M & A Account for Losses; Recognize Grief

Loss_12242013Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Anniversaries can be painful. I remember one patient in the emergency department. He was loud; he was obnoxious; he was threatening. When I spoke to him, I was startled to learn he was also grieving—his brother had died at age 40 from alcohol abuse. He was now 40 and also abused alcohol. In remembering his brother, he also feared his own death. In All Our Losses: All Our Griefs, Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson remind us that grief can accompany losses other than death and is often mixed with other emotions.

Mitchell and Anderson start by observing that grief—the normal response to loss—is much more common than most people believe (9).  Their book is organized around three questions:  (1) Why do people grieve? (2) What are the dynamics of grief? And (3) how can we help those who grieve? (10-11). At the time of writing, both authors were professors of pastoral care.  Mitchell served at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis; Anderson served at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Mitchell and Anderson observe that grief is both natural and unavoidable.  They write:  Just as there can be no life without attachments, there can be no attachments without eventual separation and loss.  Grief has its beginnings in the twin necessities of attachment and separation (21). One example of this principle of attachment and separation is the child before and after birth (20).  Another example is the child’s distinction between me and not me, and later—not me but mine and not mine (23).  All losses and separations are painful, in part, because they remind us of our limitations and eventual death (31).

Mitchell and Anderson identify six major types of loss, including:  1. Material loss, 2. Relationship loss, 3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream, 4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy, 5. Role loss—like retirement, and 6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin (36-45).  They then go on to identify 5 attributes of those losses:  1. Avoidable or unavoidable, 2. Temporary or permanent, 3. Actual or imagined, 4. Anticipated or unanticipated, and 5. Leaving or being left (46-50).  Surprisingly, they observe that:  Growing up and leaving home involves…every form of loss but functional (51).  It is surprising because we often take the process of growing up for granted—consequently when problems arise as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) we are caught unaware and unprepared.

The complexity of grieve arises because it is more than just a single emotion and it includes physical responses as well.  Mitchell and Anderson cite 7 elements of grief: 1. Numbness, 2. Emptiness, loneliness, and isolation, 3. Fear and anxiety, 4. Guilt and shame, 5. Anger, 6. Sadness and despair, and 7. Somatization—physical reactions (61-81).

In my experience as a chaplain intern, I was struck by the pervasive nature of grief among the patients that I visited and by the number of physical ailments triggered by intense or unresolved grief.  Grief was a part of more hospital visits—especially in the psyche ward and the retirement facility—than any other factor.   Mitchell and Anderson suggest that care givers be sensitive to 4 elements.  Give people:  1. Permission and space to grieve, 2. Recognition of importance of and support for grief, 3. Encouragement to share, and 4. Help in reintegrating in life (111).  They remind us as caregivers of Jesus’ statement on the Sermon on the Mount:   Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4 ESV; 165).

Among pastoral care professionals, Mitchell and Anderson’s book is a classic.  Grief and loss ministry remains underappreciated, in part, because death is an embarrassing subject in our youth-oriented, post-Christian society.  Because our culture denies death, the pain of death and other losses is amplified by ignorance and uncertainty[1].  Mitchell and Anderson shine a light into this dark corner of life.  As such, this book makes a helpful gift from time to time.

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[1] As the saying goes:  denial is not just a river in Egypt!!!

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