Honor Losses with Grief


Kenneth 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.  Mitchell and Anderson shine a light into this dark corner of life.  As such, this book makes a helpful gift from time to time.

Honor Losses with Grief

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The Dish Machine

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“But when he came to himself, he said, How many of
my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread,
but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

The Dish Machine

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of my senior year in high school, I used the money that I earned as a camp counselor during the summer at Goshen Scout Camps to buy a new Conn 88h trombone. My interest in music quickly escalated and I announced my interest in studying music in college. My decision to study music came to the chagrin of my music teacher, who being the tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra, arranged for me to begin lessons with a trombonist, also with the National Symphony Orchestra. Between my trombone, my new teacher, and my new practice schedule, it became clear that I was under-prepared for spring auditions even as I applied to the music department at Indiana University (IU). When I clutched in the audition, unable to play even a Bb scale, I was so ashamed of myself that I gave up the trombone and could not enjoy classical music for more than a decade. Unable to study music, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1972 as a freshman without a major.

In the fall, IU registration was a chaotic event in which students entered a large auditorium with tables set up for the different departments and walked between the tables to sign up for classes. Once enrolled in a sufficient number of classes, students stood in line to pay for your tuition before exiting. As I waited in line, I met a volunteer with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), a student group funded by a tuition checkoff, and he invited me to an organizational meeting to learn more about the group. Intrigued, I checked off INPIRG on my tuition form and attended the meeting where I was elected as a student representative to the INPIRG board of directors.

INPIRG quickly became a home away from home. As an INPIRG director, my friends were mostly law students who identified with Ralph Nader who was famous for his work on automobile safety [1]. Nader’s new book in 1971, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, which led to the organization of the student PIRGs [2], such as INPIRG, all over the country. In INPIRG, I chaired the personnel committee which hired an executive director that fall and I directed a new bookstore pricing survey which quickly became popular among students.

My volunteer work as a “Nader Raider” was less popular with my roommate who was a business major. He spent most of his time practicing his putting and ganged up with a student across the hall to torment me when I studied for exams. In view of such torments, I quickly moved into a private room in the German Language House, because of my interest in German literature and language studies, and out of the Graduate Residence Center (GRC).

Still, before I left, GRC helped me expand on my work with INPIRG. More than just the first co-educational dormitory on campus, GRC faculty advisers worked closely with residents to initiate independent study programs. In my case, I developed a program in the spring of my freshman year that allowed me to assist almost full-time in an INPIRG study of Indiana state government offices. My contribution to the study involved studies of two offices: a new state regulator of private schools and the state department of weights and measures. Both studies required travel to Indianapolis to interview state officials, background reading assignments, and lengthy written reports.

Between my independent study project and the bookstore survey, in INPIRG I was heavily involved in political and economic research. This research did not, however, mix well with my other studies, particularly my studies in German literature where I struggled to keep up and where I clearly could not identify with the nihilism so prevalent in postmodern literature. The despair in contemporary literature seriously disturbed me, even though I did not attend church during these years, and I had trouble envisioning a future majoring in literature.

In my distress, I visited a professor in the comparative literature department to seek counsel where I asked: “where should I aspire to attend graduate school if I continue studying comparative literature?” Harvard University, he answered. Then, I asked: “how many IU students have been admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University?” None, he answered, stoking my distress.

Being one of the few men living at this point in the German Language House, I sought refuge from my distress in attending the many campus parties that I was invited to. The parties were good, but they kept me up late and Sunday morning I was scheduled to work the dish machine at 6:00 a.m. The early shift on Sunday mornings was lite work because hardly anyone got up for breakfast and I could just sleep—nobody knew; nobody cared.

One Sunday morning I will never forget—I woke up hanging over the dish machine with a terrible hangover from the party the night before. Smarting from the hangover, I resolved that I could not continue doing what I had been doing—bogged down in depressive literature and being manipulated into self-destructive political activism—where I would never finish school or find a career. Knowing from experience that politicians mostly argue about economics and economic studies were doable, that morning I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an economist.

[1] Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965).

[2] New York: Grossman Publishers.

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2 Corinthians 5: Be Reconciled with God and with One Another

Maryam_with_flowers_07292014Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)[1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you long more for heaven or for something else?

