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Catholic Education is not just A, B, C and 1, 2, 3: Pastoral Response to Dying, Death and Grieving


By Kathy Fanger and Laura Schemmel
Catholic Cemeteries

Kathy Almazol, Diocesan Superintendent of Schools, shared in an interview how our Catholic elementary and high schools respond to students, staff and their families who experience sickness, death and grieving. Almazol recognizes that every faculty member brings with them their own experiences of caregiving, sickness, death and grieving. “We believe our role is to share our faith. Students expect this of us and teachers naturally feel called to do so. The faith component of our work is a beacon to our students and families.”

“Praying is what we do!”

Almazol reminds teachers, “Your face is the face of God to the students. You are their spiritual role models.” She shared, “Every morning on every campus, our students begin their day with prayer, and often again in their classrooms. We pray for the sick, the dying, the catastrophes and everything else on the hearts of children. Praying is what we can do. Celebrating life and celebrating death are hallmarks of being in a Catholic school.”

“Companion is who we are!”

When a student’s parent dies, their classmates or Student Council members often attend the funeral. Upon their return to school, teachers and counselors make it a priority to connect regularly with the student. They often attend their games and activities.

Rose Lopez, long-time faculty member at Archbishop Mitty High School, created a cancer support group called, “UPLIFT.” Students and family members facing cancer speak freely with peers and learn ways to cope through conversation, healing Masses and retreats. They realize they are not alone. Lopez conceived this idea through her journey in sickness and death and the outpouring of support by the Mitty community when her husband, Luie, also on staff, endured cancer. He died a year and a half ago.

Lopez receives students’ names from counselors, classroom teachers and campus ministers who become aware of a student’s family member who has cancer. Students are encouraged to attend Uplift. One Mitty parent shared, “If God takes me home, I know my daughter will be sad, but she will feel secure knowing there are people at Mitty to look after her.”

When a death of a student or staff member occurs, principals and staff immediately respond in caring for their school community. When Almazol was principal at Saint Clare School, a junior high teacher died unexpectedly at home one morning. The pastor, superintendent and assistant superintendent arrived immediately to be present with the students. Nine counselors from the Bill Wilson Center for Living with Dying came to counsel students. Communication reached all parents. The entire staff and student body ended the day with a prayer service in church where Pastor Rick Rodoni reassured everyone that one day they would see him again in heaven. This is the natural response of all principals when sudden death occurs. The entire day is framed with prayer as they grieve. Each life is then celebrated at a special Mass or service, giving thanks to God. Compassion and support follow in the days ahead.

Our Catholic schools’ teaching is similar to the mission of Catholic Cemeteries in bridging the gap before, during and after the death of a loved one through the practice of prayer and companionship.

Advance Directives Workshop
October 7, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Saint Lawrence the Martyr Parish Hall
1971 Saint Lawrence Dr., Santa Clara
Presenter: Cindy Safe
Learn about this essential document that names a person(s) to speak and carry out your medical wishes if you are unable to do so. Included are important issues, case studies and completion of a sample form. Free. For more information, call (650) 428-3730.