When a 3-year old boy drowned in a back-yard swimming pool, families in Christ the King Parish in Lombard, IL, were distraught.
“These types of tragedies catch us by surprise, and people are not always able to deal with the consequences,” says Rev. Mike Ideran, Director of Interfaith Parish Support Services, an Alexian Brothers Health System ministry that provides school social workers, counseling and other services to local congregations.
Mickey Tovey, principal of Christ the King Parish School, contacted Mariann Smith, an IPSS social worker assigned part-time to the school, to tell her about the accident and to request assistance with grief counseling for the school’s 100 students and their families. “A lot of the students I work with knew the family,” Smith says. “A lot of the 6th, 7th and 8th graders baby-sat for the family.”
IPSS quickly mobilized a team to help the parish cope with the tragedy. Smith and Rita Rippentrop, head of the IPSS counseling program, comforted parishioners at the child’s wake, and Smith later helped Tovey put together a letter and information kit, which the principal sent to the school’s families soon after the accident.
The kit included a list of books on grief that parents could read to their children, advice about talking with children about death and grieving, and a list of Web sites for additional information and advice.
Meanwhile, Smith and Rippentrop collaborated with Rev. Jim Christian, IPSS Community Chaplain, and Monika Chiappetta, head of the IPSS school social work program, to plan and organize a group grief counseling session for parishioners. The session was publicized in the information kit distributed by Tovey.
Nearly 20 people attended the session, which occurred in the parish center about 10 days after the child’s death. The IPSS team spoke with the group as a whole, and the group later broke into small groups for additional discussions and counseling.
“They talked about the nature of grief and why an entire congregation might grieve the loss of a little one,” Ideran says. “They also discussed a grief of faith, where almost everybody asks ‘How come? Why is this?’, and looks at God for an answer, although there is no explaining a tragedy like this.
“It presents a crisis on many levels. It’s a spiritual crisis, an emotional crisis. That’s why we provide a team of people who understand all the aspects of grief being faced, so they can address the grief theologically as well as emotionally. If necessary, they also know where to send people to deal with the physical consequences of grief.”
With a new school year approaching, Smith also was developing a presentation to the school’s teachers on helping students cope with grief, and was planning to monitor students carefully for signs that they might need individual grief counseling.
Father Peter Zarocz, the pastor of the parish, Tovey, other parish staff and parish families are “ecstatic” with the support provided by IPSS, Ideran says.
“We were there to support not only the students, but Mickey and the rest of the staff,” says Smith, who also serves as a part-time social worker for IPSS at two other parish schools. “This is what we do. It goes right along with the Alexian Brothers’ way of ministering and community outreach.”