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Marissa Nichols and Father John Auther S.J. | Summer 2023

Encountering the Sacred Through Sorrow

The sun was just setting above El Retiro, Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, as the group of four retreatants gathered in September 2020 to spend 30 days of prayer, solitude, and silence while making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola in an environment which was ideal for sheltering in place, a phrase rarely heard before that fateful year.

One retreatant, Rita Morton, carried a special burden. The year before, she had lost her 30-year-old son Chad to an accidental overdose from drugs tainted with fentanyl. That September, Rita sought a different type of retreat: to be alone with God and ask questions. “I cried nonstop for the first four days. As I entered in the exercises, I sensed Chad everywhere.”

It was natural that she would seek solace in that setting, having spent close to twenty years writing and putting on retreats for Catholic women. As she gradually followed through the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord, she spoke to the Lord about her pain and His pain. At times, a deep feeling of grace overcame her: “I encountered the grace that brought me to a bone-deep, transformative assimilation of the loss of my son.”

Rita emerged from the retreat with the conviction that God had a mission for her. “It did not take long to realize my new mission: to help create healing programs for grieving mothers. Back home, it seemed that everywhere I turned, I heard more stories of mothers losing children to the opioid epidemic, mental health issues, and violence rampant in our communities.” From personal tragedy but also unfathomable grace, Sacred Sorrows ministry was born.

“Working under the spiritual direction of trusted advisors and priests, Sacred Sorrows strives to bear witness to the gifts of grace and transformation that the Lord has for the suffering,” shared Rita. Rita’s role includes developing retreats and other programs that allow the bereaved to process their deep grief through encounters with the mystery of God's grace. She continues to grow and heal by serving the spiritual needs of others.

When discussing how Sacred Sorrows has impacted her, Rita acknowledges how she has been humbled observing the Lord's healing touch for those who grieve, “This work has called me to surrender and trust the Lord in unimaginable ways that I could never have foreseen before I lost my son.” She also speaks forcefully about her appreciation for the Catholic faith, “All I know is that I have been shattered, and I would be nothing without my tribe of supportive friends and family, and truly nothing without my faith. I am overwhelmingly grateful for my faith.”

Sacred Sorrows is unique in grief ministry as it aims to bring deep rest and peace in a retreat setting to allow for the slow and quiet workings of Grace. Rita herself was involved in retreat ministry and planning before her son’s death, “Before I lost my son, I already had extensive experience in retreat and program planning, and yet, retreats continue to inspire me.”

In retrospect, it seems that Rita’s life experience prepared her for founding Sacred Sorrow. Years earlier, her ex-husband, with whom she had an amicable relationship and two sons, had died by suicide, leading to both of her young sons’ subsequent substance abuse. “Even though I was a bible study leader and a retreat planner and had a full-time career, it wasn't easy being a single parent in the aftermath of suicide and subsequent substance abuse.”

And yet, from that wellspring of sorrow, Rita forges on, creating an environment that caters to mothers and grandmothers who have likewise suffered. “Our moms move past the details of the cause of death since our children are not defined by how they died. They also move toward their children, who are now in the arms of perfect Love.”

 Challenges come through discouragement, tiredness, and all manner of self-doubt. “Well-intentioned people tell me what a great job I am doing, and I must hold back from saying “thanks, but I would trade it in a heartbeat to have Chad back. That is one example of how bittersweet this journey is, and yet it is also a privilege to walk with these sisters in sacred sorrow. I never wanted to be in this place, but here I am, in it. All in. Grateful and humbled to be called to this mission.

On the last morning of the retreat, a simple ritual takes place where the mothers place the names of their children, written on rocks, into a cement circle. It is placed on a hillside overlooking the far mountains. A plaque invites passersby to pray for the mothers and their children. The rustic place reminds all of us that God knows our sorrow and invites others to help us bear the pain.

More information about Sacred Sorrows can be found at

Rita Morton
Father John Auther S.J.

Father John Auther, S.J., is a Jesuit for 45 years and a priest for over 30 years. He has worked as a high school campus minister, associate pastor, and pastor, most recently at the Jesuit parish in San Diego.  At the beginning of the pandemic, he began working at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, is a key spiritual advisor to Sacred Sorrows, and is an integral part of the Mother's Love & Loss Retreats held at the JRC.

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