Continuing Bonds: Shifting the Grief Paradigm
Last week we got a request for the next installment in our series on different grief theories. I have to say, I was giddy to get this request, as I always get a little nervous that when we talk grief theory (no matter how light and accessible we make it), your eyes glaze over, you shut your WYG browser window, and jump over to TMZ for some celeb gossip. Now that I know at least one of you wants to know what the ‘professionals’ are saying about grief, I feel totally reinvigorated to get this series back on track.
If you have been following along with this series, you may have noticed that many of the models we have tackled have a couple things in common. First, whether the model suggests stages, tasks or processes, all these theories share a very linear structure. Even when being told you might jump between stages or tasks, it was hard not to feel like your grief was supposed to flow nicely through stages and come to an endpoint. Second, these theories all describe a final phase that give a sense of closure, detachment from the loss, or moving on. This may sound familiar to you, from the famous “acceptance” that closes Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages or the reference to a “new life” that is echoed in both Worden and Rando’s theories.
If these ideas of acceptance, closure, reinvestment of energy, and embarking on a ‘new life’ have ever rubbed you the wrong way, you are not alone. It was only a matter of time before someone stood up and yelled, I don’t need to put my loved one in the past and reinvest my energy in a new life in order to be healthy and well-adjusted! Come on, we were all thinking it, right?! When I say someone yelled, I mean some grief academics did what grief academics do – they quietly published a book. That book was released in 1996 and was called Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Death Education, Aging and Health Care) and its ideas were both obvious and revolutionary, all at once.
The authors, Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, explicitly questioned the dominant models of grief. The book suggested that perhaps these linear models, ending in a detachment from the person we’ve lost, were denying a reality of how many people grieve. They suggested a new paradigm, rooted in the observation of healthy grief that did not resolve by detaching from the deceased, but rather in creating a new relationship with the deceased.
Here is the 30 second summary: under this model, when your loved one dies grief isn’t about working through a linear process that ends with ‘acceptance’ or a ‘new life’, where you have moved on or compartmentalized your loved one’s memory. Rather, when a loved one dies you slowly find ways to adjust and redefine your relationship with that person, allowing for a continued bond with that person that will endure, in different ways and to varying degrees, throughout your life. This relationship is not unhealthy, nor does it mean you are not grieving in a normal way. Instead, the continuing bonds theory suggests that this is not only normal and healthy, but that an important part of grief is continuing ties to loved ones in this way. Rather than assuming detachment as a normal grief response, continuing bonds considers natural human attachment even in death.
At this point you are probably thinking one of two things: YES! Absolutely! Of course we maintain bonds forever. It is crazy to think we sever ties and start a whole new life. Or, alternately, you are thinking: What-the-whaaa? What does it mean to ‘continue bonds’ and doesn’t that mean we are trapped in our grief forever? Isn’t that miserable? Won’t it keep me from ‘finding closure’ and ‘moving on’??
Both of these reactions are completely understandable. You may even be feeling a little bit of both. Lucky for us, Klass, Silverman, and Nickman’s book fleshes out the theory of continuing bonds and the literature that has followed has given TONS of examples and suggestions of the many healthy and helpful ways we maintain bonds with people we have lost.
Klass considers other cultures and the relationship with the dead, specifically looking at the Japanese and their ongoing bonds with deceased ancestors. Silverman, Nickman, and others continue the discussion, looking at children and their responses to loss. Without preconceived ideas that they should “let go” or “move on”, children regularly find ways to maintain relationships with those who have died, be it through dreams, inspiration they find from the person who died, or viewing themselves as the legacy of a parent who died. Several other writers consider continuing bonds in widowhood, looking at the relationship between widows and their deceased spouses, and normalizing this ongoing relationship with the deceased even when a widow remarries.
When we think about this in practical terms, you can probably think of many helpful and healthy ways that you continue bonds with your loved one. Many of them are things that will always be a part of your life, and that is a-okay! From ongoing rituals to honor and remember someone, to thinking about what advice a loved one would have given you, to living your life in a way your loved one would be proud of, there are countless normal and meaningful ways we maintain bonds.
With research and case examples, the continuing bonds theory fundamentally changed the way we conceptualize grief (and when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘grief professionals’. I suspect this has been intuitive to grievers for thousands of years!). Rarely now in the professional world of grief do we hear people suggesting that people disengage from the person they lost. Finding ways to continue relationships is understood as meaningful and the concept has been incorporated into many other theories (especially obvious in Worden’s renaming of his 4th task of mourning in the most recent edition of his book to read: ‘finding an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life’. I still don’t love that whole ‘new life’ language, but still a dramatic improvement).
So that’s the good news. The bad news? Most “regular” people haven’t gotten the memo yet. The old school models of detachment and letting go still run deep in our pop culture and our societal expectations. Hence the insensitive comments from people telling you that you need to “move on” or “find closure”. As a grief blogger, I have to believe that if we just keep talking about this, eventually society at large will catch up!
Need some more inspiration on the many ways you can continue bonds with your loved one? Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on that very topic. Subscribe so you don’t miss it.
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