16 Tips for Continuing Bonds with People We’ve Lost

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.

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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 catalogue: “An Open Letter to My Dead Best Friend”. 
    • Keep photos of the person around.  This may seem absurdly obviously, 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 love 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 keeping 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 caused 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 with 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 with 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.   Don’t forget to subscribe to get our fabulous grief posts right to your inbox!

March 28, 2017

38 responses on "16 Tips for Continuing Bonds with People We've Lost"

  1. I’m going to have my darling husband’s shirts and jeans made into a patchwork skirt and quilt. That will save me the heartache of putting them out to strangers, and is another way I’ll feel connected to him. Excellent article.

  2. Hope Ryan Woodward was credited or was notified that text was put on his hard, hard work 😉

    • Hi Emsss- absolutely. the still frame image from the video has a credit in bottom left corner, citing both Woodward and the source. We also then include the video itself in the post, directly from his post on YouTube.

  3. Great list of things to keep your loved one’s spirit alive ♡ my 20 year old son Jacob passed away in Oct 2015 & we’ve got a life size cut out of him that we get out of the box to accompany us at family celebrations to have photos with. Some people might think it’s really weird but that’s the way we deal with things. No one knows how they will deal with grief, it’s as individual as DNA, a thumbprint. I’m pretty sure we do all in the list. Thanks for sharing x

  4. I found it upsetting at first to even look at my husband’s belongings in the closet, in his drawers. But the night of my first deep weeping, two weeks after his death, I wanted to touch and smell everything that he wore. I couldn’t find anything with his “smell “on it as I had washed all items while he was here at home with in-home care. I finally found a vest that he wore often, not a washable item, and there he was! I still go to hold it and sniff it to feel his presence. I don’t think this is odd at all, but just makes me feel connected to him still. I miss him so much . It is almost 6 weeks now that he is gone.

    • I wear my husband’s after shave, lynx africa. Get some funny looks but I don’t care. On the morning he died as I was sadly walking down the 6 flights of stairs, I got halfway down arriving on the ICU floor. As I turned to take the next flight down I was surrounded by the scent of lynx africa. I must have looked shocked as a Dr came running over to me. I asked if a man had gone past and she replied that we were the only people on the landing. When I told her what had just happened she squeezed my hand and said he’s letting you know he’s made it home.

    • Oh Marie, I am so glad you found something that still had that comforting scent. It is amazing how much smells connect us to memories and can make us feel close to someone!

  5. I love your post,. I lost my husband of 39 years marriage, It was a sudden accident. two in a half years ago. I miss his sound of his voice. My grandson is graduating in a few weeks. He will be so missed at this event. My husband also died on this Grandson birthday. They were very close. I talk about my husband lots. we say things like papa would say or do, Never fails at family events we always seem to set the table with extra setting and sometimes an empty chair, Some days that are hard days a favorite song comes on the radio he liked, or I see a cardinal and always think it could be a sign,

    • Bette, I am so sorry for your loss. I am sure the graduation will be bittersweet. After a loss that is the way, even the happiest of events are laced with sadness, wishing the person we love was there. It sounds like you are doing beautiful things to remember him, I hope the graduation day brings much joy.

      • I so enjoy your site. I talk to my dog about Gary saying his name comfort for my dog to hear his name too. I took Gary slippers out left in a corner so my dog knows he is still the boss . The dog right after he died would lay on his slippers missed him too . Again I so enjoy your site

  6. We lost our son Nick 7 years ago at age 18. Since the first Christmas without him, we have hosted a Christmas party for all his friends (and now their children and spouses). They were a close group, and every year when I express doubts about having the celebration, they are quick to tell me it’s the one thing they look forward to during the holiday season. We always toast Nick, remembering to keep him in our hearts, and have a large time – exactly what he would do. Also, we have planted a tree in his memory in a city park near the high school he attended. We released balloons on the first birthday after we lost him, with a small ceremony at that same tree. We established a scholarship in his memory to a deserving band member at that same school, because we know how much he loved music and being a member of the marching band.
    And I talk to him all the time.

  7. Hi Litsa and Eleanor,

    Having lost both of my parents at a young age, I love all of these ideas and the concept of continuing bonds. Knowing that love lives on and the relationship continues has brought me comfort over many years. Thanks for all these great ideas and your inspiring work! I wish this concept could become mainstream rather than the misconceptions of “closure” and “moving on”. We know that no one really gets over grief, but learns to live with it, and by enjoying continuing bonds this makes living life more enjoyable …. that your beloved people can still be a part of your life, in new and different ways.

    Chelsea Hanson
    http://www.withsympathygifts.com

    • Thank you Chelsea! And thanks for all the great items you provide that help people remember loved ones. Memorial items no doubt help us feel close to those we have lost and celebrate their memory, rather than making us feel we need to ‘move on’ in the traditional sense.

