continuing bonds

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.


COMMENTS

Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 10:44 am

Nicely done, Litsa ~ thank you for this! ?

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Lisa Bogatin

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 11:49 am

Wow!
Seems like we are definitely on the same wave length.

Larry Lynn and myself started a website called : http://www.AfterTalk.com
The premise is based on exactly what you are sharing in your blog.
Like Mitch Albom said in his book: Tuesday’s With Morrie ,
“Death ends a life, not a Relationship”

The heart of AfterTalk is “Private Conversations”.
You can continue to write your deceased loved ones, privately,
on an ongoing basis sharing life’s highlights, joys, frustrations.
Our by line is” “Write, Share, Always There”.

Please read Wendy Epstein’s blog, January 2014.
She writes for the first time to her husband who is deceased 20+ yrs.
Her blog is titled: “Let me tell you about our Children”
When he committed suicide he left her with a 4 yr. old and a 11 month old.

This is a wonderful example of how relationships, in a new/different form,
continue. And thus, illustrate exactly what you are saying about “Human
attachment even after Death”.

Bravo, well written and well said.

Thank you,
Lisa Bogatin
lisa@AfterTalk.com

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Kiri

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm

So true that the existence of these theories hasn’t filtered through to the general culture yet. I saw a piece of research last week for health care providers that used the Kubler Ross model when describing patients living with a debilitating disease. Acceptance was even denoted with a smiley face! I felt immediate anger that these people’s ongoing situation was being categorised in such a blithe way. As mist people only have a rudimentary understanding of even that theory, it affects what they expect of grievers.

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Kiri

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Your website sounds like a very interesting idea, i will check it out!

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Karen Capucilli

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 1:57 pm

This is spot on for me. Two thoughts.

Maybe having a relationship with loved ones who’ve passed feels so natural to me because of losing a child. For me, there just was no choice. I was not going to compartmentalize or move on from my child.

My mother lost her father at age 11. She’s now in her 70s. There is hardly a conversation we have where she doesn’t talk about him. Additionally, during holidays, it felt like relatives who died were sitting at the dining room table with us because it wasn’t taboo to talk about them,

This grief model works well for me.

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Jimmy

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Excellent piece thank you. As a grieving parent of three years now I had myself to get over the expectation that sooner or later I would get over my sons death and forget him. It turns out that I haven’t gone mad or maudlin or melancholic as a result of my efforts to stay in touch with him, to continue and nurture my new relationship with him. Neither did I have or know of any other models and I don’t have a degree in grief – my natural response has been not to forget – I cannot forget but it has been nearly as hard to endure friends and other family members distaste of my grief as it is the loss if my son. I have also found that among other bereaved parents my feelings are found to be completely normal not to say healthy. But you are right society in general still believes otherwise which is a shame because this causes a lot of unnecessary hurt among us grievers. Please see http://www.beyondgoodbye.co.uk for some of the ways we have attempted to explore this new relationship with my son Joshua. Thank you

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Louisa Hill

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Thank you so much! This article confirms what I have believed and adhered to since the honegoing of my husband almost three years ago. I remember saying to my pastors shortly after my husband’s death, ” I can still talk to him”! My pastor didn’t respond at that time, but later, at the funeral, he made the comment that we shouldn’t talk to the dead and shared a story about his brother having a frightening experience when he visited his mother’s grave site. I was very upset with him because of that and a few other things he did that my daughter and I didn’t appreciate. It was so traumatizing to me that for awhile I didn’t visit my husband’s grave, and I felt guilty about talking to him or writing to him. Thank God, I began therapy with a wonderful counselor who assured me that it is ok for me to talk to my husband and to write to him. So, I began to write and talk to him daily and to begin writing our life story for our future grandchildren. Now, I’m guilt free and enjoying that my relationship with my husband continues, and I’m not crazy or weird. Thank you again. Your article will set many people free. Blessings!

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Alana

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Litsa,

I can’t thank you enough for this blog, and all the other blogs yourself and Eleanor post! I am a fourth year social work student and I have just recently studied a unit on grief and loss. I came across your website and it has been just the best resource for helping me understand models, learn more about grief and loss, and of course have a laugh along the way.
One of our assignments focused specifically on the models of grief and loss, and the differing theories that you have spoken about here; the change from ending bonds (Kubler-Ross/Worden) to the concept of continuing bonds (Klass, Silverman and Nickman). I have shared your page and blogs with my fellow students as it is the perfect resource for concreting the information we have been learning!
Thank you again for providing such a helpful, enjoyful page (even if it is on the topic of grief and loss!). I have also found it helpful for my own personal grieving process following the death of my Grandfather recently. Keep up the fantastic work :).

Alana. xx

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Lisa

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 6:11 pm

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY KIRI!!

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Litsa

Posted on February 19, 2014 at 7:29 am

Alana, thank you so much for your comment! It means so much to us to know our site is actually helpful for people. Thanks also for sharing our site with others- we rely on word of mouth for people to learn about us, so we appreciate you spreading the word!

