Over a 14-month period, Gail Sanseverino Peterson experienced the deaths of 10 people close to her, including her husband, stepson and two grandchildren. At the suggestion of a friend, she began attending the GriefShare program at Crossroads Fellowship Church in Raleigh.
Peterson, 54, of Youngsville said the biblically-based, 16 week course that includes video, discussion and workbooks allowed her move through the grieving process and learn what was normal after experiencing a loss.
"It was very helpful to learn that being exhausted and having difficulty focusing are normal parts of grieving," said Peterson, who has recently remarried and now leads a GriefShare group.
The materials that Peterson used her in her GriefShare class were developed by Church Initiative, a Wake Forest company that develops curriculum to help churches provide programs that help people through tough periods in their life, such as divorce and death.
When Steve Grissom, 58, co-founder of Church Initiative, went through a divorce, he realized that not everyone had the great system that he was blessed with and decided to use his experience to help others going through a divorce.
He began teaching a divorce class at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh and soon realized that he felt called to do that work on a bigger level. In 1987, he left his job at Capital Broadcasting and founded DivorceCare, which later became Church Initiative, with his new wife, Cheryl.
"I had my dream job in broadcasting and you don't leave a job like that unless you hear God very clearly," Grissom said. "As much as I loved my previous career, I couldn't imagine myself anywhere else right now than doing this."
Using his broadcasting experience, Grissom created a 13-week video course using interviews from the leading Christian experts on divorce and took the burden off the local churches of finding experts on the topic. In addition to supporting those getting a divorce, Grissom said he regularly hears from people who decided to keep their family together once starting the program.
After the success of the DivorceCare program, Church Initiative began receiving requests for materials for children whose parents are going through a divorce and for people who have lost a loved one. GriefShare was launched in 1996 and DivorceCare for Kids three years later.
More than 15,000 churches worldwide use one or more of the Church Initiative programs, including churches in the United Kingdom, South America and New Zealand. Because many churches in non-English speaking countries have expressed interest in the materials, Church Initiative will be releasing translations in Chinese and Korean. A new program, Single and Parenting, will be released in June to help churches minister to single parents, including those divorced, widowed and never married.
Grissom said that in many churches, as many as 80 percent of the participants in the Church Initiative programs are not members of the host church and more than half are not attending any church.
"In addition to helping their congregation, these programs are a tremendous outreach opportunity for churches," Grissom said.
Churches are encouraged to structure the programs based on the needs of their community. Crossroads Fellowship offers grief groups, including groups for widows, for people who have lost parents and for parents who have lost their children.
"People who have gone through the same type of loss can help and support each other best," said Jodi Rule-Rouse, grief minister at Crossroads Fellowship, who leads the GriefShare programs at the church.
Rule-Rouse said Crossroads Fellowship, which offers seven GriefShare groups in addition to DivorceCare and DivorceCare for Kids, will start a Spanish-speaking group this summer and hopes to offer a group for military and suicide loss in the near future.
Grissom encourages those considering attending one of the programs to make a commitment to attend at least three sessions and said people can join an ongoing group at any time in the course. Grissom said many people begin coming to the GriefShare or DivorceCare programs because a friend or family member helped them find a group.
"Sometimes it takes a gentle nudge to get someone to participate in the group," he said. "It is difficult to make that first step, so oftentimes someone encouraging you can make a huge difference."