A Grief Concept You Should Care About: Continuing Bonds

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? It 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 you work through your grief and make room for its 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



March 22, 2018

23 responses on "A Grief Concept You Should Care About: Continuing Bonds"

  1. Since my mom passed, I’ve continued taking care of her one thing left in life, Emmie, her West Highland Terrier. Emmie and my Mom lived with my family for 8 years before she died. August this year, at the age of 16, I made the hardest decision, to let Emmie go after a year of declining health.
    My daily care for her, carrying her to go outside, bathing her daily, adjusting her food…all was my last connection to my Mom.. perhaps my idea that I NEEDED to fix Emmie since I could NOT fix my mom. I am lost , even more now, without that connection to my Mom. 😔

  2. I’m so glad it’s not just me, my 23 year old son passed away suddenly without being ill on 31 July 2018, I speak with him every night before bed, i visit his grave at least once every day and chat to him, I kiss his picture as i pass them, I also go in his bedroom and tell him off for leaving his clothes out!

  3. I just lost my Grandma one week ago tonight (6 pm on August 10th 2018). She was almost 92 and lost a courageous battle with dementia, coronary artery disease, and renal failure among other things. I knew my Grandma for 34 years. As she had helped raise me (like a second mother), we were very close. The last few years I had spent less time with her while pursuing a relationship that I thought would end in marriage. It never did, and now I have lost my Grandma and am losing my almost 5 year relationship at the very same time. I feel horribly guilty for the time I hadn’t spent with her while thinking I was building my own life, just to watch those efforts fail as well. However, I was able to spend the final weeks visiting her and was there less than 24 hours before she passed. We shared some very special moments during her last visit on Thursday 8/9. I held her face as she held back tears, held her hand, kissed her temple, spoke of our memories. She grabbed my wrist and said I had no idea what I meant to her, and I couldn’t even acknowledge it or I would’ve crumbled before her, and I regret that because her lip quivered with sadness. I just said I loved her and placed photos of us all above her bed. I remember everything we said and even the way she looked at me the last time we spoke. I left. All the signs were there, but I guess I couldn’t accept that she was leaving us. Less than a day later, I arrived 40 minutes after she had passed. Her stuffed bear that she loved in life lay beside her in bed, so very quickly I scooped him up and cried almost inconsolably through the night into his soft little head. I had cried into that sweet little bear and spoke aloud to her for days by the time I had found this article. It made me feel a little more normal for my overwhelming grief. Now as I pass her photo in the hallway, I stop and speak to her, because it is the closest thing I can get to looking upon her face again. She was cremated 8/13 and her ashes spread 8/14. It is so hard to comprehend she is not physically with us. The only thing granting me any serenity is the concept that if I speak to her she will hear me. I love you Grandma. I miss you terribly.

  4. Things I have done since my best friend, lover and husband died 6 years ago……
    – regularly smelled his worn clothes (that I kept unwashed) for more than a year
    – did a home burial and funeral in a home made coffin and interred him in our backyard with a view of the river ( no stranger hands ever touched his body; we washed and prepared him for his last journey)
    – clipped his long beautiful lush hair which I keep under my mattress and part of it in my handbag ( just writing this floods my mind with so many memories…… )
    – worn his winter wool underwear
    – kept his clothes and and personal things pretty much where he left them before he passed
    – re – watched his favorite movies again with our child (who also wears her fathers clothes on occasion – her favorite a pair of boxer with hearts on them)
    – gone to the vault where his body is (in our backyard) to ask for help or advice or just to have a word
    – ask him for forgiveness when I remember a transgression I feel guilty about from the past
    – cherish his personal belongings and music collection, which always brings back memories when handling these items or listening to it.
    – re- reading his personal letters to me
    – will take his remains with us, when or if we ever move from our house
    (I have never divulged these things until here and now)

    Cultures of antiquity would actually have loved ones mummies in sarcophagus in their homes ( above and below ground in their living quarters) and lived around their ancestors this way. As well as Indonesia’s Toraja who honor their dead loved ones by digging them up each year at the Ma’nene festival, cleaning, grooming and dressing them in new clothes. I can completely understand and empathize with this custom. Now that I know there is actually a scientific term for it I feel much better about it, but would NEVER admit this to family and friends. But still glad I am not alone in this behavior. Thanks for yet another excellent article.

  5. Mom passed unexpectedlt friday, the funeral is tomorrow. And I dont know if dad and I will make it. Mom was 92 and my best friend. She had always been energetic and smiling and as sweet as could be. I moved home 3 years ago and feel like I never spent enough time with her. I lost my job at the end of last year, for which I am now so gratefull for because it meant I got alot more time with her. Dad is taking it pretty well but he cried today for the first time. They were married 64 years and he says they had both talked about it, knew it was coming and he chooses to remember the joy they had together. Dad is 91 and had a small stroke end of october last year. The way I see it its my mission in life now to take care of him and get him through this.
    Sorry, Since ive been living home everything here reminds of her and even tho I know shes gone I see everyday things of hers and its like shes still here. Dad is keeping her dressing table intact and since she always loved the flowers in the backyard and was awesome at flower arranging we will continue have her vase at the dinner table with fresh flowers, she would like that. I know she is in a better place and is in no pain but I have no clue if she sees us or hears us or knows we miss her. She would scold us for being heartbroken but I tbh dont know how not to be. One of the very few people who is a part of me and always will be, my best friend and confidante and my security has been torn from me. I will always hold her close and remember her. Love you Mom

