Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

There is no greater loss, perhaps, than the loss of a child.

“It’s truly one of the hardest roads to have to travel,” said Caroline Bertozzi, whose stepson, Nick, died in 2012. “It changes everything. Not only is your child gone, but all of your dreams for their future — for a wedding, for children of their own, everything.”

The mission of the Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents is to help mourning parents as they travel that road. Founded in Boston eight years ago by Diane and Charley Monaghan, whose son, Paul, died in 2002, the ministry takes its name from the Gospel story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

In the story, a group is traveling and mourning the loss of the Lord, when they are joined by a stranger. Only later do they realize that the stranger is, in fact, Christ himself, who has been with them all along.

Diane Monaghan explained that the ministry chose the image of Emmaus as it denotes not only sorrow, but also the strength of hope and love.

“We are on a journey, and life does not end with death,” she said. “After one retreat, a woman told me she wished she could have rewritten her son’s obituary. She wished she had said that he ‘is the son of’ not ‘was the son of’ because he still is her son; he is still truly with us.”

Although the first few Emmaus retreats were held in Massachusetts, the Monaghans noticed that some parents were traveling from as far away as Louisiana to attend sessions. Hoping to bring the ministry to wherever there was a need, the couple began to travel to other parishes to lead retreats. Soon, parents attending those retreats were organizing retreats in their own parishes, furthering the work of the ministry.

Daniel Whitehouse of the Diocese of Richmond’s Center for Marriage, Family and Life met the Monaghans at a conference in New Mexico, and, moved by their story and realizing the need for such a ministry in the diocese, invited them to Richmond. The diocese hosted its first retreat at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Newport News, Sept. 23.

What makes the ministry unique, Charley Monaghan explained, is that while there are many support and therapy groups available to grieving parents, most avoid any mention of God.

“That’s what, for me, made the difference,” said Bertozzi, who attended a retreat in Massachusetts and then organized another in her native Ireland. “It’s the spiritual aspect. You will never fill that hole in your heart, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, you can believe that your child is with God. And when you can feel your child say, ‘I am with God and I am OK,’ then there can be, if not peace, comfort.”

Genevieve Baudin, whose daughter, Ashleigh, died in 2012, agreed.

“It has changed me and where I am on my journey. Parents need to know, ‘It’s OK to be angry with God.’ But with this ministry, I can say, ‘God is good. And God has never left my child.’”

The Emmaus Ministry is open to all grieving parents, to those who have lost children of all ages, in all circumstances, no matter how long ago.

“We have had parents of children who have died in utero all the way up to a 94-year-old mother mourning a 67-year-old son,” Charley Monaghan said. “Each of them feel the same pain, each are looking for answers to the same questions. They want to know, ‘Why did this happen? Where are they now? When am I going to see them again?’”

Emmaus retreats offer talks on the Catholic perspective to those questions, as well as time to pray, reflect and speak with other parents in smaller groups. Although the retreat is quintessentially Catholic in its approach, Charley Monaghan stressed that parents of all backgrounds and faiths are welcome.

“We won’t go around the room and force people to stand up and share their story. This is a day for them. They can sit in the back and listen. They can walk the grounds or simply sit in the church if they choose,” he said.

“I would tell parents to just come with an open heart, or even with a closed heart,” Bertozzi said, “but just give yourself this day to devote to your child.”

Editor’s note: The first of four Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents Retreats to be held in the Diocese of Richmond during 2018 will be Saturday, Jan. 27, at Church of the Redeemer, Mechanicsville. For further information or to register for one of the retreats, visit cdrcmfl.org/emmausministry.