Bernard (Butch) and Maria Shira lost their 33-year-old son Scott, the oldest of three boys, to a drunken driver in 1999. Tears still come to Butch’s eyes when he talks about his “buddy.”
“He was a good man, the head driller for a company, working in Minnesota at the time of the accident. He loved the outdoors and motorcycles,” said Shira.
“After his death, we went at first to Compassionate Friends, (a support group for people who have lost children) and then the grief support group at St. Hubert Church (now St. Gabriel), Hubertus, where facilitator Maureen Mitchell presented the religious aspects of grief recovery. We went to a lot of programs through the archdiocese,” said Butch.
“One of the most difficult things was that you felt like you’re all alone. It was so strange. Just to talk to somebody was such a comfort. But I couldn’t talk at first. I would cry,” he said.
Mitchell told them, “You don’t have to talk. You can just listen.”
“It made you think you’re going crazy – the thoughts, feelings – but when you hear other people talk it makes sense,” said Maria. “It is a slow process. It seems you take three steps forward and one back.”
Pain never goes away
“The pain is so debilitating. It is hard to function,” said Butch. “Even after five or six years, it never goes away. You are never the same. It changes your life forever.”
How else do you fill the hole of bereavement? For Butch and his wife, the answer is, “Talk about the loved one. That has helped us patch the hole.”
Butch and Scott went fishing all the time, but deer hunting was Scott’s favorite thing. Butch, his friends Harry Baxter and Terry Blaser and Scott were a deer hunting foursome up north every fall. After Scott died, Harry and Terry made wooden signs with Scott’s name for the tree stand. Harry died about five years ago and Terry made another sign for him at the tree stand. Butch misses talking to Harry also and what he brought to the group – much of it in a suitcase, laughed Maria and Butch. He was prepared for anything with tourniquets and sewing kits and a variety of odds and ends, they explained.
Rituals help ease grief
Symbolic rituals have also helped. Placing painted stone markers at their favorite fishing spot on a little island and visiting the accident scene and hospital in Minnesota have also eased their grief some, they said.
At his death, Scott’s eyes and some of his tissue were donated to help others. At a gathering honoring donors, the Shiras were told that Scott’s gifts had provided for 30 to 40 operations, something that touched their hearts as well.
“Time does help, but it never goes away. I think of Scott nearly every day,” said Butch. “We learn to accept what’s happened. Basically, we can’t do anything to change that. I hate the word ‘closure’ because it means something is done. It is not done. It’s maybe more the idea that we were changing. The more stuff you go to, the more comforting it is, to know what you’re going through.”
The Shiras help with an additional grief group at St. Gabriel and they find that has also helped them in their grief journey. The groups for adults are ecumenical and interfaith and open to the public.
Archdiocese offers grief support
One of the speakers whose words inspired the Shiras was Patrick Dean, director of Grief Education Services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Cemeteries, who works with grief support groups and parishes. Dean also facilitates grief support groups at San Camillo that are open to the public.
“With grief, one size does not fit all,” said Dean in a phone interview. “It is the importance of the grief journey for survivors. There are families of origin and families of creation. For some, families of creation are more powerful. With them, their grief journey is going to be as unique as their relationship with the (deceased) person.”
Friend walked grief journey, too
Pat Chartre shared a different grief journey with her friend Kathy when Chartre’s husband Armand suffered a severe stroke 20 years ago and started a long rehabilitation to overcome the mental and physical deficits. Pat thought, “I’ve lost my husband.”
“It took five years to get to a place where I could really accept ‘This is where I’m going to be,’” she said. “The hard part is the loss of a dream, the talks we were going to have.”
Kathy was the one who kept her going, pulling her from the edge.
“‘We’ll still have him. He’ll be there,’” Kathy told Pat.
Pat and Kathy’s friendship of 25 years started at a parish Christ Renews His Parish weekend at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish (then St. Clare) in North Lake.
“We talked freely of our faith, were in Bible studies together, raised boys of the same age, and shared many good times. We took a beginning quilting class. I could tell her anything. She didn’t judge or question. She helped me handle down times,” said Chartre. “She seemed to always know how I was feeling. She was always up front, didn’t try to sugarcoat things.
“Sometimes she’d tell me, ‘Oh, get over it. Families have to look after each other.’ If I wouldn’t have had Kathy I would have gone nuts,” said Chartre. “She was a source for many, many people.
She was my rock.”
Friend’s death left ‘big hole’
“Kathy’s death last year, (two years from the day she was diagnosed with a brain tumor) left such a big hole. No one will ever fill it. She was always very truthful with me, never let me get out of line. I could rant and rave and she just listened. She realigned my thinking,” said Chartre, as she continues to mourn for her friend.
At a bereavement ministry training session earlier this month at St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, Sharon Modrzynski outlined the grief process. She showed how to lend support, what to say or do for someone who is deeply grieving the loss of a loved one – to be there and to be a healing presence, which only comes through practice. That’s what support groups and grief ministers can provide at a time of loss. Listening is key to the healing process.
Modrznski recommended that people take more time for the grief process at a death – a year or more.
“Grief is a journey. We have to go through steps in the process,” she said. “It is like a stab wound that heals but still leaves a scar.”
Parishes generally offer non-professional help
Parishes that have grief ministers or support groups differ in the help they give, which is mainly on a non-professional level. They are trained to recognize when a person in mourning may need more specialized help and to assist someone in finding it.
St. John Vianney has a committee of eight grief ministers who work directly with individuals or families. It is directed by lay volunteer Mariann Van Winkle, under the guidance of Mary Janowak, director of adult and family ministry and human concerns at the parish.
“It is our hope and mission that no one grieves alone and (he/she) feels supported by the parish,” said Van Winkle. “We contact the family directly, usually about a month after the funeral, when things ‘settle’ down somewhat and the reality of the situation sets in. Our initial contact is either by phone; if that doesn’t work (many bereaved don’t want to answer the phone) then we send a card with a contact phone number. We will continue to follow up based on the individual’s needs. When it is needed, we offer a listening ear or referrals to the various support groups in the area. We also send out notices of the various events offered by the Quad parishes – St. Dominic, Brookfield, and St. Joseph, Wauwatosa, St. Mary, Elm Grove, as well as St. John Vianney.”
The next program is “Grieving at the Holidays” on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at St. Dominic.