Tim VANDUIVENDYK, The Unwanted Gift of Grief. A Ministry Approach. New York: The Haworth Press, 2006. pp. 192. ISBN 0-7890-2950-2.
Reviewed by Janice A. THOMPSON, King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18711

Tim VanDuivendyk approaches the topic of grief from a wealth of professional and personal experience. As a hospital chaplain, administrator, and therapist, VanDuivendyk has helped walk others through the “wilderness” of grief and has journeyed deeply in his own grief over his daughter’s struggles with Down syndrome and his mother’s death. As the title suggests, VanDuivendyk’s book presents a double-sided message: death and loss are dark, unwanted, and painful; but grief itself is good—a “gift”—because it is an expression of gratitude for the people we loved and have lost and because it has the potential to bring transformation and new life. VanDuivendyk writes with insight and sensitivity for both those who are grieving and for those who support them as “sojourners” through the grief process, balancing the concerns of these diverse audiences with skill.

VanDuivendyk’s approach is pastoral and practical, rooted in sound theological reflection. He discusses the many different ways people grieve and the factors that affect this process (such as personality, gender and family patterns, type of loss), offering many examples to affirm that there is no one “right way” to grieve. At the same time, he provides guidance to identify potential problems, such as when depression becomes severe.

A few biblical models particularly inform VanDuivendyk’s approach. One is the image of grief as a “wilderness.” Like the desert in Exodus, grief begins as a place of emptiness and hardship, but becomes a place where God can be encountered and a new journey can begin. Another model is Jesus in Gethsemane, which VanDuivendyk interprets in two different directions: first as a lament and wrestling with God in Jesus’ prayer that the cup pass from him, and then as a prayer of acceptance of suffering and death when that cup does not pass. In this model VanDuivendyk confronts the kind of Christian optimism that assumes, for example, that strong faith will surely bring a miracle. He gently challenges this certainty by pointing to the biblical models of lament, anger, and protest to God and by sharing some of the many instances he has encountered where faith in God was powerful but a miracle did not come. The thoughtfulness of VanDuivendyk’s balance between his personal and professional life is particularly clear in his discussion of receiving/not-receiving a miracle. At a point when VanDuivendyk was prepared to accept his daughter’s death, she miraculously recovered. He admits his awe and joy having his daughter healthy again, but cannot think of his joy without remembering the sorrow of others whose loved ones did die.

VanDuivendyk has a nice way of keeping practical issues in the foreground of his discussion even as a theological sense resonates around them. From my own experience, I agree with his efforts to emphasize the importance of listening to the grieving person, and to show how the words of comfort people offer are often platitudes that hurt more than help: he convincingly demonstrates how painful “comfort” like “it was God’s will!” can be. He does not attempt an academic answer to the problem of suffering and evil. However, given the richness of the way he presents human relationships in the context of grief (both the relationships broken by loss and those formed or renewed in with sojourners in the grief process), I expected to find more theological attention to memory and community. Perhaps it is my Catholic background that leads me to want him at least to point towards some connections between memory, community and sacrament, or to highlight some biblical or ecclesial models of memory. But again, I agree with VanDuivendyk’s tacit assumption that for the grieving person it is usually better to say too little on theological topics than too much. One stylistic feature VanDuivendyk uses is to excerpt the main points of the text into text boxes so that a grieving person with little energy or concentration for reading can still access the text. As an academic, I found this distracting and preferred using the tone of the whole narrative to appreciate the key points. However, for persons grieving and for those seeking to journey with them, this feature could help to make this sensitive and helpful book even more easily accessible.


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