Bereavement ministry helps moms of all faiths
On a recent Thursday night when the New Orleans Saints had a home game, some were reveling Downtown while a group of mothers who had lost sons to violence were expressing grief Uptown. The participants of Helping Mothers Heal wouldn’t think of missing their weekly session at the nonprofit Family Center of Hope.
“The class has done wonders in my life,” said participant Cathy Rogers.
It’s women helping other women journey through their pain, said Pat Watson, executive pastor and teacher at Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, and group founder three years ago.
“It was a fresh wound for them, then they stay and support the new wave of women that come,” Watson said.
Watson facilitates group discussion with assistance from Catholic nuns Adrian Dominican Sister Kitty Bethea and Charity Sister Claire Regan. All three are versed in counseling –
Watson has 35 years’ experience and a master’s degree in social work; Sister Claire is a certified bereavement counselor and conducts one-on-one grief counseling at Corpus Christi-Epiphany Catholic Church in the 7th Ward; and Sister Kitty is a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Hispanic Ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street.
They say they talk as little as possible to allow the women to engage each other in conversation.
“It’s been a journey with these mothers, hearing their stories,” Watson said. “It’s not so much bringing them through the stages of grief process but making them aware of the emotions they will experience on this journey. What’s been more important is helping them get in touch with their thinking and feeling about their current lives, and what the future holds for them.”
Watson culls from an array of resources – psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book on the five stages of grief that she renamed with headings like “Say What? This Can’t Be” and “This is Real” to be more relatable to the moms; a parenting curriculum Watson developed that centers on family preservation and understanding boundaries within a family; and cognitive behavioral therapy beneficial to those who are depressed – to help mothers re-channel negative thoughts that surround their child’s death.
“If they think better, they feel better,” Watson said. “I believe that’s where the foundation of the classes derives from.”
Six weeks too short
The initial idea for a mothers’ grief group was launched at a 2012 annual African American Men’s Conference “The Plight of the African American Male,” when a mother blurted out that she lost three sons and needed help to deal with her grief.
“What was an interruption became an intervention,” Watson said. While she counseled the woman individually, Watson said the Lord “laid it on her heart” to start a group. With support from her church’s Women of Watson, Helping Mothers Heal was born. Since the first meeting in September 2012, 102 mothers have participated.
It initially began as a six-week session, but the moms needed more.
“They just did not want to stop,” Watson said. “After each lesson, I would immediately prepare something for the following week, and they just kept coming. I was thinking how I would stop this. ... But the moms would say they were cooking Thanksgiving dinner ... bringing flowers to the grave. I started hearing positive responses and realized I couldn’t stop it.”
Sister Claire joined the group about a year after it formed and has become co-facilitator and weekly note taker of the issues and concerns discussed. As part of the bereavement committee at Corpus Christi-Epiphany Catholic Church, she comforts on the phone and in the home with words of Scripture that facilitate healing. She’s also involved in the Interfaith Peace Walk initiative, that she believes aligns with being a peacemaker.
“I bring Scripture when I do home visits and invite the grieving to pray with me,” Sister Claire said. “I use Scripture to put together the healing story of Christ – the suffering Christ and the risen Christ – to help them wherever they are on their healing journey.”
Watson credits Sister Claire in being instrumental in trademarking the group’s name and discovering two additional areas of New Orleans where large numbers of mothers are mourning.
“Sister Claire and I meet monthly to talk about the direction the group is going to take,” Watson said. “Claire takes a lot of notes, so we can come up with our own curriculum. She is assisting me with formatting the goals, objectives and strategies for each session. She is a counselor for the women, and she is a great organizer and planner.”
Sister Kitty heard about the group about 1 1/2 years ago and at first prepared monthly dinner and brought gifts. She decided to be a permanent part and now prepares dinner every second Thursday of the month, offers phone support and helps train mothers to facilitate future groups.
“I was looking at the different things that religious could be involved in in regards to responding to violence in the community,” Sister Kitty said. “I appreciate this group. I love the women. They are so brave. I can’t express the admiration I have for them.”
Discuss what women want
From initial assessment of every participant and the weekly conversations, Watson has found common threads among the Helping Mothers Heal participants. They tend to relive the crisis behind how their child’s death (envisioning the crime, funeral); they don’t know how to channel the anger felt for whomever hurt their child or address friends who have abandoned them for lack of knowing what to do.
Watson said weekly sessions focus mostly on mothers’ emotions; getting the women to check their thought processes in order to alter their thinking from a focus on the negative circumstances of their child’s death.
“I found helping them deal with their thought processes, challenging them to check their mood scales, to write down what their thoughts are when they go to bed and when they wake up and then tally that on the mood scale from 1-10 (10 being a positive mood),” she said, “to talk their way out of their bad mood.”
“My goal is to get them to a 5, midway, so they can go up from that point,” Watson said. “There is unbelievable healing going on. I know they are leaving the group stronger than when they came. It is expressed in their conversation.”
A family and community conference “Did I See This Coming” is set for Nov. 14, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at Family Center of Hope, 4422 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans. From the conference, Watson and Sister Claire will compile a report. They also plan additional Helping Mothers Heal groups and develop a men’s grief group.