  6. thank you for this interesting piece. It gave me something to reflect on and mull over as I sob. I like to think I straddle both grief approaches. I love to play with and explore the continued bond approach (I have a space for my dad – his clothes that I sit and cradle and howl with) I sit amongst some of his things – whatever I have of his – I put his clothes in a drawer and write with his pens. Photos of his are kissed good night – I chat with him and I love to see and feel him all around me. He is indeed with me and always will be. At the same time he is gone – I cannot call him (well at least his phone is about to be disconnected – he died 25.1.18). He cannot give me that lovely and always valued (ok most of it) life advice and wisdom. He is no longer struggling in his relationships – he is no longer suffering in body – he no longer has to fix anything or anyone – I do need to let him go – so that he can be at peace. On some level I have to let something go (perhaps the older version of myself) shed a skin so that I may move forward. We can’t go back – that is the single hardest thing for me about grief. We just can’t. He comes with me – but in a different way. I move forward – and trust I will find the courage to love the version of myself I am today – even as I grieve and feel this huge pain. thank you.

  7. Thank you so much for introducing this well known concept! I am writing a book about grief right now and realized after reading this article that I speak about the idea of continuing bonds all the time but wasn’t calling it that. What a relief….I am not alone after all! Thank you for the inspiration to keep writing.
    Thanks again!

  8. I have just found this today .Today is the first year of losing my mum as a result of a heart operation she was advised to have .She agreed , she was 83 but looked so much younger and acted so much younger. She was my friend , my confidante and I just liked being with her. I took her to the hospital , I left her there , she said if I told her not to have it she wouldn’t , I told her to trust the doctors and that she would have many more years with us
    She died 4 days after the operation , she struggled through those days , was put in intensive care and went onto life support . We had to make the decision to allow it to be switched off .
    We lost her and this last year I have been consumed with grief and guilt. If I had not listened to the doctors , they said it was a catastrophe believing that she was too weak to have the operation ..a concern we had before it happened. I feel that I took my mum to her death , it’s a feeling that never goes away ..I have had counselling for more than 6 months but today it has hit hard.I miss her , she was my home and I do feel so lost . I am not sure why I am even writing this , I think from reading all the posts I can see the pain so many people feel .Pain that is not talked about and pain that can only be shared with those that know.It is belonging to a club / group that you really don,t want to belong to.I can see my mum so clearly , she is in my head every day , I need to hear her voice for her to tell me she is ok.

  9. My son died on January 16, 2018, eleven weeks after being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. I am so sad and cry so much because he was such a good son to me. He was 48 years old. I was so happy to read your article and see that I’m not alone in my grief. I am celebrating 50 years as a registered nurse this year and am thankful I could apply all my knowledge and caring toward my wonderful son. I miss him so terribly.

  10. I am really glad to see this post, because I am a big proponent of continuing bonds! And, I appreciate hearing everyone’s experiences that shared. The first time I recognized the concept of continuing bonds was when I was sharing about my grandmother (who died when I was a 12) and was feeling the loss so strongly, even years later! Through processing my experiences with others, I came to realize that after she died I had learned to cook Black Beans and Rice the way she always did and that I still knit and crochet which she taught me. Through that I started to see myself as having her hands, so our continuing bond is really with me at all times. When I have difficult times, I can imagine her/me/us stirring a big pot of black beans and I can look at things from her perspective and have more confidence because I know how much she believed in me!

    Also, I think Lorraine Hedtke’s work is a great resource on this topic, though she doesn’t use the term continuing bonds, she is talking about the same process. http://www.rememberingpractices.com/

  11. Hi,

    I find it very coincidental to having received this post via email at this given time…..
    A Grief Concept You Should Care About: Continuing Bonds

    My husband has passed on in October 2017 and I have been keeping a brave front all this time. I feel that I have to be the strong one at home for my daughter and in-laws.

    But the past few weeks have been a bit emotional where I find myself talking to him and end up crying. I keep these emotional episodes well-hidden as I do not want to distress my daughter.

    On the morning of 13/02/2018- I was feeling exceptionally low due to the fact that the next day was Valentine’s Day and it would also have been our 23rd wedding anniversary. To make matters worse the evening of 13/02/2018 was an auspicious day in our Hindu calendar…. Every year I would get really excited and with the assistance of my late husband I would plan an extravagant prayer service on this day. So suffice to say that I was in severe depression mode.

    On this morning, like every morning……. I was ‘talking’ to my late husband about my ‘spiritual lethargy’…. Anyways as I as chatting with MR this morning I vented all my pent up emotions about him leaving me and I cried. I also vented my gripes and insecurities about Shivarathri and how I am sooo not excited this year. Well I told him to give me a sign that I should believe in Lord Shiva, etc, etc.

