I had an interesting question posed at a recent support group. I was asked:
“I read somewhere about the need for ‘acceptance’ and ‘moving on’ after my loss. But then someone gave me an article that talked about not having to ‘let go’ because we continue to have a relationship with the deceased. I really think that is wonderful, because it means my mother is still with me, and I talk to her every day. Don’t you think that is a better way to think of our loved ones?”
A counsellor might wisely answer, “How’s that working for you?”
But the question does raise a serious issue. Without a doubt the traditional models of grief forwarded by people like Kubler-Ross, Worden and Rando among others suggest stages, tasks or processes, all of which share a clearly “linear” structure. Even when conceded that people “oscillate” between stages or tasks, the clear implication was that grief should flow nicely through its “stages” and eventually come to an endpoint. In addition, all the theories describe a final phase that brings a sense of closure, detachment from the image of the person, acceptance and the opportunity to move on to a new life.
It was probably only a matter of time before someone like my friend quoted above stood up and shouted, “I don’t need to accept that she is gone and reinvest my energy in a new life to be considered healthy and well-adjusted!”
Well, do we or don’t we? To let go or to hang on, that is the current question. The phrase “continuing bonds” was first used in 1996 in the book, Continuing Bonds: Another View of Grief, (edited by Klass, Silverman and Nickman.) It challenged the popular models of grief requiring the bereaved to “detach” from the deceased. The book suggested that perhaps these models, ending in a detachment from the person we lost, were denying the reality of how many people grieve.
So here is a potted version of the Theory of Continuing Bonds. Under this model, grief isn’t about working through the traditional linear process that ends with ‘acceptance’, where you have ‘moved on’ to a ‘new life’ Rather, when a loved one dies, one slowly find ways to adjust and redefine the relationship with that person, allowing for a continued bond that will endure, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees, throughout your life.
It suggests that continuing ties to loved ones in this way is not only normal and healthy, but an important aspect of the grief experience. Thus, rather than assuming detachment as a normal grief outcome, continuing bonds considers natural human attachment as the norm even after a death.
You are probably thinking one of two things: YES! Of course we maintain bonds forever. Or, alternately, NO! Doesn’t ‘continuing bonds’ mean we are trapped in our grief forever, keeping us from ‘finding closure’ and ‘moving on’?
Most hypotheses offer great ideas, models and concepts, but usually there is an “on the other hand.” I remember taking an undergrad course in history which examined the theological heresies of the early Church. Heresy is traditionally defined as any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. I came to LOVE the “heretics.” They are the ones who challenge convention helping us gain new perspectives and understand things in a different light … even if they don’t always get it absolutely correct. Fortunately today, those who challenge orthodoxy are rarely burned at the stake … at least not physically!
But in that university course, heresy was informatively interpreted as “an over-emphasis of one aspect of truth to the neglect of the whole truth.” I think we can apply that definition here.
There are merits in the “continuing bonds theory” that co-exist with dangers. We do have an ongoing relationship with the deceased even though obviously it changes. Children regularly find ways to maintain relationships with those who have died, be it through dreams, inspiration they find from the deceased, or by viewing themselves as the legacy of a parent who died. Or think of the continuing bonds between widows and their deceased spouses, and normalizing and integrating this ongoing relationship with the deceased … even when a widowed person remarries. I can speak personally to this one.
While the continuing bonds theory fundamentally changed our traditional concept of grief, I suspect this has been always been intuitive to grievers. Finding ways to continue relationships after death is understood as meaningful and the concept has been incorporated into many earlier other theories. Just another example of how ideas change and we always find both truth and question in everything.
When we think about this in practical terms as we serve grieving people, there are helpful and healthy ways to continue bonds with a loved one.
- Talking to a loved one who died is something many grievers do, and it can bring a lot of comfort during the moments you miss them most.
- Keeping photos around keeps us connected with our loved one and often helps us remember the ways that person continues to influence our lives.
- Incorporate your loved one into events and special days. How can you acknowledge a deceased parent on your wedding day? Can you leave an empty chair at holiday meals to honor them? You will certainly be thinking of them on these big days and special events, so why not find a way to involve them in the event.
- Imagine what advice they would give you when making tough decisions. Visualize a conversation with them, what they would have said, and the advice they might have given to help us make big life choices a little easier.
- Live your life in a way you know they would be proud of. We often struggle knowing our loved one won’t be there for accomplishments and milestones. Taking time to recognize that your loved one would be proud of you for a specific accomplishment can be comforting and remind us how we continue to be connected to them.
- Plan for the anniversary. Though it may feel like everyone else has moved on, you should not feel embarrassed or self-conscious about planning something in memory of your loved on each year on the anniversary of their death, or another special day. Be it a small, personal ritual or a large event, find something that works for you.
- Keep something that belonged to your loved one. You can’t keep everything (even though sometimes it is very hard to part with items!) but keeping a few especially meaningful items can be extremely powerful. It could be something they owned or gave you. The idea that keeping belongings can caused increased sadness has not been my personal experience, although admittedly it may not be the same for everyone.
- Experience your loved one’s presence. It is common to feel the presence of that special person, though not everyone does. OK, it may just be a “feeling”, but acknowledging it can help ease the sadness that accompanies grief.
These are normal and helpful ways we continue the bonds with our loved ones.The roles people play in our lives reflect the relationship between people. Death does not necessarily change that. What did the mourner lose, and on what is the continuing connection being built? What will be missing?
But while can understand the value of continuing bonds in positive relationships, what happens when the relationship was not a good one, even dysfunctional, neglectful or abusive. People often live with serious emotional problems derived from negative consequences of a relationship which even after death anchored the bereaved person’s current life inappropriately in the past. In such situations the importance of “detachment” from the deceased rather than continuing bonds becomes a vital component in helping them move on and find a new life. So there is no one easy answer to the issue.
More and more we must appreciate that there is continuity between the past and the present. Without a sense of the past and an understanding of its place in people’s lives, it is difficult to move ahead in the present and into the future.
People rarely just “get over it,” nor do they ever really find “closure.” The phrase “continuing bonds” is one contribution to a new language that reflects a new understanding of this process. A continuing bond does not mean, however, that people live in the past. The very nature of the daily lives of mourners is changed by the death. The deceased is both present and absent. One cannot ignore this fact and the tension this creates in the bereavement process.
Nathasha Wagner, the daughter of actress Natalie Wood who drowned when her daughter was just a teenager, said “I had to learn to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t there anymore.”
No argument from me there.