No parent wants to outlive their child.

“So many say it’s not supposed to be this way. I’m not supposed to outlive my child. I’m supposed to go first,” said Rhea Prasek, 40, of El Campo. “When your son or daughter leaves this earth before you, it makes for a tough journey.”

Strength for the Journey Grief Support Group, a ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Victoria’s Office of Family Evangelization, will host a weekend retreat for bereaved parents Oct. 29-31. The peaceful setting of the diocese’s Spiritual Renewal Center, 718 Gussie Schmidt Road in Victoria, will serve as the backdrop for the retreat.

Prasek, who works for her husband’s family business, Prasek’s Smokehouse in El Campo, lost her daughter Harper Prasek in 2011. She was experiencing a normal pregnancy until nine days before her due date, at which time she thought she was going into labor. At the hospital, the doctor could not detect the baby’s heartbeat. Prasek had to go through the normal motions of delivering the child, which she knew to be deceased in her womb. It was discovered the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck.

“It’s a tough road, but by the grace of God, we soon found out we were expecting again — twin boys,” Prasek said. “Every story has a happy ending. Good comes out of every experience even when it seems terrible at the time.”

Prasek decided to become a member of the diocese’s grief support team when she was approached by the team leaders, Deacon Larry and Patricia Hoelscher, of El Campo. The role involves a lot of active listening, being present, sharing stories and praying for others who also have experienced the loss of a child.

At the upcoming weekend retreat, guest speakers will deliver helpful presentations for the parents. Valeria Dubourdieu, a counselor at the Emmaus Center, will address the stages of grief, while Gail Janecka, another counselor at the center, will talk about how the loss of a child affects the family and when to seek professional help. Deacon Tran Dinh from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Victoria will share his story about surviving the loss of his wife and child. The retreat will provide parents with time to share in small groups, pray, attend Mass, meet with a spiritual director, rest and reflect. The Most Rev. Brendan Cahill, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Victoria, will celebrate Mass as well.

Partial financial aid is available for those who need assistance.

In addition to retreats, the group meets from 6:30 to 8 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month, except October because of the retreat, at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Ganado. About a dozen team members are involved with the support group as well as three priests.

When the ministry began, the Very Rev. Kirby Hlavaty, pastor of the church in Ganado at the time, offered to host the group meetings. He has since become the pastor of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Victory in Victoria. The Very Rev. Roger Hawes, pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Yorktown, also has been heavily involved in the ministry. The Very Rev. Greg Korenek continued to support the group when he became pastor of the Ganado church.

While about eight bereaved parents join the team members at each of the monthly meetings, almost 50 parents total have attended at least one of the group’s gatherings since it started with a one-day retreat in March.

Each meeting includes prayer, a brief presentation on topics ranging from how to keep the memory of a child alive to how to cope during the holidays, and a breakout session during which parents can either share their stories or simply listen to the stories of others.

Although Prasek became involved in the group to help others, she has found that the meetings are therapeutic for her as well. At the one-day retreat in March, Prasek met a couple who had lost a daughter recently.

“Imagine a mom who had just lost a child who is terrified to try again to start a family,” Prasek said. “It was an incredible gift to sit with that mom and dad, and tell them my story, to give them reassurance that they too could experience the happiness they were so desperately craving.”

Every team member can tell a different story, Prasek said. Some children die by suicide, some perish in automobile accidents, some are taken by illness and some are still-born, among other tragedies. They range in age from infants to adult children.

“We make sure the parents know it doesn’t matter how the child passed away,” Prasek said. “We are all hurting. That’s what’s beautiful about this ministry. We all deserve help, and if we can offer it, that is what we try to do.”

In high school, Prasek lost her best friend, Nancy Richards, in a car accident. Nancy Richards’ mother, Susan Richards, was among the first to show up on Prasek’s doorstep when she lost Harper.

Susan Richards, 73, a retired social worker from El Campo, also is a member of the grief support team. Her daughter was 16 when she died 23 years ago. Devastated, Richards started attending meetings of a local chapter of Compassionate Friends, a national grief support organization that existed at the time. She began taking part in Bible study, and she sought private grief counseling. She coped day by day.

“It’s such a devastating thing to happen to a parent,” Richards said. “Having the opportunity to talk with others going through the same thing you are going through is helpful and gives you hope.”

After more than two decades, Richards said she sometimes feels awkward bringing up Nancy, but the need to talk about her daughter remains no matter how much time has passed. She said many parents worry that their child will be forgotten, and the support group provides a setting where the need to talk about one’s child is understood. Richards said parents grieve in their own way, and they have to move at their own pace.

“You have to work at it, and it takes steps to heal,” Richards said. “You take one day at a time, not looking too far into the future. Time passes, and it does help. You never get over missing the child, but you begin to have joy again. You begin to reinvest in life again. You learn to live with the loss because there is no fixing it.”

Carolyn Joines, 65, a bookkeeper for the Wharton Livestock Auction, also is a member of the grief support team. The Wharton resident lost her 38-year-old son Clay Joines in 2016. He was born slightly mentally challenged and struggled with health issues throughout his life. Her heart breaks for those who have experienced the sudden loss of a child. Because her son was sick for years, she had time to gradually deal with the reality that he would not recover. Joines’ main hurdle has been moving past the not-so-good memories of her son hurting and suffering. Her faith in God, family and friends have helped her deal with her grief.

“Time heals, but also talking about it with those who have been through the same struggles is what helps heal,” Joines said.

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Elena Anita Watts is the features editor for the Victoria Advocate. She covers faith, arts, culture and entertainment, and she can be reached at 361-580-6585 or

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