What Is Continuing Bonds Theory in Bereavement?

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You may be familiar with the saying that death may end a life but not a relationship. But fostering a sense of connection with your deceased loved one is a relatively new theory. It suggests that, for those struggling with complicated and prolonged grief, it's possible to continue the bond with loved ones even after their death. 

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Early death and grief theory suggested that suffering happened in stages. Mourners participated in a series of grief phrases to eventually find closure and detachment from their loss.

Those suffering a loved one's death were often encouraged to detach themselves emotionally from the event. They often felt pressure to put their energy towards moving on with their lives and starting over. Those who were deemed unsuccessful at grieving were labeled as having “pathological grief,” and therefore, something was wrong with them. 

Grief theory has evolved in leaps and strides since those early days. Today, we know that grief is highly individual and that one person’s method of grieving and healing may not work for another. 

Continuing Bonds Theory Defined

Continuing bonds theory works towards normalizing a continuing relationship with loved ones even after they've died. It focuses on how we contend with sudden losses or extended and anticipated deaths of a loved one suffering from a terminal illness. It also encourages embracing our changed lives as we work through issues of guilt, abandonment, and anger triggered by our loved one's death.

The following are some of the more common elements that define continuing bonds theory. 

There doesn’t necessarily have to be an end to grief 

Grief is a never-ending part of life and not something that one “gets over.” There are also no defined stages or grief or tasks that need to be worked through in order to achieve healing. 

Grief becomes a part of your life story and never truly goes away. As time goes on, the effects of grief become less suffocating, and the pain eventually eases. 

It's normal to stay connected with your deceased loved ones 

Continuing bonds theory encourages the bereaved to stay connected with their loved ones who've died and foster a relationship for as long it makes sense. 

The idea behind maintaining a connection to deceased loved ones is that we don't ever detach from them or the memories they leave behind—the relationship with our loved ones who've crossed over continues to evolve during our lifetimes. 

Our grief-related behaviors are normalized

The idea of holding on to items belonging to our deceased loved ones, talking to our loved ones when we're feeling sad, asking them for advice, dreaming about them, and hearing their voice are all normal. 

These behaviors and experiences are encouraged under the continuing bonds theory and the people behind it. Once thought to be pathological grief responses, all of these practices turn out to be expected after all. 

These behaviors are not only normal, but they help you cope with grief

As with all things, too much of a good thing can turn into something destructive. In the instance of holding on to your departed loved ones, it's still possible that you may get stuck in your grief when focusing too much on what you had to the point where you’re no longer healing. 

While remaining connected to your loved one can facilitate your ability to cope with your loss and adjust to changes in your life, the relationship can remain complicated if it was that way before their death.

Other common ways of referring to continuing bonds are:

  • After-death spiritual experiences 
  • Post-death encounters
  • Continued attachment
  • After-death communication

Seemingly supernatural occurrences can happen, such as having dreams about the deceased, sensing their presence, experiencing profound coincidences, or communicating with a psychic. 

Where Does Continuing Bonds Theory Come From?

The concept of continuing bonds theory was first introduced to us in 1996 in a book entitled Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Death Education, Aging and Health Care).

The notion behind this new school of thought about death and bereavement is that the bereaved are no longer required to detach themselves from the deceased and that it's possible to continue the relationship even after death. 

The book's authors and grief experts Phyllis Silverman, Dennis Klass, and Steven Nickman questioned the old ways of how we thought about bereavement and how people grieved the loss of a loved one. Old models of grief, such as The Kubler-Ross Model and the stages of grief, where grief is something to accept and recover from, were now scrutinized by this team of experts in the field of death, dying, and bereavement. 

Their grief model encourages nurturing a new relationship with the deceased and not one of learning to let go of them and accepting that they're forever gone. 

Does Continuing Bonds Theory Replace or Complement Other Grief Theories?

Continuing bonds theory doesn’t act to replace, but rather complements other grief theories and models. With the continuing bonds model, experts in the field of death, dying, and bereavement found a new way of interpreting how people grieve and mourn the death of their loved ones. 

