The next time someone advises you to “move on”, send them here to learn about “continuing bonds”

Ever since I first lost my daughter, I instinctively knew that “moving on” was not the right turn of phrase. Surviving grief, coping with grief, living with grief seemed much better at describing how I experienced my life now. I didn’t want to leave my children behind – why should I? I love them and want to think about them; I want them to be remembered. But still, the implied – or explicit – advice from friends, family and even complete strangers continued on the “moving on” theme, and I think that is the experience of many people who have suffered a life-changing loss. While we shouldn’t really let other people push us around with their feelings and opinions about how we are coping, it’s only natural that we can be affected by what they say.

At a recent bereavement conference, my curiosity was piqued by another phrase, another model of grief: “Continuing bonds.”

“Continuing Bonds – New Understandings of Grief” was a book published by Denise Klass in 1996. This is what it’s about:

The phrase “continuing bonds” was first used in 1996 to refer to an aspect of bereavement process in the title of the book, Continuing Bonds: Another View of Grief, which challenged the popular model of grief requiring the bereaved to “let go” of or detach from the deceased. It was clear from the data presented that the bereaved maintain a link with the deceased that leads to the construction of a new relationship with him or her. This relationship continues and changes over time, typically providing the bereaved with comfort and solace. Most mourners struggle with their need to find a place for the deceased in their lives and are often embarrassed to talk about it, afraid of being seen as having something wrong with them.

A spontaneous statement by Natasha Wagner, whose mother, the actress Natalie Wood, drowned when Natasha was a teenager, summarized this well: “I had to learn to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t there anymore” (1998). More than a decade after the death of his first wife, playwright Robert Anderson wrote about her continued place in his life: “I have a new life. . . . Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it never finds” (1974, p.77). With this statement, he legitimized his own experience and that of other mourners as well.

(From the Encylopedia of Death and Dying. Read more here.)

Litza, a blogger, puts it this way:

continuing bonds

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.

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.

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!

(Many thanks to Litza. Her blog is very helpful – you can read the full blog post here.)

It turns out that the “continuing bonds” model is now quite accepted amongst grief counsellors and those who professionally support the bereaved. Once you start digging, there are lots of links. Here’s a website which links to examples of how parents have maintained continuing bonds with their deceased children.

Next time we blog about our loved ones, call their disconnected phone for a chat, cuddle their old jacket, cook our loved one’s favourite meal, or plant a tree in their memory, we’re doing just what the theory says. We are continuing our bonds; we are maintaining our relationship with them even though they are not present. And if it’s what we feel like doing, that’s just we should be doing.

For more ideas about how you can continue bonds with your loved one, check out this link.

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