Do you ever talk out loud to someone who has died? Do you feel like if someone caught you doing this, they might think you’re crazy? Well, you’re not crazy. You’re just carrying on a relationship that is important to you. Notice that I used the words “is important”, not was, because when someone we love dies, we may lose their physical presence, but we don’t lose the relationship we have with them. Through us, the relationship endures.
A lot of the time our biggest struggle after loss is what to do with the feelings, thoughts, and desire for interaction we have for someone who is no longer with us. (Like when something good happens and for a split second you want to call them up and tell them about it before remembering that you cant.) What do we do with that desire to interact with someone who’s not there?
Much of conventional wisdom and grief theory tells us that we have to go through a process or a specific series of steps in order to “get over” a loss or “move on” or “accept” it. But do you know anyone who has lost a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a child and at any point “moved on” and entirely left that relationship behind them? No? Me neither.
Which is why the theory of Continuing Bonds introduced in 1996 by Dennis Klass, Phyllis R Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman makes so much sense. The theory allows for a continued and evolving relationship with the person who died.
Your relationship with the person who died was, and is, a construct. You can’t hold a relationship in your hand, it’s an abstract combination of feelings, thoughts, behaviors, interactions, and considerations that define the way you are bound to someone else.
Now some of those elements can be completely and abruptly broken by someone no longer being alive—you can no longer share a dialogue with them nor touch them—but you’ll still think about them, and maybe wonder what they would do in a certain situation, because your relationship with them still has value to you. And it’s okay to not let that go.
Continuing Bonds doesn’t’ say that “the person is gone and now you will start the process of leaving them behind,” instead it acknowledges that this relationship has changed dramatically but will evolve into something new. My dad died 29 years ago, but he still informs some of the decisions I make. When I consider what his opinion would have been, that’s a continuing bond.
We form continuing bonds when we introduce the memory of someone who has died to our children or grandchildren, or when we talk to them out loud, or when we treasure a piece of their memorabilia, or when we see a symbol that brings them to mind, or when we pass on a skill they taught us–there are a million ways we do this.
As long as the continuing bonds are safe, aren’t perpetuating a negative relationship, and aren’t damaging positive relationships with the living, Continuing Bonds are an important part of understanding grief and the relationships you’ll have for rest of your life.
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