Journal of Christian Ministry | Grief: Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry – Book Review

Grief: Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry – Book Review

Grief: Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry – Book Review


Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry
Melissa M. Kelly
Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2010
166 pages, $20.00, paper.
Reviewed by David Lee Jones, Th.D.
Assistant Professor of Congregational Care
Doctor of Ministry Director.
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, TX

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In Grief: Contemporary Theory and the Practice of Ministry, Melissa M. Kelley draws from current social science research on attachment theory, constructive meaning-making, narrative therapeutic perspectives, practical theologies, and pastoral methods to offers fresh and innovative perspectives on current theories of practices for coping with grief.
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It is written chiefly for those who seek to provide “compassionate, substantive care” to grieving persons (9). She effectively employs current grief research–including various psychological theories, multi-cultural and theological perspectives, and narrative practices–to deconstruct popular myths about grief and refocus pastoral practice on respecting the uniqueness each person’s particular grief experience. Her “mosaic for grief” metaphor is both insightful and useful because it captures so well the many nuances, subtleties, and angles of grief and how they are formed into a larger whole which is simultaneously unified yet fragmented.

She notes that the sundry pieces of material used to form a mosaic are called “tesserae” and that the spaces between the “tesserae” are called “interstices” (4-5). She observes: “… interstices are a significant part of the overall design of the mosaic. That is, what is not there is as significant as what is there in the formation of the whole. She notes that often the eye of the observer may be drawn to the interstices rather than to the tesserae” (5). This reminds me of what a former clinical supervisor once noted: “Be mindful to observe what people are not saying, as much as what they are saying.”

Observing the connecting material between seemingly disparate pieces of a person’s life is always crucial to offering good pastoral care. Kelley notes that her mosaic metaphor has two distinct aspects: 1) “No two mosaics can ever be exactly the same, so no two experiences of grief are the same”; and 2) although the particularity of grief must always be attended to, care givers must also honor a longer view toward learning about the “general elements and forms of grief” while simultaneously balancing it with the particular (5-6). She writes: “If we are limited in our understanding of grief, we risk seeing only part of the mosaic” (6). Although she does not frame her point from a family systems theory perspective, paying attention to the “spaces” between the pieces of the larger mosaic resonates with family systems theory which is always concerned with the connective tissue between various pieces of any system. Viewing and observing grief “systemically” by looking at “what is not there” is both wise and prudent. What also resonates with systems theory is Kelley’s view that grief is always experienced relationally. The nature and severity of a person’s grief always has to do with the quality of the connection with the person who died. Kelley notes that because grief is a relational wound or loss, practices for managing and healing grief must always be put in “relational perspective” (121-142).