For the past 15 years, Diane Wendt has maintained Coffee and Comfort, a grieving mothers’ group she started in Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in 1980, even though it means a five-hour round-trip drive once a month. Wendt and her husband moved to Sturgis, Mich., in 2008 when her husband retired, but the distance hasn’t kept her from the group of mothers who have lost a child. “I’m a mom who lost a child, and I want to help,” Wendt said simply. In her more than 40 years of helping she’s shared the experience of grief over the loss of a child on the radio with the Moody Bible Institute and on The Oprah Winfrey show. “Death is a part of life,” she said in an interview with The Banner.
Wendt’s son Karl died when he was 4 years old and she was 35. She wrestled with God for three years, she said, but then surrendered.‘“OK God, use me,” she said.
And God did. For 44 years now on the fourth Wednesday of every month, Wendt has led Coffee and Comfort in the choir room at Orland Park CRC. On average, close to 20 mothers show up to share and carry grief with others. “One lady came a day after she buried a child,” Wendt said. “Another one came after 13 years.” Wendt hears stories of overdose, car accidents, suicides, illness, but the shared grief has made a fellowship of women over the years. “They cling together,” Wendt says.
Wendt, at 45, trained to become a home health care nurse. When she was 52 she graduated with a master’s in counseling and worked as a private therapist for 22 years. She ran Coffee and Comfort while working and found that the medical and counseling training helped in her work with grieving mothers.
Wendt begins each Coffee and Comfort session with prayer, and then each mother takes a turn introducing herself and sharing what happened to her child. “It gives them joy to mention their child’s name,” Wendt says. Next Wendt introduces a discussion topic, usually having to do with something seasonal that might trigger mothers’ grief: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation, weddings, and other holidays. ‘We talk about all the things that have died for them,” Wendt said.
Wendt explained that talking through grief helps mothers heal. She’s led ministers in workshops on grief and tells them to mark the day of the funeral on their calendar, then add six weeks. “Contact the mothers then because that’s when their grief will start,” Wendt says. “It’s just beginning.”
While pastors of a variety of denominations have been supportive of Wendt’s work, different theological views have posed hurdles at times. Wendt said one of the mothers in her group was told by her pastor that her son had died because of her sins. And she’s been told having an earthly support group like this means that her faith in God isn’t strong enough. To this she responded, “When you are sick, do you go to a doctor?”
Wendt said these types of comments have not stopped her from doing this work. “I’m thankful God is using me this way,” and Orland Park CRC says Comfort and Coffee can “be here forever” and will always have a place, Wendt said. Currently three women serve as Wendt’s backup if she is unable to make the trip, but they insist they couldn’t do what Wendt does. “They could, of course,” Wendt said.
Back in Sturgis, Wendt and her husband attend a Presbyterian church, but she jokes, “I’m making it Christian Reformed.” In 2020, she formed another group there, called “Hope” for people who lost a loved one during the pandemic. They also meet on a Wednesday, the third of the month. Wendt, who lost a brother during the pandemic, said that as long as God can use her, she’ll keep doing the work of walking with people through their grief. “I will not take your grief away,” Wendt tells people. “You have to walk through it. I will stand by you, but I can’t take it away. Because I love you.”
About the Author
Callie Feyen is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich. She attends First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. Callie writes news for The Banner and contributes to Coffee+Crumbs, and T.S. Poetry Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is the author of The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, and Twirl: My Life in Stories, Writing, & Clothes.