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Litsa

Posted on February 19, 2014 at 7:36 am

Oh Louisa, I am so sorry your pastor said that! Unfortunately, even people we trust with our grief can say the wrong thing. So glad you found a counselor who has been helpful for you.

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Keli Burfield

Posted on February 21, 2014 at 11:27 pm

This really helps. My mother died in September 2012, I was with her and my dad the last three months. My sister is “she’s gone and in heaven and that’s it”. Dad and I are yes, she’s in heaven and at the same time somehow she’s still very near. Dad talks to her and still has the Christmas tree up. I have my own memory tree that I put up. Her picture sits on the landing so it’s the first thing I see as I come down and the last thing at night. I still tell her good night from time to time just as I did those last days. I had many issues as a child that I’ve spent a lot of time healing from as an adult. Those issues kept me away from home. I’m just so thankful I could be there at the end. So not having the memories my sister has, I think is one reason I so desperately need Mom to still be here. Even though I have a firm belief she is also in the presence of the Lord. This theory gives me reassurance that I’m not crazy and it’s okay. THANK YOU!

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Chelsea Hanson

Posted on February 22, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Wonderful Information! Please check out Ashley Davis Bush’s books called: “Transcending Loss” if you haven’t already, as she talks about having an ongoing relationship with the person who died, because your relationship continues in a new way, just as your love continues. She encourages ongoing dialogue and redefining the relationship as well. You will love this information, if you aren’t already familiar with her work. Ashley is speaking on March 18th of the upcoming Grief Healing Summit.

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Louise

Posted on February 6, 2017 at 12:05 am

I finally got the Davis Bush book and agree that it has a refreshing focus on continued relationships with our deceased loved ones. However, she does use the terms “move/moving on” and “accept” and “reinvest” and “new life” a good deal more than I felt comfortable with. Maybe I’m just too grief-stricken at the moment to cope with anything that smacks of having to leave my husband of 30 years behind.

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SarahBerner

Posted on March 25, 2014 at 10:02 am

After losing my son 7 years ago, i got a tattoo of his footprint from his birth certificate on my chest, next to my hearst. i also keep a bit of his ashes in a locket that hangs near my heart. The tattoo may not be appealing to a lot of people, but it is a tremendous help to me ( my 1st and only tattoo at age 50), i find it is very helpful to have a permanent outside symbol of what i feel inside. his birthday is extremely painful for me, because it was such a joyous day, and i was there with him. i was not there when he died, and it happened the Tuesday of thanksgiving week, exactly two weeks before his 30th birthday. i have vivid dreams of him almost every night, and often feel his presence when i am awake. when people ask me about having kids i include him in my answer as if he is still here, because he always will be. he’s 37 years old now. I cannot speak of him without crying, still, and sometimes i go in the shower and scream so it will be less audible to other people.

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Karen Capucilli

Posted on March 25, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Your tattoo sounds absolutely beautiful. I love what you wrote – so beautifully expressed.

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noelle

Posted on May 6, 2014 at 2:50 pm

I am so into this.

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Litsa

Posted on May 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Us too!

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Kristen

Posted on July 19, 2014 at 6:53 pm

This is so beautifully stated! Thank you for sharing this Litsa ♥
My partner died in a car accident on April 7th 2013 and I have been struggling horribly. I have been reading Transcending Loss by Ashley Davis Bush as Chelsea had mentioned. It has given me a sense of….sense. If that makes sense 🙂 i have only a therapist for support so I’m so grateful for finding this site.

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Eleanor

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Kristen,

We’re so glad you found us. I’m sorry about the death of your partner, it’s a struggle to find any peace or clarity in such a tragedy. I’m glad you have found a few resources that resonate with you. Hang in there, we’re there if you have any specific questions or if there are any topics you’d like to see addressed.

Eleanor and Litsa

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Kristen

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Thank you Eleanor and Lista for responding to my post. It’s been so hard on my own. I’ve tried other sites a few months after the accident, but none fit my situation. See i was in the passengers seat while my boyfriend was driving. The sudden death and guilt of being alive still…. thank you again for having this site. I will continue to explore for sure ♥

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Kristen

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Also i have ordered Continuing Bonds. I’m looking forward to getting and reading it

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Chelsea Hanson

Posted on August 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Just read you post again! I think had I had the 30-second version of the continuing bonds explanation early in my grief journey, it would have made a difference in my initial grief experience in losing my mom close to 18 years ago. Not until I learned about “transcending loss” and that is was “okay” to have our relationship work in a new and different way, did things really make more sense to me. I wish every bereaved person could get this 30 second version. Let me know when you book is coming out! 🙂 Your info and approach is outstanding!!
Chelsea Hanson
http://www.withsympathygifts.com

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Louise

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 1:17 am

Fortunately, Chelsea, I found out about Continuing Bonds relatively soon after my beloved husband died. It was incredibly heartening to me to know that while I know I need to move through my grief, I do not have to “let go” (ugh, I loath that platitude) of a relationship with him altogether. I’m going to get the book you recoomended too. <3

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Chris Cavalieri

Posted on December 31, 2014 at 10:09 am

This is the basis of the free Tradition Program that Family Lives On provides to all children and teens whose mother or father has died. We make it possible for them to continue to celebrate traditions or activities they used to do with Mom or Dad. We arrange, purchase and pay for a tradition for each child in the family to promote intra family communication and connect while maintaining the continuing emotional bond. And we do it every year until they turn 18 and graduate out of our program. Then we are supporting them and asking – how will you do this for yourself? For the rest of your life? We serve any where in the United States. If you know a family who can benefit, please encourage them to enroll at http://www.familyliveson.org. (Family Lives On is a 501(c)(3) non profit.)

