By Peter Finney Jr., Eternal Life, Clarion Herald
The passage from the Gospel of St. Luke (7:11-17) is one of the most powerful and compelling in the Bible.
In the city of Naim – also known as Nain – Jesus encounters a large crowd at the gate. A young man who has died – “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow” – is being carried out for burial.
Upon seeing the widowed mother in tears, Jesus tells her, “Do not weep.” He then touches the coffin and directs the young man to get up. The man arises and begins to speak.
“Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, ‘A great prophet has arisen in our midst,’ and ‘God has visited his people,’” the passage concludes.
In place for three decades
For more than 30 years, sharing support-group ministries called NAIM and Bridge to NAIM have helped widows and widowers cope with the challenge of the death of their spouses. NAIM was brought to the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the mid-1980s by Rosemary Schellhaas, a parishioner of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish, who felt such a support group was badly needed.
“Rosemary is the one who went to the archbishop (Philip Hannan) and told him we had a lot of ministries but did not have anything for widows and widowers,” said Jo Poche, who joined Bridge to NAIM, for the newly widowed, not long after her husband Patrick died in 1984 at the age of 49. “The archbishop told her, ‘If you can do it, I’ll sanction it.’”
Schellhaas visited the Archdiocese of Chicago to learn about its existing NAIM ministry, and New Orleans was one of the first dioceses to establish a satellite conference. The idea was to create not only a spiritual and emotional support group for widows and widowers but also to provide them with professional expertise on the process of grieving.
“Rosemary kept saying we’re going to need a professional, and I told her we weren’t going to be able to afford that,” said Poche, laughing. “Rosemary just said, ‘Don’t worry. Let’s pray about it.’”
Volunteers stepped up
Schellhaas was able to attract the volunteer services of counseling professionals, and for more than 20 years, Michael H. Gootee, a licensed professional counselor, has filled that role when Bridge to NAIM meets on the second Tuesday of every month at 10:30 a.m. at the St. Angela Merici Parish center, 901 Beverly Garden Drive, Metairie.
“Michael has been a life-saver,” Poche said.
“Jo is a superb, wonderful human being,” Gootee said. “She coordinates it and gets everybody together. She’s the point person, the first person everyone talks to.”
Gootee said the ground rules are set in advance.
“This is a sharing group, not an advice group,” he said. “They don’t tell each other what to do. New people are asked to share a little bit of their story, and the older members share a shorter form of their story, and we go from there. The goal is to create a very caring, compassionate group.
“Family and friends are great and helpful, but often times we hear people say, you don’t know where I’ve been. You haven’t walked in my shoes. There’s a very deep spirituality and faith which the members of the group have, and a tremendous strength they find in each other.”
Sometimes those grieving the loss of a spouse are reluctant to talk about their feelings with family members because “they are afraid they are burdening their family with grief,” Gootee said.
“Here are other people who know what they are going through, and they will understand,” Gootee said.
Sharing grows over time
Attendance at Bridge to NAIM ranges from six to 10 people, and it is not uncommon for widows joining the group to need a few meetings to feel comfortable sharing their feelings.
“I think they’re lonely and they’re missing their spouse so terribly,” Poche said. “They’re also not sure about tomorrow, but it seems like after one or two meetings, that strength blossoms because they can see that we all felt the very same feelings, and that we can grow. I became Jo again.”
The archdiocese’s NAIM Conference includes one chapter of Bridge to NAIM (for the recently widowed) and three chapters of NAIM in New Orleans (St. Pius X Parish), Covington (St. Peter Parish) and Kenner (St. Philip Neri Parish in Metairie).
Carolyn Pflug, coordinator for the St. Philip Neri chapter of NAIM, said her group gathers once a month. The group gathers four times a year for the 4 p.m. vigil Mass to pray for the intention of their deceased spouses, followed either by a potluck dinner or dinner at a local restaurant. The other eight meetings are spiritual and social.
Unlike Bridge to NAIM for the newly widowed, NAIM does not focus on grief counseling, Pflug said. While the group’s size has declined slightly over the years, Pflug said she does not consider that “a negative.”
“We are a social support group until the ladies and gentlemen feel comfortable about mixing socially again,” she said. “If we succeed, we’re self-limiting. People who are widowed today will join social groups more directly than they did years ago. There’s not as much of a stigma to join a singles group as there was in the past.”
Would love to reach out
Pflug, whose husband Calvin died in 2008, was a St. Philip Neri parishioner and was involved in the parish’s Adopt an Angel Christmas program and right to life efforts. So, joining NAIM, which has been running in her parish for 27 years, was a smooth transition.
“I just saw it in the bulletin and I followed up,” she said. “It was easy because it already was my parish, but we are always trying to reach other people who are not members of this parish to join.”
While the participants are predominantly women, Pflug says widowers are definitely welcome.
“I think we follow the same statistics as the average population,” Pflug said. “The men who do come have been wonderfully active in the group and taken positions on the board.”
The New Orleans chapter of NAIM, which meets at St. Pius X, has about 18 active members, said coordinator Patricia Kelley. Their meetings usually involve dinner at a restaurant and other social activities.
Contact information for the NAIM Conference in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is as follows: New Orleans chapter, Patricia Kelley, 283-3270; Covington chapter, Judy Barrow, (504) 400-7888; Kenner chapter, Carolyn Pflug, 888-1835; Bridge to NAIM, Jo Poche, 833-9470.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.