Widow works through grief as sorority house director

Michelle Reif enjoys a laugh with the girls at Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority of the University of Iowa. Michelle is the sorority’s house director. (Photo by Barb Arland-Fye)

By Barb Arland-Fye

Their story began in 1974 at “The Pub” in Dodgeville where people from all walks of life gathered to socialize. Michelle Moore was a young school teacher from out of town whose friend Lin, and Lin’s boyfriend, Paul, took her out to The Pub one weekend.

“Sitting in the corner was the man I’d spend the next 33 years with,” Michelle recalls with fondness while eating lunch at the sorority house in Iowa City where she serves as house director.

Larry Reif, a Vietnam veteran and a farmer in neighboring Sperry, was just a couple of years older than his future bride. They married June 12, 1976, at St. Mary Catholic Church in Dodgeville. She had grown up Methodist, but converted to Catholicism before she and Larry married.

In the early years of their marriage, he’d pack Michelle’s lunch so she would have time to play a few hands of cribbage with him before school. He’d stick sweet notes in the lunch bag for her to read on her break.


After the first of their four children, Jim, was born in 1979, Michelle became a stay-at-home mom. “I wanted my kids to have the same kind of life I did growing up,” she said.

The family thrived. They attended St. Mary’s in Dodgeville, where Larry served on the parish council. He worked as general manager and head of maintenance at Reif Oil Co. Michelle placed foreign exchange students, and the family hosted seven of them in their home over the years. She also did substitute teaching, worked at a bank and a flower shop. Then 2007 arrived, and life changed.

Right after Valentine’s Day her dad had a stroke and Michelle went home to Clarion to help out on the farm. About the same time, Larry began experiencing problems with what he thought was acid reflux. In April, Michelle had to return to the farm to help her brother get the crops in. Her son, Jim, was looking forward to getting married June 30.

Two days before the wedding, Larry learned he had a tumor on his pancreas; he and Michelle didn’t tell Jim because they didn’t want to put a damper on the celebration. “We went to the wedding and put on a good face,” Michelle said.

On July 13, 2007, Larry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He and Michelle were devastated. “I had lived such a perfect life. People died when they were supposed to, when they were old … I had not been touched by tragedy,” she said. Larry died seven weeks later on Aug. 31 at age 58.

She remembers thinking as a little girl that if she were very good, God would allow her to come back to earth after she died. Wistfully, she wished that for her husband. “Larry was one of the most loved and respected people in the whole area. He was just the best,” she said.

Her normal and predictable life lost its stability. “You aren’t married for 31 years and not be a team, so when my point guard was lost, it was either step up or become crushed by the emotions and lack of direction that a widow at 56 experiences.”

Michelle found a support group through Johnson County Hospice in Iowa City. “My friends whom I gained through this organization inspired me to find a new focus, a new residence and a new life for myself.”  In June, she became house director for Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority at the University of Iowa.

“Talk about a career change!! My own children are between the ages of 23 and 30, so it’s not like I’ve been out of the loop for a long period of time, but, suffice it to say, I’ve learned a lot and every day brings new challenges. I’ve been told the last two years that when God closes one door, he opens a window and ‘Theta’ is my window.”

Grief isn’t something you get over, but get through, she said. She’d like to help facilitate a program in parishes that helps families through the grief process — from the onset of a serious illness through the death of a loved one and beyond. “This is the way I’m trying to work through my grief and to work through that experience and maybe help somebody out in the process.”

Their son Jim has found his own way of dealing with grief. “My dad was my best friend. I miss him to death, but I try to celebrate his life more than emphasize the death part.”

Faith has been a big help, too. “I know somebody is watching over him making sure he’s doing all right now. That helps out a lot, knowing he has the good Lord looking over him,” Jim says.

Jim has taken over his dad’s position on the parish council, cemetery board and at Reif Oil Co. “It’s my turn now; I’m following in his footsteps the best I can.”

Grief support programs, groups available in the diocese

Here is a sample of grief support programs and groups offered in the Davenport Diocese:

• St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf offers grief education classes followed by a grief support group and concluding with a candlelight remembrance service. The parish also offers individual and family grief support year-round as needed. For more information call Nancy McBride, minister of pastoral care at (563) 355-5766.

• St. Anthony Parish in Davenport offers a grief support group that meets from 6:30-7:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month in the school library. The next meeting is Jan. 19. Call Barbara at (309) 756-0133 for   more information.

• St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville has recently enrolled in Stephen Ministries, which trains and organizes lay people to do one-on-one, confidential, Christian caring for all who are grieving,  depressed or experiencing other difficulties in life.

A core team will attend training this month and then train others committed to bringing Christ’s healing love to people. For more information, contact  Joan Garrity at (319) 339-9895 or Meliza Wise at (319) 351-9297.

• Sacred Heart Parish in Newton’s grief ministry team meets monthly to identify any parishioner who has had a loved one die in the previous month. Someone from the team will contact that parishioner to see whether they would like to get together for a visit. The parishioner also will receive a help booklet and a letter from the parish.

Sacred Heart also offers “Seasons of Hope,” a Christ-centered support group for the bereaved that is grounded in the healing wisdom, traditions and practices of the Catholic Church. Seasons of Hope offers six-week seasons in each of four seasons. The sessions meet on Tuesdays. The first one will be 3:45-5:15 p.m. Jan. 12 in the parish’s McCann Center.

• St. Mary Parish in Wilton is collaborating with the Durant-Wilton Ministerial Association on GriefShare, a weekly seminar/support group for people grieving the death of someone close.

Each GriefShare session has three distinct elements: viewing of a video seminar featuring top experts on grief and recovery subjects, group discussion about the video and what is going on in group members’ lives, and personal study and journaling in a workbook.

The 13-week GriefShare series began Jan. 3 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Wilton. It meets each Sunday from 6:30–8 p.m. at the church.

People may join at any time during the series. For more information, call St. Mary’s at (563) 732-2271, or Gloria Dei Lutheran, Durant, (563) 785-4936, or John Lyons (Wilton) at (563) 349-0920.

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