Much like its predecessors, this model is only one way of defining how people grieve, but it’s not the only indicator of the grief process. Much like Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning, continuing bonds theory also has its set of processes that a bereaved person will work through before reaching a new level of learning to live with the death of their loved one. 

What Are Some Continuing Bonds Exercises You Can Use While Grieving?

Under the continuing bonds model, grieving is a process of modifying our relationships with the deceased rather than relinquishing those bonds altogether. As with all forms of grief, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of continuing our bonds with the deceased. 

There are ways of processing grief under this theory that are healthy and lead to an evolved form of living life after the death of a loved one that allows for a continuation of that bond while learning to live a new life without them. 

And then there are the unhealthy ways of interpreting this theory that can keep a bereaved person stuck in a cycle of grief without moving forward in life without their loved one and eventually needing specialized grief counseling.

Visiting the gravesite

For many people, going to a loved one’s gravesite can be a grief-triggering event. Seeing the headstone or gravemarker engraved with their loved one’s name and dates of birth and death magnifies their loss and makes it even more real. Some people avoid their loved one’s graves for years, or even decades, afterward. 

However, other people find comfort in having a place to visit with loved ones. It can bring peace and even allow them to grow closer to their loved ones after their passing. Visiting a deceased loved one’s grave provides an opportunity to spend time with them, talk to them, and share your life with them even after their death. 

Journaling 

Keeping a grief journal for the first year following a loved one’s death is an exercise in continuing bonds that helps you cope with your grief and allows you to look back at your first year of mourning. 

Many bereaved people have even successfully turned their journals into best-selling books on grief. Through their long journey of grief work, they’ve explored their pain and sadness and found ways to cope with their loss and get through their sorrow. 

A journal allows you to move past your pain. It brings aspects of the life shared with your loved one that continue even beyond their death to the present. Writing about your experiences and sharing them aloud with your deceased loved one helps bring you closer to their presence around you. 

White light meditation

A white light meditation is a way of spending time connecting to your loved one’s soul that survives after death. Depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs, it may be that you believe that the soul doesn’t die when the physical body dies. You may believe, instead, that it continues beyond death into eternal life on another plane. 

If so, this meditation will help you connect to your loved one’s spirit after death. All you need is a white candle, a table, and a mirror. Placing the mirror in front of you and the candle in between you and the mirror, stare into the candle’s flame as you meditate on your loved one. Then go lie down and open yourself up to receiving messages from beyond. 

Grief writing

Grief writing is a healing retelling of the loss experienced from the bereaved person’s perspective. It differs from journaling because grief writing isn’t focused on the grief experience immediately following the loss or the ensuing grief journey. Grief writing focuses on retelling the narrative and integrating the story of a loved one’s death into the larger narrative and meaning of their lives. 

It’s where the story of loss is written and rewritten, and where loss is expressed metaphorically to bring healing. The story is reconstructed until it brings closure from pain and suffering and opens to the possibility of continuing the relationship even beyond death. 

Holding on to things from the past

Many of us have already experienced having an ongoing relationship with our deceased loved ones. These are some examples of some of the usual ways in which we already practice continuing bonds therapy under this theory.

  • Hold on to and wear a piece of jewelry belonging to our deceased loved ones
  • Talk to our dead loved ones when we need advice
  • Maintain rituals that we developed with them, such as sleeping on a particular side of the bed
  • Remember special moments spent together when we miss them
  • Carry on their legacy of charitable giving

How Continuing Bonds Helps Heal

When we experience the death of a loved one, we keep processing their death and our grief at different levels and at different times in our lives. Grief is shaped by our personalities and vulnerabilities, along with our sense of abandonment and lack of control in protecting our loved ones from death. 

When we use the healing power of our imagination in reinforcing a secure, continuing bond with a deceased loved one, we make meaning with our grief that allows us to heal.

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