Finding support and hope in grief

By Joey Resitroffer

SPARTANBURG — A good friend died the other day, and I never got to say goodbye. I never got to introduce her to my newborn son. Now I never will. That’s hard.

Her name was Margaret Shands, and she was blessed by God. I met her while delivering Mobile Meals. She was on my route, and we made it a point to sit down and chat about life every Tuesday.

She once cooked for Mobile Meals, then old age and diabetes took hold, and she became a recipient. The old age, however, never hobbled her spirit.

Neither did the diabetes when it took one of her legs.

She just smiled, rolled around her kitchen in her wheelchair and kept on baking. Margaret was a chef, and her kitchen was her castle.

Nobody ever went away hungry when they visited Margaret Shands. She always had a bowl full of her famous cheese straws, and half of Spartanburg was familiar with their delicious flavor. My friend kept on baking right up until the time she died at age 88.

Carrot cake was her favorite. My wife once said Margaret’s carrot cake was so rich and so moist that it didn’t even need the creamy frosting on top.

She even insisted on baking our wedding cake, a three-tiered masterpiece that I can still taste today.

When my daughter, Rachel, was born, our visits became less frequent. They, however, were special occasions for Rachel. She would plink on Margaret’s old piano, and we would kick back and laugh the time away.

Rachel never got too close to Margaret. She was afraid of the missing leg. At 2 years old, she didn’t understand that kind of loss.

Then, on our final visit, Rachel hopped right up into Margaret’s lap and gave her a big hug. She sat there the whole visit. I don’t know whose smile was grander, Rachel’s or Margaret’s. When it was time to go, Rachel did not want to leave. I think she suspected it would be our last get-together.

Margaret was filled with kindness for every human being she ever met. That is what made her so special and so blessed. She filled her world with happiness. Now her mission on earth is over, and she has gone home to God.

I miss her.

This year, Jesus, Our Risen Savior started a grief support program headed by Nancy Dereng. Those who are mourning the loss of someone special in their lives can meet every third Monday after the benediction service.

“They share their stories and talk about what they’ve done,” Dereng said. “Everyone grieves in their own way. There is no right or wrong way to do it. There is no recipe, no formula.”

Father Basil Congro, pastor of Jesus, Our Risen Savior, wholeheartedly endorses the new program. He said a lot of grieving people feel they must bear the weight of loss all by themselves. They feel alone in their mourning.

This program he said, will show them that they are not alone. It will show them that others experience similar, painful losses, and they will always have a shoulder to lean on at Jesus, Our Risen Savior.

Dereng said people experience different kinds of losses: the natural death of a grandfather or grandmother; the tragic, jolting death of a child; the loss of an arm, a leg or any other body part; and even the loss of a job and the feelings of inadequacy that come with it.

Sometimes the suffering is brutally painful to deal with. Father Congro understands, because he has been through it.

While studying to be a priest in the seminary, he lost his mother to breast cancer. Two weeks later, he lost his best friend to stomach cancer. He had to get through the double blow somehow and pull himself together.

“I didn’t know other people felt the same way,” he said of his grief. “The first year is always the worst.”

It, however, shaped his ministry, and he feels especially close to those who are suffering. “I love working with the sick and the dying,” Father Congro said. Comfort for Christians, he said, comes in knowing that loved ones who have died are in heaven.

He said his mother had a “religious experience the whole time she was ill.” “God really blessed her,” the priest said. “I always felt God took care of her in her final days. She died very peacefully.”

Now, the pastor wants others who are suffering to find that same peace. That is why he has started the grief support program at Jesus, Our Risen Savior. “It’s a vehicle to deal with the separation,” he said.

Today I know that Margaret Shands is in God’s hands, and I’m at peace. But I still miss her carrot cake.

Suggested reading

“Nobody’s Child Anymore (Grieving, Caring and Comforting When Parents Die)” by Barbara Bartocci

“Praying Our Goodbyes” by Joyce Rupp

“Your Grieving Child” by Bill Dodds

“Saying Goodbye When You Don’t Want To” by Martha Bolton

“Finding Your Way (When Parent, Child and Spouse Die)” by Ave Maria Press

“A Grief Unveiled: One Father’s Journey Through the Death of a Child” by Gregory Floyd

“Blessed are They Who Mourn: Comforting Catholics in their Time of Grief” by Glenn M. Spencer Jr.