There is a grief theory that few people have heard of, called Continuing Bonds.
So what is it and where did it come from? Freud was the first to theorise the experience of grief. He wrote that, in order to ‘get over’ grief, we must first mourn for our deceased loved one, then move on and reattach to others. Then his beloved daughter died, and he realised that the very last thing that he could do, was to ‘move on’. Instead, in a letter to a friend, he wrote how he wanted to keep Sophie close to his heart forever. Other theorists went on to develop this newly forming theory, acknowledging that we don’t ‘get over’ someone we love who has died, but rather we learn to live with our loss.
Continuing Bonds is summed up nicely in this lovely quote from Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
“Death ends a life, not a relationship”.
If this is true, how do we continue to foster a relationship with our loved ones after their death? I think John O’Donoghue’s poem ‘For Grief’ gives us an effective map for how this could look. Of course, it’s different for everyone, but after ten years of supporting people who are grieving the death of a loved one, it brings me (and them) comfort to know that we humans really are more similar than different. Yes, how we grieve is determined by our unique circumstances, but when we sit alongside people in the thick of the grieving process for long enough, we begin to see some predictable patterns.
When grief first hits, it is almost impossible to find any connection to our loved ones. We are blinded by grief, and their absence often causes anguish beyond words, beyond anything we’ve ever felt. Our confidence is shattered, our innocence is lost, and our sense of hope or purpose can feel hollow – the world is the same, yet we experience it like a new, terrible land where we may feel like we no longer have a place or function. How to move through this, with no instruction, no map, nobody to guide us? It can feel impossibly painful. Yet, somehow, we do this, again and again and again. We are incredible beings. We can love ferociously, lose someone we love, and when living without them seems impossible, somehow we find ways to put our feet under us again and find a reason to keep going, gradually finding the possibility of life again.
There is no shortcut to this process. We need to feel it, go through it, be challenged by it and often question whether we can survive it. In time, the waves of grief become softer and less frequent. They don’t bash us so hard, like in those early days. They aren’t as relentless or furious as when we first experience the death of our loved one. The transformation, and significant loss does transform us, is almost imperceptible. We don’t see or feel it happening, it’s only when we look back do we realise that we are no longer the same person we were 6, 12 or 18 months ago. We have grown emotionally and psychologically to accommodate our loss, and we are slowly learning to adapt to this changed world, where everything feels different without their presence. But different is no longer impossible.
As we get used to their absence and allow ourselves to feel that pain, something happens. It’s almost like the more we weep, the more space we create for their memories, for remembering some of the special or silly, mundane moments that we shared and we find that this brings a smile to our face, rather than a pain to our heart. As we learn to carry and express our grief, it’s like we access the love again.
It can be hard, if not impossible, to bond with our loved ones when we are experiencing acute grief. But as our grief begins to integrate over time, we do begin to feel their essence again, in more bearable ways, even comforting. Maybe we plant something in their honour, watching it grow year on year. Maybe we run a marathon, or maybe we bake their favourite recipe. It doesn’t have to be a great accomplishment, but somehow, we find a way to do something, make something or build something in their honour. It may help us to feel close to them again. We are building a new relationship with them, in their physical absence. We might ask them for advice or guidance, or ask them to watch over us as we go through a challenge. Rarely does it replace their physical presence, but it may bring some relief to a broken heart and a dysregulated body. This is what we call Continuing Bonds.
Liz Gleeson is a grief psychotherapist and educator. She created Shapes of Grief, a weekly podcast looking at aspects of loss and grief.