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Dana

Posted on January 6, 2015 at 9:54 am

I read part of a book several months ago that bridges this topic. If it means further healing, I want to embrace it, but a big part of me is almost disgusted by the idea. I did go through a time in the first year where I spoke to my deceased husband often (it’s been almost 4 years since he passed), and sometimes I still tell him I miss him. I also write poetry about him or to him from time to time that I share on a poetry forum. My close friends/family don’t know about that. I just can’t (or don’t know how to) embrace this type of thing. The book I mentioned above proved to be too triggery for me. At the time, honestly, it kind of pissed me off. But I think a big part of my opposition to it is that it’s just completely different from how society tells/expects us to deal with grief. I feel like it some ways I am dealing with my grief in the way this article speaks (continuing bonds), but in others, I’m not if that makes sense. Maybe I really am, just more in a private way. I feel sort of lost in this area and honestly don’t think I could handle reading a book on the subject (maybe I’m just not ready for it). Any advice or suggestions are appreciated.

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Eleanor

Posted on January 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm

Hey Dana,

I think many of us “continue bonds” with our loved one is small and private ways. These things are often not deliberate acts that we think of as continuing bonds, but just stuff we do. We wrote a post about this here that may resonate a little with the ways in which you continue your bond with your late husband

All that being said, we all grieve differently and if this idea doesn’t resonate with you then that’s okay. This is just one grief theory of many many others. If you’re interested we discuss several others in different posts that you can find here. And even within a grief theory like this, there are going to be parts that don’t match our experience. Similarly, although society does often tell us that grief looks a certain way, what we know is that this is often not a complete or true reflection of how most people grieve. It’s important to remember that there is no “normal” and what is comfortable to one person may be totally weird to another.

I’m not sure that this was helpful at all, please let us know if there’s any specific suggestions or questions we can help with.

Sincerely,
Eleanor

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Vicki Bee

Posted on January 29, 2016 at 11:58 am

I haven’t been able to do that yet. I haven’t even been able to believe ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt’ that he’s even gone. I don’t know why but it has something to do with never receiving his earthly remains even as much as some other people who suffered the same circumstances. I know of other people who lost their loved ones on September 11. One of them received ‘verification of his physical death’ via a piece of the watch he was wearing when the plane crashed. A huge part of the watch he was wearing survived the crash but none of his body did. DNA on the watch matched the DNA sample of his hair or saliva that his wife gave the FBI.
Another lady’s remains of her husband was way more macabre – they found his arm in the rubble of the South Tower – and the DNA matched what his wife had given them. She called herself “the luckiest of the unlucky” to have gotten a confirmation of his death.
But our family and scores of others have to this day received no confirming match of DNA to anything at the site of the attack, so they have a Death Certificate that’s known as ‘In absentia.’ It’s a legal form but it’s technically an unconfirmed death, a death in absentia because no bodily evidence matches our DNA samples.
In the early days I constantly dreamed that he wasn’t really dead, that he comes back and reads his own death certificate and that he’s upset at everyone who thinks he’s dead. After they found Osama bin Laden that dream disappeared almost completely. But every so often I still dream he isn’t really dead and almost believe it at least while I’m asleep. And more infrequently, have even pondered the idea when I was awake.
There’s nothing like not receiving earthly remains to f** up the entire process; IMO. If part of your mind keeps insisting the person is somehow alive there’s no way you can move in any positive productive direction with grief.
I wish I knew why the mind keeps doing that so I could possibly overcome it.
Something about their finding Osama bin Laden made it seem more real even though we still have no confirmation. That was the event that made it possible to start the process of grieving.

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Kellilee Williams

Posted on October 7, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Since 12-14-13 I lost my husband of 27 years. And since that date I have lost another 7 people close to me in this time frame until now. It has not been easy in anyway, but I am learning to come through the feelings of loss even though my heart is and will always be broken.

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Nancy

Posted on October 8, 2016 at 12:35 am

Grief comes in waves for me. Sometimes lasts for days

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Louise

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 1:12 am

Thankyou once again, Litsa. I have the book Continuing Bonds; I love the term, and was so relieved to find out that my much-loved late husband and I can still have a relationship, but in a different form.

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Louise

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 1:54 am

Also, Litsa, just let me say your site ‘friggin’ rocks. It’s 11 weeks into my husband’s passing, and it’s been very easy to wonder if I’m defective because theories that are just “move on” and “let go” trotted out in more sophisticated nomenclature didn’t sit right with me, and in some ways they just upset me more. Frankly, I’ve had a crawful of “resolution” and ” closure.” This page is a powerful little vitamin for me today 🙂

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