Comfort the Afflicted: Patty Chesebrough shares her experience to help post-abortive women

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Patty Chesebrough stands near a statue at Holy Spirit Parish where Tears Speak, Spirits Soar was founded. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Patty Chesebrough stands near a statue at Holy Spirit Parish where Tears Speak, Spirits Soar was founded. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

missionary-of-mercy_300x300In recognition of the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, every month The Catholic Sun will feature a “Missionary of Mercy” who ­exemplifies one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

Practical ways to comfort the afflicted
  • Listen. Then listen some more.
  • Try to understand the pain. Don’t judge.
  • Know that grief has no time limit.
  • Pray for the person.
  • Validate the person’s feelings; let them cry.
  • Never say, “I know how you feel.”

Source: Amy Florian, grief expert, corgenius.com

Patty Chesebrough gazes inside the darkened church and stares up at a portrait of the late Fr. John Hanley, the priest who showed her God’s mercy in her darkest hour. It was 1990 and Chesebrough’s husband was pressuring her to have an abortion. She called her parish, St. Theresa at the time, and asked to speak with a priest.

“He tried very hard, but by the time I met with him, like so many women, I really couldn’t hear what he had to say because I was draped in death. I had that sensation that nothing could save me,” Chesebrough said. “I was terrorized, is the word I use.”

She went ahead with the abortion in a bid to save a marriage that later crumbled. “I think the hardest phone call I ever had to make was after, to tell him what I had done,” Chesebrough said. For the next 18 months, she met with the priest regularly to work through the pain.

“I also went to a psychologist because I didn’t want to live after I did what I did. I stopped eating and lost an enormous amount of weight,” Chesebrough said. “Fr. John helped give me my faith back, helped me understand God’s mercy.”

At first, all she could do was cry. After a year of meeting with the priest, he wondered aloud if one day she might use the pain she’d experienced to help other women. At first, she couldn’t fathom it, but six months later, she was ready. Although both Fr. Hanley and the psychologist had been tremendously helpful, neither one could ever really know what it was like to have an abortion.

Chesebrough’s group, Tears Speak but Spirits Soar, was founded in 1992 at Holy Spirit Parish in Tempe. Over the years, hundreds of women have poured out their hearts in the monthly, confidential meetings, now held at Mount Claret Retreat Center on the second Tuesday of the month.

“The pain is real. I understand it — I’ve lived through it,” Chesebrough said. The group provides a safe environment to express that pain, to cry and not to be judged. Chesebrough facilitates, offering her insights and explaining ways women can find strength and healing.

“There were so many times in counseling and in visiting with Fr. Hanley that I couldn’t do anything but cry and my tears had to speak the language of my pain. So that’s why ‘Tears Speak’ resonated with me,” Chesebrough said. “‘Spirits Soar’ because both of them helped me become whole again. I could live again. I could experience joy and Fr. Hanley helped me understand that in God’s eyes, my life had value, the same as my child’s, and that God had forgiven me.”

Tears Speak, Spirits Sour

  • When: 7-8 p.m., the second Tuesday of the month
  • Where: Mount Claret Retreat Center’s Pope Paul II Center, 4633 N. 54th St.
  • Info: Call Patty at (480) 838-7474 for confidential discussion

Understanding God’s mercy was key.

“The hardest job for any woman is forgiving herself. I had to believe that God would forgive me before I could forgive myself,” Chesebrough said. Twenty-five years after the abortion, her eyes still fill with tears at the memory.

“The pain of that loss — you still feel it. You don’t forget, but it doesn’t hold you in bondage. You can enjoy life and be whole again,” Chesebrough said.

The road to wholeness was an uphill climb through post-traumatic stress: the depression, the anger, the guilt, the extreme startle reaction. Through it all, Fr. Hanley was the face of God’s mercy. A big supporter of Tears Speak, he promoted it at the pulpit and publicized its efforts to help women recover from the pain of abortion.

“He wrapped his arms around countless women as an expression of God’s mercy and love because so many of us don’t believe we should go to church anymore, don’t think we’re forgiven by God,” Chesebrough said. “He would hold them and reassure them and give them the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Three weeks after Fr. Hanley retired and took up residence at Mount Claret, he suffered a stroke. Chesebrough became his caregiver. “He was there for me when I needed him. How could I not be there for him?”

She’s there in much the same way for the women at Tears Speak, telling them they can call her any time of day or night to talk things over. One woman, who belonged to the group 18 years ago but has since moved to the East Coast, still checks in regularly.

If at times no one shows up for the meeting, Chesebrough said she sits in the garden at Mount Claret that she dedicated to Fr. Hanley and prays.

“I’ll sit there and say the rosary for the women that couldn’t come, for all the women that have come and pray that no one will have an abortion the next day,” Chesebrough said.

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