financial discussions. It depends on where they are at the moment and I let the group pretty much dictate where it’s going to go.”

And sometimes, it’s just about being there for each other, which can be a comfort in itself.

“Now that I’ve gone through this, I understand how lonely it can be and I know how much I needed support and I needed people around me who understood and were willing to allow me to be in the space I needed,” Saraiva said. “I had a friend who literally sat with me for almost three hours and we didn’t say a word, but that’s all I needed. She was willing to sit with me and I’ll always remember that. We had a cup of coffee and she allowed me to be in the silence, but she was with me and that was poignant for me. That’s what people need sometimes — you just need someone to be there.”

The weekly group meetings are open sessions and people are welcome to join at any point — previous attendance is not required. But Saraiva encourages first-timers to commit to at least three meetings.

“It’s always a good idea to at least give it three tries, and then if the group does not fit, at least you’ve given it a chance,” she said. “I’ve had people come to the first group and they’ll tell me I don’t need to be here, but my therapist says I need to be here. So I tell them, that’s fine. I’m glad you’re here and take what you can from it. And then by the end of the session, they’ll say I’ll see you next week.”

Today, Saraiva’s faith remains strong, even despite the loss of her daughter. And she hopes that can serve as an example to others who are grieving.

“People will ask: how can God let my loved one die?” she said. “I tell them God no more wants our loved ones to die than we do. You have to remember that God lost His son; He had to watch His own Son die a brutal death. So He gets it. He’s not a punishing God. The God I know is a loving Father. I don’t think He’s a vengeful God, but that comes up a lot, because that’s one of the things that even for someone who’s very faith-filled, the death of someone can rock you.”

Looking back now, Saraiva thinks there may even have been a reason for her to go through the grieving process herself.

“Sometimes when it’s a difficult situation, I’ll sit there and say to myself: Rachel, I’m here because of you. So you better give me what I need or what these people need to hear from me,” she said. “My daughter was a very interesting individual and Rachel was all about people. She was a people person and whenever she had someone who was struggling, she would say: mom, my friend needs help. She was always about helping others.”

Now, it’s Saraiva who is helping others.

“I think that’s what pushed me because I realized how lonely, scary and confusing grief can be, especially when you can’t even begin to understand why it’s happened,” she said. “I tell people: we’re all lighthouses in the storm. You guys are here and I’m the lighthouse in your storm, just as there were lighthouses in my storm. I’m proof that you will survive. I’m proof that you can make it through this. But you also serve as proof that I have survived and I’ve made it this far. So it’s been a reciprocal thing.

“Sometimes we think, well God is going to take care of it. But sometimes He puts people there to take care of it for you.”

Bereavement Group meetings are held on Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. through February 26 at the Catholic Education Center, 423 Highland Avenue in Fall River. Subsequent Tuesday night sessions will be held March 19 to April 30; May 7 to June 18 (no session on May 21); July 23 to September 3; and October 1 to November 12.

For more information, contact Rose Mary Saraiva at 508-678-2828, extension 27 or email rsaraiva@dfrcs.org.

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