With decades of grief theory that focused on closure, acceptance, and moving on, it is no wonder that so many grievers feel self-conscious about maintaining ties with their deceased loved one after a certain period of time. They often have a peanut gallery chiming in with their ideas about what is healthy and what isn’t, telling people they need to ‘let go’ and move forward. We posted a few weeks ago about the continuing bonds theory of grief. If you read the post hopefully you know that when it comes to grief theory, oh the times they are a ’changin’. Many now believe that healthy grief involves finding a new and different relationship with the person who died. Check out the post here if you missed it.
If you love the continuing bonds theory (which we know many of you do!) you may be looking for ways to continue bonds with your loved one. We have some ideas here, and we hope you will add others that we missed by leaving a comment. Some may be things you hadn’t thought about, many may be things you already do but thought meant your grief was unhealthy or you weren’t ‘moving on’ like you should. Either way, hopefully, you will find some tips on our list that resonate with you.
- Talk to them (Really! It’s okay – it doesn’t mean you’re crazy!). The fact that we don’t have a post about this is mind-boggling to me because talking to a loved one who died is something we certainly do, it is something many (dare I say most?) grievers do, and it can bring a lot of comfort during the moments you miss them most. So talk away – be it out loud or in your head, this is a common way we continue a relationship with your loved one.
- Write letters to the person you lost. This is something that you can do in a journal, on the computer, or in actual letters. There is an online resource to make writing even easier for you called AfterTalk where you can write privately to loved ones using their interactive writing tools. You can do it weekly, monthly, annually… whatever works for you. You can keep the letters or you can get rid of them. If you choose the latter and you have physical letters, you can do it in creative ways – you can tear them up and collage with them, paint over them in an art journal, or whatever else works for you. No matter where you write them or what you do with them, these letters keep you connected with your loved one in the present. If you are looking for inspiration, check out this post on thought catalog: “An Open Letter to My Dead Best Friend”.
- Keep photos of the person around. This may seem absurdly obvious, but there will be people who make you feel uncomfortable about keeping photos. For example, a woman who wrote in to Ask Amy expressing concern that her widowed boyfriend still had pictures of his wife around. She didn’t ask our opinion, but luckily we decided to share what we thought anyway. 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. Check out our suggestions for how you can remember your loved one on your wedding day. Consider leaving an empty chair at holiday meals to honor your loved one, or using one of our 18 other suggestions. Discuss as a family other ways that you may want to involve your loved one’s memory at special events. You will certainly be thinking of them on these big days, so there is no reason to keep that inside if you want to find a more open way to involve your loved one in the event.
- Imagine what advice they would give you when making tough decisions. Big decisions are often overwhelming and when you have lost the person who you would have talked it over with it can be especially hard. Imagining a conversation with them, what they would have said, and the advice they might have given can help us feel connected and also help make big life choices a little easier.
- Talk about them with new people, who never got to know your loved one. There will often be new and important people in your life who did not know your loved one. It may be new friends, a significant other, or children, who never had the opportunity to meet your loved one when they were alive. Feel comfortable telling new people about your loved one, sharing stories or photos. This is a way that your loved one’s legacy continues and you continue to keep them in your life as you move forward. In case you thought it was easy, you can read about my experience with new friends after the death of my dad here.
- Live your life in a way you know they would be proud of. Be it a spouse, a parent, grandparent, child, or friend, 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 our loved one.
- Finish a project they were working on. Be it a project around the house, a piece of artwork, a team they coached, or a volunteer project they were involved in, consider picking up where they left off. This can help you learn new things about your loved one, continue your connection with them in the present, and continue their legacy.
- Take a trip they always wanted to take. Though this one may sound depressing, I have known many grievers who have found comfort in this. Death can make us realize that life is short. We may ourselves be feeling inspired to travel and this can help us travel in a way that is meaningful in our grief. On trips like this, we may feel close to our loved one, imagining how they would have felt about the trip. It can be tough, certainly bittersweet, but for some people a comfort. A great example of this is the movie “The Way”.
- Keep up their facebook page. This is more and more common and Facebook has even got the process in place to support it. You can request a memorialization page through facebook here. Keeping up a Facebook page allows the person’s friends to keep interacting on their wall, keeping an ongoing relationship with the person.
- Adopt a hobby that they enjoyed. This one may push you out of your comfort zone, but if they loved to knit, learn to knit. If they loved to garden, learn to garden. It may not end up being the right fit for you, but either way, people often feel a closeness with their loved one in the process.
- Create a Dear Photograph. Eleanor wrote a great post about Dear Photograph, a way to take a photo from the past and capture it in the present. She created her own, which you should absolutely check out! It can be a powerful symbolic reminder of the ways our loved ones still impact us in the present.
- 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. Check out our 30 suggestions for the anniversary of your loved one’s death here.
- 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 keep a few meaningful items can be extremely powerful. This could be an item they owned or an item they gave you. Either way, there can be comfort found in these items, as they make us feel close to our loved one. Of note, there is a study floating around out there that says keeping belongings can cause increased sadness. This has not been my personal experience, nor is it the experience of many grievers I have worked with, which is why I have included it. It may not be ideal for everyone.
- Enjoy comfort foods. In this case, comfort foods are foods that remind you of your loved one. Making a recipe your loved one always made, or eating one of your loved one’s favorite foods can bring back great memories and continue to connect us to our loved ones in everyday activities, like cooking and eating. I tried to make grandmother’s holiday cookies (and epically failed), but I did succeed in making my dad’s favorite cake.
- Experience your loved one’s presence. It is common to feel the presence of your loved one – it may just be a feeling, it may be a specific type of wind or bird or countless other things that seem to be a sign of our loved one’s presence. Unlike the studies about keeping something that belonged to your loved one, feeling your loved one’s presence has been shown in studies to ease the sadness that accompanies grief. So when you feel your loved one’s presence, feel it without apology or any worry that you are crazy! This is a normal and helpful way we continue bonds with our loved ones.
Alright, we know we missed tons of ideas. Bring ‘em on. Leave a comment.
Prefer to listen to your grief support? Hear us discuss the different ways to continue bonds with your deceased loved one in the above podcast.