Posted on August 14, 2023 by Mark Vande Braak, Ph.D, FT, MT-BC
Lutheran Family Service News
Dr. Mark Vande Braak comes to Lutheran Family Service with decades of experience walking alongside those experiencing trauma, loss, and grief. Read on to learn more about his professional roles, the personal connection that brought him to LFS, and even how he takes his coffee.
What is your role with Lutheran Family Service?
I am a thanatologist and I work with grief, loss and trauma within the organization.
Can you share a bit about the work you do?
To kind of clarify what I do, I’m an educator at heart. I think there’s a large misinterpretation of what grief work is. So many times people want to medicalize it. I come from a whole different angle about teaching people how to process the grief, not run away from it. And that’s the same way with any type of loss, trauma, whatever might be going on, because in our society we’re taught to get a quick fix and get over it. So what I try to do is a little bit different process that goes through helping people kind of process and understand how the grief has been impacted.
I’m working in three different tiers, so to speak. I see individual clients, their families. The second layer is working with pastors and church workers throughout the United States. And the third tier is getting to work with trauma such as tornadoes or school shootings and those types of things.
What drew you to this field?
I think initially, it’s about 40 years of doing this, it’s just understanding how loss impacts [life]. In personal experiences, kind of watching my family not deal with the death of my brother. I was not born yet, but my brother was not spoken about. Back in the day that’s how you do, you just kind of suck it up and go on. I think maybe that was part of the catalyst that drew me into this, and losing grandparents. When I was about 21 years old, my best friend was shot and killed out deer hunting, and so those types of things — what are you supposed to do with that? That was my beginning of trying to figure out how are you supposed to feel, what are you supposed to do with that emptiness, that hurt that you feel?
Tell us about your professional experience prior to joining the LFS team.
I’ve worked in behavioral health, at the women’s center – so did a lot with miscarriage, still birth, limb loss, cancer, those types of things. Then I worked at a kind of a detox place that the community has set up. Instead of people going to jail after an alcohol incident they go there to sort things out. I also ran a clinic for grief, and then I helped start and worked at an addiction center. At the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, I worked with the residency program in training them on grief. I’m also a music therapist, that’s what I originally started doing.
How might someone know when specialized grief work would be a good thing to pursue?
You know, I think it really has to deal with if people are feeling stuck or just stuck in life. How do we understand what we’ve been through? If you’re saying “you know, should I do this?”, if there’s a question, if you’re feeling like you’re struggling with a particular loss of some type – it could be a death, it could be a loss of a home or a loss of a job – those are the indicators to say “maybe I should reach out and do something.”
What I do is different than counseling; I’m very short term. I strive to see people maybe 3-4 times at the most. If I can give them the tools and [opportunity] to practice those tools and to hold them accountable, that way then they really don’t need to see me [long term].
How does your faith inform your practice?
I don’t think I could do this work without it. In my years of working with individuals and families I have really concluded that people that are struggling with their belief system or their faith actually struggle harder with their grief, because they’re there’s not a direction for them to go with that. Those that do have a faith, don’t get me wrong, still struggle, but they also have a hope.
Why is the work you do important?
On average, there are 6,500 people that die every day in the United States. That’s a significant number, and through my years of collecting data, about 128 people are impacted by each loss. It’s quite staggering [to] think about it; there’s about 30 million people every year in the United States that are impacted by a loss. [My hope] is that people can become aware that they don’t have to struggle alone.
What led you to become part of the LFS team?
I’ll be honest with you, I think it was because of my wife. Maybe two years ago, LFS leadership approached my wife (a family therapist) about her willingness to join LFS because they were starting in South Dakota. As they were visiting, they [said] “Why don’t you bring your husband along and have dinner with us.” I thought, “Okay, food, that sounds good.” They asked “Well, what do you do?” and so I explained that I do grief work and those types of things. Long story short, they asked if I would consider joining the LFS team. I wasn’t looking, but I truly believe it was a God thing. I’m truly, truly blessed and honored to do this because I get to do grief work in a whole different way.
What are you most looking forward to in your ministry journey with LFS?
I think to me it’s kind of trusting in what God has in store – it’s where he needs me to go. I think to me that’s powerful, just trusting that He sends me to where I’m needed. [Also] to be able to work with pastors… and all church workers.
On a lighter note, pizza or tacos?
Picking up a pizza is my go-to.
What’s your order at a coffee shop?
I prefer what I brew at home, if that makes any sense, a combination of French vanilla coffee and chocolate mix.
Dr. Mark is available to help anywhere in the United States via telehealth or in-person in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Reach out today.
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