  8. Hi! I really love your posts and thank you so much for posting all that you do! but I have a question…I understand the grieving process is not a continual line from point a to point b…some times its one step forward and 500 back…and I also understand the process can take years …I guess my question is how do you get to the point when you can do all the wonderful suggestions without so much pain?…I lost my dad 2/07/13 and im not able to get to any point with out it being so painful still that it sometimes just takes my breath away…

    • Melissa, I am so sorry about your dad. You bring up a good but tough question. Personally, I think the key is starting small, just saying I will do one small, manageable thing today or this week or whatever. It then sometimes means accepting that it will be hard. They call it ‘grief work’ for a reason. Just like going to the gym can feel miserable and you just don’t want to do it, but you feel good afterwards and better in the long run, grief can be much the same. Our inclination is to avoid the pain, but sometimes it is only by leaning into the pain, working with it, that it eventually gets easier to manage. Some days will always be tough. Always. But eventually the really bad, take your breath away days get fewer and further between.

  9. Dearest Ron, It was so good to read your thoughts on “after death.” When wemet for lunch and you wondered how I was dealing with Ross’ inevitable death (he was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and death was inevitable. I knew what you were going through but I am not sure if I gave you a complete answer. I did not send a sympathy card or anything when Jenny died as I didn’t know how you were dealing with it. I know how much you two loved each other. But you are right on with your list of 16 ways to deal with death. Sine Ross’ death, he has manifested (not sure if that’s the right word) to me on different occasions. He is continuing the research we did together and is so glad that am also. He thinks our research (mine doing and thinkingand Randy’s) will result in great answers. Those on the other side know what we are doing, what we are thing and when think of them. According to one of friends, with whom we kept in touch, remarked that he was happy, but wished his wife could , and not grieve the way she was grieving.

  10. I lost my husband to sepsis, which happened very quickly from a hospital acquired infection. It’s good to hear about continuing the bond with the deceased person instead of “closure, moving on”, etc. Love doesn’t die because the person is gone. I especially have a hard time parting with those things I associate with him. I am one who feels that it’s good to “go with the flow” instead of fighting it. My husband will always be a part of my life, whether others like it or not.

  11. Hi Nita,

    My father died of Sepsis too.
    That was the hard part…..he died have to die.

    Continuing Bonds is a wonderful, useful “theory”, but it’s a DOING
    dynamic too. It gives you the ability to take action.
    When we first were gel-ing the idea for Aftertalk, our sub title was:
    “Continue the Conversation”. I had no idea writing to my father in
    Aftertalk’s Private Conversations was even continuing bonds.
    But I didn’t care what it was called , I overflowed with what I wanted
    to tell him because so much was going on (Wrong….) in my family.
    Who knew he was the glue. BUT….if I am quiet…..and I am writing
    to him……it almost feels like we are visiting each other.
    I like to believe he is.

    Wishing you Peace of Mind…..day by day.
    ALL THE BEST, Lisa

  12. Hi,
    I just celebrated the One year Anniversary of my Daughter Rachelle, she passed away from Sepsis, and I found your ideas to be so great. I was able to remember my daughter in such a loving way. Thank you!!

  13. Interesting post Kelly. Thanks for bringing up such an engaging topic. These are some really great practical tips for continuing bonds – thank you for sharing the post with all of us 🙂

  14. This is really interesting, Kelly. I am so glad it brought you what you needed from your mom. This is a really great example of continuing bonds – thank you so much for sharing.

  15. Kiri, this sounds amazing!! Please, if you think of it, come back after the trip and let us know how it goes. It sounds like it will be an amazing trip, however bittersweet! Take care for Zoe’s brithday – it sounds like you have a wonderful day planned to remember and be close to her.

  16. Hi Pamela. I am so sorry for your loss. You are right that this is something we should write more posts about. We do have one post that may interest you called “When Kids Can’t Remember”. It has some ideas for grieving when children didn’t know or can’t remember the person the lost, but many could apply for adults as well. We will definitely write more on this topic in the future.

    • I think this is a good point. I work as a nanny and in Nov 2015 my lovely boss lost her precious ivf baby at 7 weeks pregnant. I was devastated, still am if truth be known even though 9 months have passed. I loved that little one from the moment of conception and was so looking forward to caring for him. Just 3 months later I lost my husband of 4 years suddenly and unexpectedly. I’m in a fog of grief I just can’t get out of. Add to this the fact that I believe that my boss has had ivf again and may be pregnant, I really can’t cope with any of it any longer.

