Grief is hard work. Anyone who has experienced personal loss will tell you so. What people should not tell you is that there is “a best way” to “get through” grief. Grief is not linear, nor does it have stages to complete, or a given timetable. How we manage the shifts in other life changes will influence how we transition with a loved one who has passed.
There are several grief models, each possessing some pearls of wisdom, all attempting to map out the path through loss. Lately, I favor the Continuing Bonds Theory (CBT) which best reflects my beliefs about life after death for both the deceased and the mourner. CBT promotes healing by acknowledging all that has been and encouraging a continuing relationship with the deceased. This newer theory moves away from 20th century models of grief that encouraged cutting bonds with the deceased, so that the griever can “move on” in life.
In 1996, Dennis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman explored the concept of Continuing Bonds Theory in their landmark book, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. This theory brought into question linear models of grief built on tasks such as acceptance, detachment and building a life without the deceased. In fact, some psychologists thought a continued bond with a deceased loved one was pathological. The Continuing Bonds Theory allows grief; it recognizes that both grief and relationship are ongoing. CBT opens the transition to a new relationship, acknowledging that life has changed not ended. In promoting the idea that it is normal to stay connected with our loved ones, this theory validates both the pain of the loss and the hope of presence.
Klass and his associates found that relationships continue to evolve after death and are thus “not static.” In my bereavement work, many people have described ongoing relationships with their deceased loved ones that continue to grow as they age, especially people who have lost parents or siblings at a young age. For those who practice continuing bonds, deceased members of a family have a place at the table, being alive not only in memory, but are integrated into celebrations such as weddings, births and anniversaries. Above all, the Continuing Bonds Theory suggests we do not leave our loved ones behind; we carry them in our lives, throughout our lives.
Discussing death-related topics can be complicated. Sometimes when we encounter a grieving person we are unsure of how to bring the deceased into the conversation, thus most of us have become inept at talking about the deceased. Perhaps if we become more comfortable in these conversations, we can help the bereaved to enjoy the bond they continue to have with their loved one.
If you find yourself talking to your loved one, imaging them in your current reality, imagining what they would say or how they would react, you are not crazy, you are continuing the bond. It might be time to change our thinking about grief from, “I have to get through these stages” to “How can I continue to live with the presence of my loved one near?”
To learn more about Continuing Bonds Theory view a lecture with Dennis Klass. (one hour in length)