I’ve always thought of continuing bonds as an ‘a-ha’ grief concept. As in…
“A-ha! That makes so much sense.”
“A-ha! I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
“A-ha! That’s exactly how I feel.”
Continuing bonds is an idea that brings clarity, normalcy, and understanding to many who hear it. It’s one of those concepts that makes so much sense that it feels like you already knew it, except you didn’t know that you knew it until someone put it into words.
[Note: This may not be true for everyone. Many people do not find comfort in continuing a bond with their deceased loved ones for a variety of reasons, and that’s okay.]
Okay, I’m going to back up a little because I know some of you are thinking “What is this grief jargon that you speak of?” If you’ve never heard of ‘Continuing Bonds’ (CB), you’re not alone. This concept emerged from grief literature which, let’s be honest, most people haven’t read.
Please allow me to introduce CB by sharing an excerpt from our grief journaling e-course:
In 1996, Klass, Silverman, and Nickman shed light on an important bereavement concept in the book Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Their work questioned linear models of grief that are supposed to lead to things like acceptance, detachment, and new life and which view behaviors that promote a continued bond with deceased loved ones as pathological.
Klass and colleagues disagreed with this notion and suggested a paradigm in which it is normal for the bereaved to continue their bond with the deceased. In their work, they observed many cases in which remaining connected to the deceased provided comfort and support in coping with loss and adjustment.
Sound familiar? If not, that’s okay. We’ve written about CB here, here, here, and here, but with over 500 articles, that a very small fraction of what you will find here on WYG. The same goes for other grief literature. So today I want to make a case for why, if you care about one grief concept and one grief concept only, it should be continuing bonds. Not because we believe this idea is prescriptive, but because it brings such a sense of okay-ness and empowerment to people who want to continue their bond with their loved one but who’ve felt they can’t or shouldn’t. Generally speaking, I have four main reasons.
1. Continuing bonds acknowledges that grief is ongoing.
I’ve run out of metaphors for saying that grief never ends, so I’ll just tell it straight. Grief never ends. Grief isn’t something you go through, it’s something that becomes a part of you. It’s forever.
The good news is, you may find that over time, as make room for grief’s necessary existence, it becomes a more peaceful and positive presence. One where warm memories and a connection with your loved one can grow.
2. Continuing bonds says that it’s normal to stay connected with your loved one.
Not only does CB validate that grief is ongoing, it supports the idea that we, as bereaved people, remain connected with our loved ones, often for our entire lives. We don’t detach from them or leave them behind, we carry them with us throughout our lives. Interestingly, Klass and colleagues also found that these relationships are not static. Instead, they evolve and mature right along with us, so that you see and relate to your deceased loved ones through a different lens at 30, 40, 50 and so on.
This is validation that isn’t always found in our broader society, among our friends and family, or even in our own beliefs and attitudes about grief and coping. So spread the word because if everyone understood this, I think grieving people might feel a little better understood (and a little less crazy).
3. Continuing bonds may describe many of your grief-related behaviors.
Holding onto items, daily habits, private rituals, conversations with your loved one, visiting places where you feel close to them, thinking about them – these are all ways people continue bonds with deceased loved ones. These are the behaviors often come naturally to grieving people, but which may have been seen as pathological by past grief models (and society as a whole).
4. Continuing bonds says that not only are these behaviors normal, but they may help you cope with grief.
Society is making strides, but many people still believe that staying attached to a deceased loved one is pathological. As a result, many people worry about their CB behaviors and wonder – Is this okay? Does this mean I’m not coping well with grief? Should I be worried? Am I stuck?
Fear not, though, Klass et al (1996) found in their research that remaining connected seemed to facilitate the bereaved’s ability to cope with loss and accompanying changes in their lives. So, do more of them!
Of course, it is important to note that there are instances where continuing a bond with a deceased loved one is not healing. Just as relationships with the living can be complicated, so can relationships with the dead and if the relationship was troubling prior to the death, it may remain so afterward.
Okay, so there you have it. I’ve made my case; albeit there is so much more to be said on this topic. If you want to learn more about Continuing Bonds, we have a few learning opportunities on the horizon. You can also learn on your own by reading here, here, here, and here.