When I was a foreign exchange student in Germany, I never missed home more than during Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday when families converge and spend time together.  The foreign student office arranged a dinner party for the Americans on campus, but goose is not a perfect substitute for turkey. So between my incomplete comprehension of German at that point and my absence from the family, my homesickness reached a peak.

As Christians, we experience sin as a similar kind of homesickness.  We groan feeling the particular pain of knowing our sinfulness and separation from God (v 4).  It is much like the point in a fight with your spouse when you know that you screwed up but still have not reconciled.  Or, like Adam and Eve as they are being sent out of the garden (Genesis 3:23).  Or, like the prodigal son as he woke up finding himself slopping pigs in a foreign country (Luke 15:15-17).  And even as we groan, all of creation groans with us (Romans 8:18-23).

But as Christians we are not without hope.  We know the source of our problem.  Our holy fear of God’s judgment marshals us to admit our guilt and reconcile with God.  And not only that.  As the Apostle Paul writes:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.  Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others (vv 10-11).

Absent our knowledge of God, our groaning might lead us deeper into sin. The alcoholic, for example, does not have simply a bodily ailment.  The problem of addiction is inherently a spiritual problem—it is groaning without knowledge of God and of the need for reconciliation.  The bottle is not substitute for knowing the ultimate object of our groaning.  We are homesick for Eden and intimacy with God; yet as addicts, we are unaware.

Paul lived this reality.  He wrote:  For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you (v 13).  We evangelize, not just to save others; we evangelize to save ourselves.  Our holy fear of God means that we feel God’s heart for the fallen and pine for the other objects of God’s holy love—our neighbors.

So in Christ, God gives us new clothes and a new job description—the ministry of reconciliation (v 18). Not only are we marked as God’s chosen as with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), but also commissioned into His service.

[1] Also: 2 Corinthians 5:10-11.

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Walking in the Wilderness, Luke 15:11-24

By Stephen W. Hiemstradesert_sign

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, VA


Father Almighty. Make your presence known to us here this morning. Grant us wisdom, grant us consolation. In the power of his Holy Spirit, inspire the words that are spoken and illuminate the words heard, in the precious name of Jesus, amen.


Who here enjoys risks and uncertainty? (2X)

Unless you have a gambling habit you probably prefer stability, not risk or uncertainty. Unfortunately, life is often marked by many stressful changes.

Over the past year, I worked at Providence Hospital in Washington DC as a chaplain intern. In working with patients in the emergency department, I started seeing hospital visits as a special type of change called a transition.

A transition has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Initially, patients come to the hospital with a problem and focus on the things that used to be. In the middle, patients receive their treatment and worry about how things will work out. In the end, almost all patients return to their old lives. At this point, the question is: what comes after the hospital?

This last question is inherently spiritual. For patients who came to the hospital because of a poor lifestyle choice, a better question is:  what will be different when you leave the hospital? (2X)

In life there are many transitions. During periods of uncertainty my prayer typically is:

Why did God bring me to this time and this place? (2X)


The book of Exodus tells of a great transition in the history of the nation of Israel, the departure from Egypt and entry into the wilderness, and, then, the departure out of the desert and the entry into the Promised Land.

Listen to what Moses said to Pharaoh:  “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16 ESV) (2X). Where does Moses see the people who serve God? Ironically, it is not in Egypt, nor in the Promised Land. Rather, it is in the desert where we more often encounter God. This is because in the desert we are more likely to look for God and depend on him, exactly during these stressful periods of risk and uncertainty. It is in the middle of a transition.

Why did God bring me to this time and this place? (2X)

Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons. The younger son came to him one day and asked for his inheritance in cash. He then left town with the money and began living with style. This reckless lifestyle did not last long and soon the young man had to get a job. Not being one to plan ahead, he was forced to accept a degrading job for Jews – feeding pigs. As the son’s mind began to wander, he began to reflect on how good things had been with his parents and he decided to return home. When his father found out he was coming, he went out to meet him and wrapped his arms around him. As the son began to apologize for his horrible behavior, his father would hear none of it. He took his son, cleaned him up, brought him some new clothes and threw him a party (Luke 15:11-24 NIV).

We all often behave like the younger son. Things must be really bad in the desert before we arrive at our senses and recognize that we need our Heavenly Father. The good news is that our Father is waiting for us, will forgive us, and will take us back into the family. Amen.


Heavenly Father. We thank you for your care during transitions of life, but especially in times of uncertainty. In the power of your Holy Spirit, give us strength for the day and hope for the future. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

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