Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Senior Side: The WHO ministry after the loss of a spouse

By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published September 5, 2019

It all started when Marguerite Pons lost her spouse after a long illness. She turned to her parish, St. Ann in Marietta, seeking spiritual direction. They suggested she join the grief support ministry, which Marguerite found helpful but not specific to the unique issues of losing a spouse.

The death of a spouse is different than the loss of a parent, child, sibling or dear friend. When man and woman express their deep and abiding love during the marriage ceremony, they become one body, one flesh until death do them part. Death brings a separation of the lifelong sacramental bond and the surviving spouse is suddenly without their partner and half of their being. Plus, the surviving spouse is now responsible for handling the many financial and practical issues that deepen the grieving process. As a result, the widowed often isolate themselves and feel overwhelmed, lost, misunderstood and alone.

When Marguerite expressed these feelings to her pastor and the desire to interact with fellow parishioners who shared a common experience, he suggested she meet with their pastoral care minister. The minister listened and provided her with names of the recently widowed. Marguerite contacted each person to share personal feelings and learn where they were in the healing process. The seeds for the WHO ministry (Widowed Helping Others) were planted.

The WHO ministry is a focused parish ministry of committed men and women who have experienced the loss of a spouse and are attempting to build new lives. Their purpose is to help one another by sharing feelings from others who are traveling the same journey. The ministry provides the widowed with mutual support, comfort, fellowship and a path to a new life.

Since women live longer on average than men, the majority of the widowed are women. The majority of widowed are in the second half of life.

St. Ann’s widowed group began to meet in the parish’s pastoral care office and then in the meeting hall as more widows and widowers learned about the fledgling ministry. As they began to interact, they realized how much they had in common about things they thought no one else had felt or experienced. They began to help one another accept the new normal.

WHO status report

The WHO ministry now numbers more than 200 participants. Most are from St. Ann, but widowed from other parishes and churches also participate. They have monthly parish dinners and engage in other activities like bowling, pickleball, dancing, cocktail hours, movies and plays, community and church events.

Women are drawn to the welcoming, safe environment. The participation of men is particularly notable since men tend to grieve more privately. Participating widowers are asked to reach out to other widowed men to attend a meeting and experience the environment.

The primary benefit of WHO is companionship with others who truly understand the feelings, emotions and need for creating a new life. It is also a forum to share advice and counsel on other practical issues.

From the parish point of view, the WHO ministry supplements and expands the existing grief sharing ministry by providing a highly specialized focus on the widowed. It brings a new source of energy to the parish from a previously silent minority who are now an enthusiastic, proactive group of adults able to participate more fully in parish life.

“I’ve been a member of WHO for a year and have found enjoyment and enrichment in the people I’ve met,” shared one participant, Barb Parcell. “I have once again found a life that I love after losing the love of my life.”

“I went to a WHO meeting three months after my wife died. I found it hard to admit that I was now a widower. But everyone was so friendly and had suffered the same devastating loss that I had. I have really enjoyed and benefitted by being in the WHO group,” said Ed. Peterson.

The need for a WHO ministry exists in every parish. If this issue is relatable, I encourage you to contact me to learn how we can help you organize a WHO ministry for the widowed in your parish.


Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send your thoughts to Bill, email wclarke@archatl.com.