When you get married, you picture how your life will go. Maybe it ends with you and your spouse kicking back on a beach in your retirement community. Maybe you have two matching rocking chairs on the front porch. Or you’re traveling the world together. Whatever your future holds, you plan on spending it with each other. 

“I expected to be married over 50 years, like my parents,” said Brenda Mikhail, registrar of Beginning Experience. She and her husband had two children and a future in LA: “Not sure how we did it all, looking back, but I wouldn’t have changed one minute.”

But Brenda’s life changed forever when her husband died after a heart attack at age 59. Her children were 22 and 26. “I could not fill this void, and it broke my heart. I felt I had to be strong for them. I just kept busy and felt like I was running on empty at times.” 

For Dick Van Dusen, his wife asked for a trial separation that ended in divorce after 34 years of marriage. “From the initial separation and on, my life was in shambles,” Van Dusen said. “I was breathing and going through the steps of responsibilities for the day, but there was not a life there.”

The Church prepares you for the great step that is marriage, through Pre-Cana classes and testimonies from happily married couples. It helps to hear stories from those who have been through the early years, the tough times, and who have stayed together. 

But for those who have lost their life’s partners, through divorce, separation or death, it helps just as much to hear from those who’ve survived their loss and are still standing. 

Living courageously

A friend told Brenda about the Beginning Experience weekends offered by the Separated, Divorced & Widowed Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The week after that conversation, Brenda found a notice at her own parish. 

“I said, ‘this is a sign,’” she recalls. “For the first time in a few years…I allowed myself the privilege to think about me and how I was going to exist as a person without a spouse. It was scary yet exciting.” 

“The weekend was a positive turning point in my life. I joined the team and eventually became president. It is the type of ministry that you never let go of.” 

Van Dusen saw a notice in his own parish about a Beginning Experience weekend in Oceanside, and when he went, he discovered “a whole weekend of support, tears, reflection and hope for the future.” 

On Saturday, July 28, the Separated, Divorced & Widowed Ministry will be hosting a workshop for those who, like Mikhail and Van Dusen, have had to change their plans and learn how to live a new life. 

Leading the workshop will be Dr. Ross Porter, the executive director at Stillpoint Family Resources, and the director of faith formation at St. Mel Church. Dr. Porter hopes that those who attend this workshop learn more about “how to practically become more courageous. The keys are to withstand hardship, resist temptations and take positive action.”

It’s important to “recognize that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, ‘In all things God works for good,’” Dr. Porter said. “Things don’t work for God, but God does. Trust him.” 

Helping others live in hope

For those who have attended Beginning Experience weekends, these retreats work wonders. “I just had to stop looking at the darkness and take a leap to something that I felt over that weekend,” Van Dusen said. “This ministry has allowed me to climb out of that hopelessly deep pit and find something useful and meaningful for my life. God has shown his many blessings to me in answering my prayers in a way that shows my worth in his plans.” 

“Being around folks who have suffered a similar loss like yours will help you accept, grow and move on in life,” Mikhail explained. “Reaching the stage of acceptance allows us to move on to giving back.” 

And that’s exactly what Mikhail and Van Dusen are doing now. Mikhail hosts social events for other separated, divorced and widowed Catholics in her home, and is very active in the ongoing ministry at work — doing her part to help others who, like she once was, are struggling to envision their new lives. Van Dusen is a Beginning Experience facilitator in Los Angeles, giving others the same hope that he received from his own weekend retreat. 

As Mikhail said, “Helping those in need is truly the gift that keeps on giving.”