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Catholic Voice
CURRENT ISSUE:  October 17, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Survivor’s story draws attention
Aid groups honored for social work
Parish training to aid those who grieve

Sandy Heinisch didn’t choose grief ministry. And, she said, she doubts any of those who attend her two-part workshop, designed to train a parish team to be a source of education, comfort and support to those who have suffered a loss, have chosen it, either.

Bereavement workshop

Purpose: To train a parish team to comfort those who have suffered a loss.

When: Part I: Nov. 12, St. Joseph the Worker, 1640 Addison St., Berkeley • Part II: Nov. 19, Cathedral Conference Center, 2121 Harrison St., Oakland

Time: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: $25 a person; parish team discounts are available.

Bring a sack lunch

Register: Contact Ed Hopfner, coordinator for Marriage and Family Life, Diocese of Oakland, ehopfner@oakdiocese.org, (510) 267-8392
“You are chosen,” she said. “Anyone can do this if they only listen to the call.”

Heinisch will teach the course, which is being offered through the Diocese of Oakland Office of Marriage and Family Life. The first part of the training will be offered Nov. 12 at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley, followed Nov. 19 at the Conference Center at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

“Loss is an inescapable part of life, and bereavement ministry is an important way a parish family can support its members,” said Ed Hopfner, coordinator of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Oakland. “Jesus commands us to share the burdens of our brothers and sisters — and as we our supported by our community, our burden of grief becomes lighter.

“Grief ministry helps us pass through our losses, and be able to move forward. It does not take away the pain, but helps us be aware of the abiding presence of God in our lives, the ultimate source of all consolation. As a friend of mine says, ‘Joy is not the absence of sorrow, but the presence of God.’”

Heinisch, an energetic woman who is a trained nurse and nursing instructor as well as grief minister, calls this a “practical course.”

Five and a half years ago, she was thrust into grief ministry with the death of her son, Frank. He was 39.

“When I lost my son, I knew I needed to get into counseling right away,” Heinisch said. She did not immediately find Catholic resources to help her navigate her grief. She did find the Contra Costa Crisis Center, where she works today. Along the way, her journey led her to the National Catholic Ministry for the Bereaved. She received training in grief ministry in the Diocese of San Jose.

She began training others in grief ministry, which she describes as “a ministry of presence.”

“I never want another person to grieve alone,” she said.

She has helped start grief ministries at her own parish, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brentwood, as well as St. Catherine of Siena in Martinez; St. Paul in San Pablo; and Most Holy Rosary in Antioch, as well as in parishes in Sacramento and Arizona.

In addition, she works with all the Catholic cemeteries, and is training a class of deacons in grief ministry.

She had what she called a “God moment” when, through the grief ministry at her parish, she needed to find someone to represent the parishioners at the vigil for Sgt. Stephen Wilson, who had been killed in Iraq. He was 28.

Finding no one else available, she went, and found herself in a chapel of the same funeral home where her son’s vigil had been two years before.

At the end, she approached Wilson’s mother, offering the condolences of the parish. Then, as Heinisch described it, “The Holy Spirit kicked me in the back of the head.”

She told the mother: “I, too, lost a son.”

The mother, who had been reserved, fell into Heinisch’s arms. “You know how I feel,” she told Heinisch.

In her work and ministry, Heinisch has honed an ear for the dying. Let them talk about what they want to talk about, she advises, even if it’s about what to do with their body when they no longer need it. That kind of talk can be hard, she acknowledged.

“If you listen to the dying, you find out how to live,” she said. “They tell you so much at the end. The defense mechanisms are stopped. Family and loved ones are important.”

In listening to bereaved families, Heinisch said there is no deadline for grief. “When the grieving stops, that’s when it’s going to stop,” she said.

The presence of grief ministers goes beyond the events surrounding a funeral, Heinisch said. At Immaculate Heart of Mary, for example, the grief ministry is involved in planning a special Mass on All Souls Day, at 7 p.m. Nov. 2, to celebrate and commemorate family and friends who have died. Parishioners are being invited to bring a photo of their loved ones to place on the altar during the Mass. A basket will be under the memory tree to list the names of the departed.

That 6-foot memory tree has more than 1,000 names on it, Heinisch said.

Among her many projects, Heinisch published “Lights for Dark Places,” with her co-author, David Nicholl, who crafts her words, which come to her from her years of caring for hospice patients and work in grief ministry, into poetry.

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