After his wife of 45 years passed away, John Maley encountered fellow parishioners who did not know what to say and coupled friends who hesitated to include him in their gatherings.
When John Shannon became divorced, his best friend stopped calling him.
Sue Harriman, who also is divorced, became inactive in the Catholic Church because she felt she no longer fit in.
Thanks to Beginning Experience, however, all three have found compassion, emotional support and spiritual strength to help them through their struggles.
Beginning Experience is an international support program for people coping with the loss of a spouse due to separation, divorce or death. Founded in the 1970s by a Catholic nun and her divorced friend, the initiative offers weekend gatherings in confidential settings with the goal of helping participants face feelings of grief, loss, loneliness and pain. Highlights of Beginning Experience gatherings are presentations, journaling and small-group sharing. A spiritual thread runs throughout each weekend, with the sacrament of reconciliation offered on Saturday evening and the celebration of Mass on Sunday.
Jeanne LaRue, who is a widow, attended her first Beginning Experience weekend this past April 22-24 at Camp Stella Maris in Livonia, where other first-timers like her got together with people who had attended previous Beginning Experience gatherings. She said she did not expect the frankness and emotion attached to the discussions. "It’s a very intense weekend." she remarked. But, in hearing from folks with similar experiences, she was able to open up about herself as well.
"Seeing people share their stories was absolutely awesome. It touches nerves," said LaRue, who belongs to St. Rose Parish in Lima.
With attention to such issues as anger, love, trust and guilt, "it’s sharing at the core level," stated Shannon, a parishioner of St. Lawrence in Greece. He, Maley and Harriman attended the April weekend as trained facilitators; all three became part of the Beginning Experience of Rochester leadership team after first being participants.
"The weekend focuses a lot on trusting yourself, trusting others, trusting God," said Harriman, a member of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit.
Maley, from Greece’s Our Mother of Sorrows Parish, pointed out that many people who come to Beginning Experience are experiencing solitude for the first time in many years and perhaps their entire lives. He added that participants — particularly first-timers — are not obligated to share their stories out loud, yet can still benefit from quiet reflection and listening to others who have walked similar paths.
"These are peers. They’re not counselors, but peers. It’s so wonderful that when you go, you hear from people who have been through what you’ve been through," observed Harriman, who said she has made many friends through Beginning Experience.
Harriman added that initial feelings of discomfort typically dissipate quickly in a Beginning Experience weekend, as common connections are made and participants begin to realize that their feelings are quite normal. Also helping to enhance the bonding experience are encouraging notes written on each others’ "affirmation sheets" throughout the weekend.
The next Beginning Experience weekend in the Diocese of Rochester will take place Oct. 14-16. In addition, Beginning Experience offers 10-week rebuilding workshops, which are conducted in support-group settings and based on the book Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends by Dr. Bruce Fisher. The next rebuilding workshop will begin in July.
Local organizers said would like to see Beginning Experience promoted more regularly at the parish level. They added that the program is a good start toward creating an atmosphere in the Catholic Church that’s more sensitive to the needs and realities of people who are divorced, separated and widowed.
Shannon acknowledged that the Beginning Experience program doesn’t magically erase all of one’s pain — "We’ve been through it and we’re still going through it," he said — but it does help start folks on a path toward hope and healing after a significant chapter of their lives has ended.
"We hear the comments all the time — ‘It is a lifesaver, where would I be without it?’" Harriman said.
Maley, meanwhile, said his ongoing involvement with Beginning Experience continues to enhance his life.
"By helping others, I’m helping myself too," he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about Beginning Experience weekends and 10-week rebuilding workshops, call 585-987-1750, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.beginningexperiencerochesterny.org.