  17. I agree Julie! I am not sure what I said that implied I thought that was strange, because I don’t think that at all!! I find so much comfort in several items I have that belonged to loved ones I have lost. I think it is so comforting to have items that remind me of the people I have lost. I only mentioned it may not be right for everyone because there has been some research showing it isn’t always a good fit.

  18. I don’t understand why you would say that keeping something that belonged to your loved one may seem like a strange idea…really? I think even the most old-school thinking wouldn’t call this strange.

  19. Hello Litsa!

    Sooo sorry you could not find AfterTalk .

    Link is: http://www.aftertalk.com

    Would LOVE for you to share AfterTalk with your audience!
    We’re a perfect fit.

    Question: Are you attending the ADEC conference in Baltimore?
    We are. Would love to meet you!

    All the Best, Lisa

  20. Lista,
    I recently lost my cousin to a congenital liver disease that didn’t fit the method of determining the priority for receiving a liver transplant. He therefore had to get too sick to have the transplant and died. I had only, about 15 months ago, re-connected with him after 35 years. Since he was in end-stage liver disease, I really didn’t get to know him as a well, vivacious, young man. I also moved from WA to Tulsa, OK to care for him in his last three months.
    My comment is: not really knowing him, it’s hard to keep a connection, or in ways, make one. I do find your posts extremely helpful. At the same time, I would appreciate some comment(s) (maybe even a post) about losing someone when you haven’t had the chance to get to know them very well. I’m sure there are others who have lost someone at a very young age, or maybe even parents of pre-mature/still birth deaths who may appreciate some thoughts as well.
    I may not have said this all very well (in fact his liver doctor, who knew him for 3 years, said he was looking forward to meeting the real Mark)…I’m still sorting things out from Mark’s death and the way it has impacted me. I might not have known him well, but in ways this was a very intimate relationship and his death has hit me hard and very much by surprise.
    Thank you for sharing yourself with us.
    Pamela

  21. This year I am taking a trip Zoe wanted to do. After reading Thea Stilton and thy Mystery in Paris, she decided she wanted to go there, so we were planning to save for it. I will go to the Eiffel tower, Sacre Couer and the Opera House for her. She would have been 8 next week and like last year I will be going out to have her favourite breakfast, as well as doing other things to remember her, such as some things for The Angel Zoe Kindness Project.

  22. Great suggestions Litsa and I’ve done some of them myself. I have another to share if you don’t mind, it was suggested to me by a woman I didn’t really know, we were having a conversation about a condition in certain people called being reversed where they aren’t able to absorb nutrients. She was “reading” my body to see if I was “reversed”… and out of the blue she said, “Well, you’re fine but why is your mother here?” My mother had been dead for more than 20 years and I hadn’t said a word about her to this woman. I was shocked to say the least!
    Anyway, she said that my mom was always with me and that she wanted me to use automatic writing to communicate with me. So I did that 3 or 4 times and found a lot of peace and comfort from it and realized that I didn’t really need to do it anymore, that my mom had said what I needed to hear from her and that brought closure and much peace for me. Automatic writing involves getting into a meditative state, at least relaxed and in a quiet, peaceful place, and then picking up a pen or pencil and just writing whatever comes to mind without thinking about what you’re writing. It’s very cool and kind of strange but in the end, when you go back and read the words, there will be no doubt that the message is what you need to hear. I had prayed for so long for some kind of contact with my mom and those prayers were finally answered… or maybe I was just ready to hear.

    Bless you for the work that you do! <3

  23. Thanks for sharing this information Lisa! I actually wanted to include your website in this post, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name! I did a Google search yesterday trying to find you guys, but I just kept getting information about writing sympathy cards. Apparently I was not using the best search terms!! I will definitely go back and add your website to the content of our post.

  24. Hi Litsa (and Eleanor)!

    Both, my colleague Larry Lynn, and myself have really enjoyed your website and blogs.
    Love the information, love how you both share yourselves with your audience.

    http://www.AFTERTALK.com is EXACTLY what you are sharing today about
    continuing bonds. We feel and function in many of the ways you describe
    on your blog today.

    Not to be self promoting here…..that is not my intention….BUT
    AFTERTALK is an interactive grieve and loss website where all the
    things you mention can be shared in our “Private Conversation” section (privately).
    You can continue to write and share with your deceased loved ones.
    And share only what you want with selected “Family and Friends”.

    Well, THANKS for illuminating the subject of “Continuing Bonds”.
    There is still thinking that it is pathological or negative to continue to think
    about and share with someone who is deceased.
    But, I know how good it makes me feel to share with my deceased father.
    You don’t have to give up or forget someone who has died.

    Ladies, as always, THANK YOU for your inspiration !

    Lisa Bogatin, Co-Founder AFTERTALK

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