Hope for the Journey walks with those experiencing a loss

Contributing writer

For Ken and Barb Kenney, the next chapter of their lives began in 2012.

Barb had been married to Tom for 39 years before he died in 2005. They lived in Chesterfield, Mo. After his death, Barb moved to southern Illinois to be closer to family and started attending St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in O’Fallon.

Ken had been married to Jeanne for 43 years before her death in 2011.

“We met at church. Ken was an usher, and I worked in the office,” Barb recalls. “We started talking on Easter of 2012. On December 20, 2012, he asked me out on a date.”

Ken and Barb were married on June 25, 2016, at St. Clare Church by Father James Deiters.

“You never know the surprises God has in store for you,” Barb says.

Together, they lead Hope for the Journey at St. Clare Parish, a grief support group for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, recent or not.

Using their personal experiences with the death of spouses and parents, along with professional and volunteer training from past positions and an abundance of research, the couple walks this journey with participants in the group. Barb, age 79, is a former dental lab assistant. Ken, 80, is retired from the Air Force.

“When Father Jim asked us to lead this group,” Barb says, “he knew we had both lost spouses and understood firsthand about grief. He told us he thought we were the best ones to lead this group.”

It took them about a year to prepare.

“We prayed about it. It was not an easy decision.” Barb says. “When we shared what our research found regarding the purpose of the group and what we should and shouldn’t do, Father Jim approved our plan.”

The group began meeting once a month three years ago, with an afternoon and an evening session. The group size is small, which, Barb explains, leads to better discussion.

“If you don’t limit the group size, everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to share,” she says. “You can’t get to the heart of each person, which is so vital.”

Ken and Barb often receive calls from people outside of the support group sessions. Sometimes they refer people to counseling. They recommend books on loss and the stages of grief.

They highly recommend journaling or writing a letter to your loved one so “you can write what you are feeling, let it go and take deep breaths.”

Ken, who has a master’s in education with an emphasis in counseling and is currently studying to become certified in counseling in Illinois, acknowledges they don’t have all the answers. He surrounds himself with reference materials he uses to help people.

Barb has had past experience with Stephens Ministry and as a hospice volunteer and hospital Eucharistic minister.

“When the loss first happens, you don’t know what to feel,” Barb says. “You feel, deep down, totally alone. Your loss is so great. We feel we can’t bear it because we want them back.”

She adds, “It’s okay to cry. It’s healing to cry. You don’t want your health to suffer.”

Barb believes the body, mind and spirit work together. When one part doesn’t work, the others won’t work.

She also says God had plans for her and others to begin again.

“We all have value. We are still alive, although it’s a different life now, and that’s okay,” Barb says. “We need to live the best life we can.”

Barb says it’s humbling leading this support group, being so involved in other peoples’ emotions. “We couldn’t do this without God helping us.”

One member of the Hope for the Journey team, Margarita Crupe, makes handmade sympathy cards for St. Clare parishioners who have had a death in the family.

Another participant, Robert, says he is lonely without his wife, but he knows he is not alone.

He joined the Hope for the Journey support group in February 2021 after his wife of 48 years died in December 2020.

“At my first meeting, Barb and Ken welcomed me, and I couldn’t even say my name,” Robert says. “I cried the entire time and just listened.”

He had seen Hope for the Journey mentioned in the bulletin. Now he looks forward to attending each month.

“You think you are the only one going through this grief, but you are not,” Robert says. “The group allows you to share your feelings without judgment. They have all been there before.”

He says he has learned a lot about his faith during this time.

“Being able to talk about your faith and your journey is so worthwhile,” Robert says. “I know God is with me on this journey.”

For more information about Hope for the Journey at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, O’Fallon, contact Ken and Barb Kenney at [email protected].