    Anyways after that I went upstairs and started to get dressed for work and as I was about to apply lotion on my hands I noticed something stuck to my hand, near my elbow and it was a piece of shiny paper which looked like this 💓 What a coincidence about the shape!

    Do I take it….
    – as a sign to continue in my belief of Lord Shiva
    – as a token of love for valentine’s day/anniversary

    The below excerpt from your article sums up exactly what I was going through
    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?

    But after reading this article I feel quite relieved to know that I am still ‘normal’
    And I will continue to have my morning conversations with my hubby.

    Thank you for your informative articles which gives me much better insight into the grieving process and these help me to help my family in their grief also,

    Kind regards

    Rowana Naidoo
    South Africa

  12. My son died 8/27/2017 and it was so unexpected and sudden I feel as if it happened yesterday. We were not called by the police and I had to find his body and it was all so horrible. I dont know if it is a coping mechanism because of my unbearable grief or what but I talk with my son several times a day and I have told a few people that it is just my crazy mind trying to get thru this and they say but you don’t know.. So I choose to think it is him. He always tells me he is fine, that he would not come back even if he could, that one day I will understand and to stay focused on my faith. He tells me his dad and younger brother need me, that I need to take care of them because he doesn’t need me now and they do. So many things he says but I still cry. I still miss him like crazy and I still wish I could be with him. But I go on somehow and it is NOT easy. I feel I died with him but with our talks I try to believe I am REALLY needed here. And he would tell me that if he could call me one more time. It’s all so very, very gut wrenching but I do believe he is helping me to go on.

    • My son died the very same day as yours. 😢 I also have the same feelings. Talk, cry and sometimes yell at him.

      • I haven ‘t yelled at him yet, maybe got a bit angry, but most of my yelling has been at God. Our son had overcome so much and to be taken so suddenly and unexpectedly I will always question why God took him at that time in his life. I think the treatment by law enforcement made it much worse and I can’t even say how that makes me feel. On the other hand I have to believe that God will take care of all the people who treated our son and my family like trash. Each day is a struggle to not lash out but one day at a time. I am sorry for your loss and thank you for writing.

      • My 29 year old daughter died on 8/27/2017 also.

  13. I have my own little weird behaviors. One is that my son’s family has this grouchy old cat, and when my wife (now deceased) would take a nap, she and the cat would cuddle up on the sofa. Now the cat would claw you if you stopped petting her. Often, I would see my wife asleep with the cat with her left hand surround the cat’s right leg, and her right hand surround the left leg. It was sort of like keeping the cat in leg irons as they slept face-to-face. Now I doze on the sofa with the old cat, and it has the same grouchy behaviors, but I look at the cat as an old friend who knew my wife. I realize that someday this 15 year-old cat will be another significant loss to me. My second weirdness is that I have a 2002 Ford pickup with 170,000 miles on it. I remember the day my wife and I bought it with only 7,000 miles on it from a car dealer that had taken the vehicle back and was reselling it to help a military soldier who was deployed overseas. We made many trips over the years in that vehicle, and I am emotionally attached to it, because we enjoyed traveling with each other. That vehicle made many trips to hospitals, dialysis treatments, and also vacations and visiting family. My finances are such that I could easily buy a new vehicle, but I am not ready to let it go.

  14. Thank you for this I feel the same way…I am not going mad…it all makes sense!

  15. What if it’s so painful thinking about them?
    When you start to look at a picture or remember them you cry?
    I’d dearly love my two daughters to know this – but like me, it hurts when realising the great loss. The youngest not even wanting to talk about her dad and the oldest already suffering in her grief (now taking meds & also tried to end her own life recently)
    Not only are we a smaller family but very broken. I’m finding it hard to stop feeling so angry with him at the same time!
    How can you apply this connection bond when feeling all of this ?

    • Hey Sharon, I’m so sorry for the pain your entire family is experiencing. I’m not sure when your loved one’s death was, but many people do struggle to continue their bond in the early months because the pain is just too intense. Theoretically, in time as people find effective ways to cope with their intense emotions (and not avoid them), it will be easier to remain present with these items, memories, reminders, etc. If you have found that this isn’t the case over a long period of time, for you or for your daughters, you may want to consider seeking a little extra support from a mental health professional.

    • Sharon, my heart goes out to you and your daughters.
      I still feel like my heart’s been ripped out when I think of my mom, hear her voice or see
      a picture of her. But in time it has gotten better. Now I wish others would talk of her more, like
      it keeps her memory alive, which is what continued bonds is all about.
      My daughter took her grandmothers death like your older daughter. There was so much guilt she felt
      towards her relationship with our deceased that she developed an eating disorder to cope and was a cutter.
      She is healed and doing so great now-5 years later. To go through this is to become stronger.
      Our faith and friends have been key. And being honest and open, which is what you are doing by being here.
      Having lost the man in your family who I assumed was the stronghold of the family, has to be difficult because you feel
      like a different family. But still a family that needs each other.
      I think there is nothing wrong with being mad at him and telling him so. If you don’t tell him now it will fester.
      WYG has so many great ideas to help.
      These girls are awesome!!

  16. Hurray, I’m not going mad then!

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