March 4, 2011

Bereavement specialist to present Scripture-based workshops

By Mary Ann Wyand

Few words elicit more anxiety than “cancer” and “hospice.”

Registered nurse and bereavement specialist M. Donna MacLeod of Ormond Beach, Fla., understands those feelings and has created a

Scripture-based grief ministry curriculum to help people cope with them.

MacLeod will share her personal experiences with her late daughter’s illness as well as her professional expertise with cancer treatment and hospice care during “The Joy of Serving the Brokenhearted—Living the Challenge” on March 22 at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House, 5353 E. 56th St., in Indianapolis.

The ninth annual mission day for bereavement ministers and other caregivers is co-sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries and the Catholic Cemeteries Association.

MacLeod also will present “Seasons of Hope—Creating and Sustaining Catholic Bereavement Groups,” a workshop based on her grief ministry books, on March 23 at St. Ambrose Parish, 325 S. Chestnut St., in Seymour.

March 22 is an emotional date for MacLeod, and her husband, Bryan, because their youngest daughter, Erynne, died on that day in 1988. She was diagnosed with cancer at age 3, and courageously battled her illness for five and a half years.

“Erynne was very, very centered on Jesus,” MacLeod said during a recent phone interview. “She went to a Catholic school, and really helped our family focus on Christ. She is the inspiration for my work in bereavement ministry over the past 20 years.”

MacLeod is grateful to the pastoral staff and members of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Hopedale, Mass., for their prayers and support during Erynne’s cancer journey.

“They were all so wonderful as she was in her dying stages,” MacLeod said. “They just opened their arms to us. We were new in town, and had only lived there for a few months before Erynne died.”

MacLeod was working as a cancer nurse specialist at the time of her daughter’s diagnosis, which she believes was part of “God’s plan to make sure that Erynne received really good care.”

A year after Erynne’s death, she started a bereavement support group at the parish as her way of saying “thank you” for everyone’s care and concern for her daughter.

The following year, the Visiting Nurse Association in Hopedale asked her to begin a hospice ministry.

“I felt very privileged to be with these special people,” MacLeod said. “I wanted them and their families to have the kind of support which involves the spiritual side of care.”

In recent years, she has continued to work in hospice ministry and lead grief ministry groups at parishes.

“ ‘Cancer’ and ‘hospice’ are hard words to hear,” she said. “As a mother receiving a diagnosis for my daughter, the most important thing at that moment was having faith. I didn’t expect my child to ever have something that serious.”

Cancer treatment must be hopeful and faith-filled, MacLeod said. “That’s really important—the positive, holistic side of care. Most oncologists try to do everything they can, and that’s so important. … Sometimes what happens is that our hope changes—it may not be hope for a cure, but hope for more time together” with loved ones.

The mission day is a Christ-centered, educational program, she said, that is intended to renew and refresh clergy, pastoral ministers, funeral directors, cemetery workers, bereavement ministers, other lay ministers, nurses, social workers, counselors, educators, hospice personnel, spiritual directors, caregivers for family members, and loved ones who are brokenhearted.

“It is sacred work that we’re doing, and sometimes as caregivers we forget that,” MacLeod said. “There will also be time for people to do some reflection on their life and their work.”

Her March 23 presentation at St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour will focus on faith-sharing as part of parish-based grief ministry using the Seasons of Hope curriculum.

“I had no thought of ever publishing it,” she said, “but I prayed about it and went on a retreat. I had prayed to the Blessed Mother, and Ave Maria Press just happened to be looking for a [bereavement ministry] program at that time because people were contacting them and asking for it. So it was very providential. Mary has been a big part of my ministry, and this year on the anniversary of Erynne’s death I’m going to be at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House.”

Marilyn Hess, the associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries, has served on the board of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved with MacLeod.

“Her presentation is also helpful for people who are caring for those who are dying, those who are suffering from a long-term illness, and those who are grieving the loss of life as they knew it and may be having a hard time seeing the joy in life,” Hess said. “Her ministry focuses on Christ and faith-sharing. She addresses grief in very Christian and scriptural ways.”

(The March 22 mission day for caregivers at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis is $30 per person, and includes lunch and program materials. Books will be available for purchase. To register, contact the Catholic Cemeteries Association at 317-574-8898 or The bereavement support group program on March 23 at St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour is $35 per person, and includes the $20 guidebook and $6 participant manual. To register, log on to the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries website at

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