Life after loss: the Beginning ExperienceBy: Linda Leicht Springfield MO
Thanks to support and a generous grant from the diocese, the Beginning Experience program is one of the best kept secrets and most complete programs of its kind in the country.
Beginning Experience (BE) is a ministry of the Catholic Church designed to help “facilitate the grief resolution process for adults and children who have suffered a loss through death, divorce, or separation, thereby enabling them to again love themselves, others, and God.”
For Teresa,* it changed her life in many ways. Divorced in 1999 after 11 years of marriage, Teresa learned about the BE program about five years later as she was “going through the dating process.” She discovered dating wasn’t working out well and she also had just lost her sister to suicide. A friend in her small prayer group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Springfield, invited her to Beginning Experience.
“It was life-changing for me,” Teresa said. “I learned so much about myself, grew so much as a person. I finally learned how to be alone and not be lonely.”
Now, Teresa is a BE facilitator, leading groups and helping others make their own life-changing discoveries.
Beginning Experience became a “lifeline” for Diane.* She had seen the notices for BE in bulletins for years while living in other states, barely paying attention. But after her husband died in 2014, she began looking for the bulletin notice in her new parish, Holy Trinity, Marshfield. She attended all the sessions and then she, too, became a facilitator.
“It’s become my social outlet because of the friendships you develop,” Diane said. “Your other friends don’t understand if they haven’t experienced a similar loss.”
Living in the tiny town of Strafford, Becky* was struggling after her husband died in 2008. She felt alone and abandoned.
Two years later, a gentleman in a hospice program she was attending told her about BE.
“I had an immediate connection with one of the facilitators,” Becky said. “He helped me so much and was so encouraging that I knew I had to continue.”
Becky not only found peace as a widow, she found friends she likens as “family,” and even found a church home at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springfield.
These are just a few of the stories of people who have been able to rebuild their lives in so many ways, thanks to the Beginning Experience.
The beginning of Beginning Experience
The program was started in 1973 in Texas by a woman religious, Sr. Josephine Stewart, a Sister of St. Mary of Namur, along with a divorced church member, Ann Marie “Jo” Lamia. The two women were asked to start a program for engaged couples. They attended a Marriage Encounter weekend to use it as a template for the new program.
But something amazing happened during the course of that research. At the end of the weekend Marriage Encounter, Sr. Stewart saw a profound change occur in her friend, Jo Lamia. Lamia found she was able to use the Marriage Encounter methods to address her own unfinished grief and anger from her divorce. The notebook that Lamia kept from that weekend became the basis for Beginning Experience. Developed over the years, the program uses experts in the field, to include issue blocks such as Coping with Life Alone, Rebuilding, Continued Beginnings, and a three-day weekend.
Beginning Experience is now offered throughout the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Great Britain, and Ireland.
However, 15 years ago, when her husband died, Vivienne (“Viv”)* didn’t have anything like Beginning Experience available to her in Kenya.
“I still felt the sadness, loneliness, bitterness, and misery that for me, came with being widowed at such a young age,” said Viv. That’s when she saw a notice in the church bulletin at Immaculate Conception in Springfield.
“I thought I would go and see what’s there,” Viv said. She made that crucial phone call and jumped right in, taking all the programs as they were offered.
“It helped me so much with all these things I had swept under the rug,” Viv said.
Now she is a facilitator. “I felt so much better. This weight had been lifted. I know I wanted to help people who are stuck or struggling in their ‘new life’ … to help people like I was helped.”
Many of the participants go on to become facilitators, but for some—like Jerry* of Marshfield—there comes a time when moving on means stepping away from Beginning Experience. He is now an official “alumni,” but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t keep up with friendships made there or help in other ways.
“I still have the same friends I started with in ‘Coping,’” Jerry said. Often referring to themselves as “wounded warriors,” Jerry said, “Friends who have not been there really don’t understand.”
Springfield offers one of only two Beginning Experience programs in Missouri. The other, in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, like many other dioceses, only offers the Beginning Experience Weekend and the Coping session, Viv said. The Springfield team is one of the few BE programs to offer all of its sessions year-round. They are offered more frequently in the hope that they are available whenever someone needs them. These include two weekend retreats a year, two Coping with Life Alone series, and at least one Rebuilding session.
For Bob* of Fair Grove, the need came just a few months after his wife passed away. “It was a life-saver to me,” he said. Living out in the country, he rarely got visitors, and after his wife’s death, visits became fewer.
“[People are] afraid it will rub off,” Bob quipped.
He started BE in the summer with the 10-week Rebuilding session.
“I could tell right away,” Bob said of the positive impact. “It gave me someone to talk to, other people who went through the same thing.”
That reaction is shared by many of the people who participate in Beginning Experience. Meeting other people who understand the grief, have experienced their own loss, and often become close and dear friends is an important part of Beginning Experience. In fact, current participants, facilitators, and alumni often continue to get together for social events.
“I found family,” Becky* said, who is now an alumni. “And it’s awesome.”
Another important element of Beginning Experience is spiritual. But the program is not a Bible study, prayer group, or evangelization forum. Each meeting begins and ends with the Lord’s Prayer, and the weekend includes a service with both a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister.
“This is because we cater to persons of all faiths,” Viv said.
She points out that for many people, their grief and anger can be aimed at God, even if they are not religious.
“God is always an easy target,” Viv said. “We need to get people to stay connected with God. It helps in the healing journey. God has not forsaken you, and He never will.”
Viv, Teresa, Diane, and Jerry were already church-going Catholics, but Bob and Becky were not Catholic and had no church home. They all agree that the spiritual element of the program is important.
“It’s more about sharing than about God,” Viv said. “It’s about listening and having people who are there for you.”
The Springfield Beginning Experience team will offer the six-week “Coping With Life Alone” program in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Springfield, starting Aug. 25. A Beginning Experience Weekend will be held Oct. 14-16. To learn more, call Teresa, (417) 848-9280; Viv, (417) 619-8645; or Diane, (417) 859-0175; or consult the national Beginning Experience Website at www.beginningexperience.org.
*For privacy purposes, only first names were used in the article.