Lifted from suffering: An unheralded ministry is bringing healing to abuse survivors across Western Canada

The "Grief to Grace" team offers retreats in Kelowna, B.C. for those who have experienced abuse. Founded by Theresa Burke of Rachel's Vineyard, Grief to Grace operates four- to five- day retreats that incorporate Scripture, journaling, group activities, and therapy for victims of abuse in centres in Canada (Kelowna, B.C.), the United States, England, and Jamaica. (CCN photo courtesy of Grief to Grace)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

Grief to Grace: Walking in a freedom they have never known

[Kelowna, BC – Canadian Catholic News] – Theresa Burke founded Rachel’s Vineyard in 1995 as a ministry for parents grieving after abortion. But she came to realize many of the participants seeking help for post-abortion regret had been sexually assaulted or were survivors of domestic abuse.

Seeing that the needs of abuse survivors were going unmet, Burke, a counsellor and psychologist, set up a ministry for them called Grief to Grace, the new program drawing upon insights from Rachel’s Vineyard.

Burke first piloted the Grief to Grace program in North Dakota 14 years ago, and in 2009, she brought the ministry to British Columbia.

Grief to Grace operates four- to five- day retreats that incorporate Scripture, journaling, group activities, and therapy for victims of abuse in centres in Canada (Kelowna, B.C.), the United States, England, and Jamaica.

Counsellor and psychologist Dianne Beamish said Grief to Grace welcomes people who have suffered physical, emotional, and other abuse. Most have suffered sexual trauma; some have been abused by priests.

An outgrowth of post-abortion counselling

“When they come in on the Thursday, they are so hurting and wounded, they can hardly look you in the eye,” Beamish said. Then, for several days, the team of staffers, including counsellors and a spiritual director, guide participants through Burke’s program, which includes guided Scripture meditation and prayer.

“By the Sunday, they are full of life, the transformation has happened, and they are walking in a freedom they have never known.”

It seems those who suffer in silence heal in silence, too. Grief to Grace is 14 years old and expanding across the globe, but still not widely known.

Terry Dunn, director of Grief to Grace Kelowna, said there are about 15 centres internationally. Here in Canada, his Kelowna-based team serves communities from the west coast to Manitoba to the Northwest Territories.

Dunn said in the wake of the clergy abuse scandals in the U.S., there seemed to be more openness around talking about abuse and ways to serve victims, but it’s hard to quantify its effects on the numbers of people seeking help from non-profits and counsellors.

A family therapist for 35 years before he retired and joined Grief to Grace, Dunn said the power of a ministry like this comes from treating the person as a whole.

“We are spiritual beings as well as physical, emotional, relational, sexual, all of that,” he said. Though the program takes care to respect participants’ boundaries spiritually, it was created from a Catholic perspective and draws on scriptural themes.

Combining the psychological and spiritual

For example, participants reflect on Jesus’ passion as they write down names they were called or words they believed about themselves and nail them to a piece of wood. They talk about their pain while reflecting on Jesus’ wounds, and write letters to the children they used to be.

“This is the psychological and spiritual combined, which makes it so powerful,” said Dunn. He’s not aware of any other treatment programs like this in other Christian denominations.

One-on-one counselling is a valuable resource, but victims who are plagued by shame and insecurity shouldn’t rule out group sessions, added Dunn. Meeting other victims of abuse in a safe, confidential environment can help them realize they are not alone and that others can relate to their pain.

“It is not uncommon to have a 72-year-old woman talk about her abuse, and that trigger a 35-year-old woman in a way that they know the other person gets it and their experience was so similar. They can help heal one another.”

The next Grief to Grace retreat in Kelowna, B.C. is scheduled for May 2020. More information, including location information and registration, is available by visiting or contacting Grief to Grace Kelowna: 250-878-7603.

Local resources for those dealing with abuse:

  • Immediate danger: 911
  • Saskatchewan HealthLine: 811
  • Saskatchewan HealthLine TTY access for the hearing impaired is available at 1-888-425-4444.
  • Kids Help: 1-800-668-6868
  • Community and health services line: 211 or
  • Legacy Ridge Trauma Recovery and Resource Centre, Saskatoon: or (306) 659-5815
  • CFS Saskatoon counselling: or (306) 244-7773
  • Report abuse by clergy, religious, or lay employee/volunteer in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon:

Bernice’s story: Hurt and shame replaced by peace

(Note: Surnames are withheld to protect privacy)

At the age of five, Bernice was tied up and sexually assaulted by a neighbourhood bully in a rural British Columbia town. Overwhelmed with fear and shame, she didn’t tell a soul. She couldn’t.

Not long after the attack, her family moved to another town. It was out of convenience that they left, she explained in a recent interview with The B.C. Catholic, “not because anybody knew.”

The new neighbourhood was not far enough away. There the abuse started again. More local boys sought her out as a target to exploit.

“Abusers seemed to be attracted to me. It started and went on for years and years and years.”

She had learned to expect little support at home, where she was often told she was “no good.” Her father was verbally abusive and alcoholic. From a young age, she had low self-esteem.

“As I became a teenager, well, I just felt it was my duty in life,” she said. “That’s what you start to believe.”

Unable to handle the shame and self-blame, Bernice turned to substance use.

“It gets to the point where you get into the booze and drugs and try to forget it all … Then I got suicidal and came really close to that,” she said. “I was in pain all those years. I acted out of my pain. When people saw me as being a troublemaker, the actual problem was that I was abused when I was five.”

In pursuit of peace

For years Bernice suffered in silence.

Whatever seeds of Christian faith had been planted on those days her parents had dragged her to church had long shrivelled without ever having taken root. “We were cradle Catholics, I guess … I was forced to go to church until confirmation. It was my choice after that, so I left.”

And then, three decades after the traumatic attack, Bernice started to seek healing. She found herself signing up for a live-in retreat, an event described simply as a place to get to know Jesus.

Having walked away as a teenager from a faith practice that had meant little to her at the time, she began to reconsider. “I probably didn’t say two words at the retreat,” but the experience made a profound difference. “The people running the retreat had a peace about them. It attracted me: this peace that I never had and wanted.”

So Bernice started going to Mass again.

She also found a counsellor, joined a prayer ministry, and sought other ways to calm her inner turmoil. For about a dozen years, she worked hard to blaze a trail on her healing journey. “I started to get my spiritual life a bit together. It took a long time. It wasn’t an overnight thing.”

Then Bernice found out about a little-known program, the Grief to Grace retreat, which she said completely changed her life. “The memories of abuse are still there, but the feelings, the hurt, and the shame, are gone,” she said.

“I remember walking down the hallway and thinking how different I felt. Something was different. The only way I can explain it, and it doesn’t make sense, but it felt like my head attached back to my body. I have felt that disconnect my whole life until one day at Grief to Grace, and I have never felt it since.”

Not everyone has such a dramatic experience, but for Bernice, it meant wounds healed and a life she could reclaim as her own.

To make the best of what she sees as a gift given to her, she was trained as a facilitator and now helps run retreats for others who are suffering.

Diocese of Saskatoon safeguarding training sessions include information on impact of sexual abuse and the need to support victims:  ARTICLE

Pam’s story: From secrecy to truth-sharing

Pam was sexually abused at age 13 by an older sibling. She believed she had to hide the truth to protect her family.

“Denial is a really safe place. It’s a comfort zone, even though it’s very uncomfortable.”

The B.C. woman kept the secret for years. She married and had five children.

It wasn’t until she arrived at a Grief to Grace retreat in 2011 that she came to realize it was the truth that would set her free.

“When I got there, I was amazed how different everyone’s story was, and yet we all suffered the same pain,” she said. “Through the program, I was able to join my suffering to Jesus’ suffering.”

This reflection on Jesus’ sufferings, she said, also helped her cope with her own.

During the four-day retreat, Pam was surrounded by counsellors and abuse survivors who had become her friends. Though she can’t pinpoint exactly when, there was a moment she felt the guilt and shame disappear.

Like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders

“I felt like I was standing up straight for the first time, literally like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “Part of survival is to have a shell around your heart, around your soul. It was necessary to carry me through to that day, but once I healed, that hardness of my heart was replaced with a heart of flesh” (see Ez 36:26).

She was convicted by a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that says to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness (5:11). “That really struck me. I was taught as a child, in a roundabout way, that you keep a secret if it’s going to embarrass somebody.”

She realized the next step was to tell her family what had happened when she was 13.

“It felt like I was stepping into a hurricane when I started speaking the truth,” she said. “I was told to be quiet, that I was ruining the family … They tried to control me, and it didn’t work anymore because I had learned to speak the truth. I had a choice to make, and it was them or the truth. I chose the truth.”

Now, Pam is not shy about sharing her experience at Grief to Grace. Her husband and children are supportive, and her oldest son volunteers for the non-profit that helped her work through the trauma.

“Any one of our children, if someone spoke to them about abuse, they would share my story and encourage them to go to Grief to Grace,” she said. “I’m happy to share my story because I don’t want one person to suffer alone.”

She also found some healing in speaking with a trusted counsellor and in reading autobiographies of abuse survivors.

Pam had some words of advice for someone in whom a close friend who has suffered abuse chooses to confide. “I think the most important thing is to listen if someone wants to talk about it. If they confide in you, say: ‘I’m sorry that happened.’ If you know about a program or a counsellor that can help them, encourage that. It’s something no one should go through alone.”

For her, healing was about so much more than leaving the shame behind.

“Growing up in a family where abuse happens, there’s not a lot of love,” she said. “I don’t know that I ever experienced love, not in the way I do now. When I used to think of God my Father, that was a scary thing, if I related that to my father. Discovering God’s fatherly love and what that truly means, and how he accepts me and loves me and is proud of me – I was missing that.”