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.
Until the twentieth century, maintaining a bond with the deceased had been considered a normal part of the bereavement process in Western society. In contrast, in the twentieth century the view prevailed that successful mourning required the bereaved to emotionally detach themselves from the deceased. The work of Sigmund Freud contributed significantly to this view, largely as a result of the paper Mourning and Melancholia, which he wrote in 1917. Grief, as Freud saw it, freed the mourner from his or her attachments to the deceased, so that when the work of mourning was completed, mourners were free to move ahead and become involved in new relationships. When one looks at Freud's writing regarding personal losses in his life, one learns that Freud understood that grief was not a process that resulted in cutting old attachments. Nonetheless, his theory took on a life of its own, and the mourners were advised to put the past behind them. This practice still continues into the twenty-first century.
Many practitioners observed that mourners often developed an inner representation of the deceased by internalizing attitudes, behavior, and values associated with the deceased. They saw this as a step in the process that eventually led the mourner to detach from the deceased and move on. The psychiatrist John Bowlby wrote that a discussion of mourning without identification—that is, finding a place for the deceased in one's sense of self—will seem like Hamlet without a prince. Like most observers of the bereavement process, he was aware of the ways in which mourners identify with the deceased, but he concluded that when attachment to the deceased is prominent, it seems to be indicative of psychopathology.
Another factor promoting the view of a necessary detachment was that most observers were basing their work on clinical practice. People came to them with serious emotional problems, many of which derived from connections to the deceased that were out of the bereaved's awareness. These connections focused on negative consequences of the relationship and anchored the bereaved's current life inappropriately in the past. The clinician/researcher then generalized to the larger population of the bereaved, most of whom had a different experience.
Researchers Dennis Klass and Tony Walter contend that this view of grief, in which the dead were banned from the lives of those surviving them, gained popularity as interest in the afterlife waned in Western society. The growing influence of the scientific worldview in the twentieth century led to death being viewed as a medical failure or accident rather than as an inevitable part of the human condition. The physician George Lundberg wrote about the difficulties caused by the expectations of both physicians and those they serve that they can keep death away rather than accepting that death is both natural and inevitable.
The twentieth-century Western approach to human behavior that valued individuation and autonomy also supported the focus on detachment. Bowlby's development of the theory of attachment behavior in children focused on the individual and how his or her needs could be met. As this theory was subsequently applied to bereavement theory, the interactive, relational aspects of the process were not clearly spelled out. In the "letting go" model, a linear lens is applied, as if one experience can lead to one outcome, and this is how attachment theory was often applied as well. Yet psychologist Jerome Bruner noted that people can rarely be put into a simple cause-and-effect model. There are simply too many intervening variables reflecting the complexity of real life. In a linear model, bereavement is seen as a psychological condition or illness from which people could recover with the right treatment. In fact, bereavement does not go away but is a difficult and expected part of the normal life cycle; it is a period of loss, of change and transition in how the bereaved relate to themselves, to the deceased, and to the world around them.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century views of bereavement continue to evolve. There is a growing recognition of the complexity of the human condition and the importance of relationships in people's lives. Humans now recognize that the goal of development is not independence but interdependence. Relationships with others, living or dead, frame one's sense of self and how one lives. More and more we appreciate that there is continuity between the past and the present. Without a sense of the past and an understanding of its place in people's lives, it is difficult to move ahead.
Various Expressions of Continuing Bonds
It is important not only for the individual but also for the community to find a way to relate to the deceased. Just as an individual's personal life is disrupted in a profound way by a death, so too is the larger social world. Ritual can play an important role in finding a place for the dead in the reconstituted world of both the bereaved and the community. In many cultures, religious beliefs and views of life after death govern the experience of the relationship.
In Catholicism, for example, mourners are expected to have a memorial mass on the anniversary of the death. In Judaism, mourners are obligated to remember family members who died by participating in synagogue memorial services five times during the year, including the anniversary of the death. Klass described the rituals practiced in the home in Japan to honor the deceased and their role in the family's ongoing life. He describes the Buddha altar where spirits of the deceased are venerated in daily prayer. In some societies, dreams in which the deceased appeared as well as other experiences of the deceased served to keep the deceased present in the survivors' lives. There are societies where there is no reference to the deceased after their death. In some communities, such as Native American communities, there is fear of the deceased returning to disrupt the lives of those left behind, and in other communities, like the aboriginal communities of Australia, there is a concern that talking about the deceased disrupts the soul's journey to the next life. This silence in the community does not mean that there is no bond with the deceased; it is simply a relationship of a different sort that is unfamiliar to Westerners.
Constructing a Bond
An understanding of the nature of the continuing relationship presupposes a specific knowledge of the deceased whether he or she was a young person, an old person, a parent, a child, a friend, or a member of the extended family. All of these roles reflect the relationship between the mourner and the deceased. What did the mourner lose? On what is the continuing connection being built? What part did the deceased play in the mourner's life? In the community's life? What did he or she contribute? What will be missing? All of these issues affect the connection.
The development of a bond is conscious, dynamic, and changing. Mourners' faith systems can affect the way in which they incorporate the departed into their lives. Some people believe that the deceased live in another dimension. Many believe the deceased are there to intervene and support them. Others do not depend on a faith system but rather build the connection out of the fabric of daily life and the sense of the deceased they carry within them.
Individuals can learn a good deal about continuing bonds from children and adolescents. They build a new relationship with the deceased by talking to the deceased, locating the deceased (usually in heaven), experiencing the deceased in their dreams, visiting the grave, feeling the presence of the deceased, and by participating in mourning rituals. The researchers Claude Normand, Phyllis Silverman, and Steven Nickman found that over time the children of deceased parents developed a connection to the departed that they described as "becoming their parent's living legacy" (Normand 1996, p. 93). They began to emulate their parents in ways that they believe would have pleased them, thus confirming social worker Lily Pincus's thesis that mourners identify with the deceased, adopting aspects of the deceased's behavior and feeling that the deceased has become part of their current identity.
Adults also find themselves dreaming, talking to, and feeling the presence of the deceased. Some see the deceased as a role model from whose wisdom and learning they can draw. They sometimes turn to the deceased for guidance. They also tend to adopt or reject a moral position identified with the deceased in order to clarify their own values. Finally, they actively form their thoughts in ways that facilitate their remembering the deceased.
Psychologist Lora Helms Tessman describes the dilemma an adult child experienced trying to reconcile her father's Nazi background while maintaining a "liveable" memory of him. Psychiatrist Ann Marie Rizzuto observed that the process of constructing inner representations involves the whole individual and that these representations grow and change with the individual's development and maturation. The role of the other person is very important so that construction is partly a social activity. Parents play a key role in helping their bereaved children relate to the deceased and in keeping him or her in their lives.
One sees that grief is never finished, that the way the bereaved relate to the deceased changes as they develop over the life cycle, whether they be young or old mourners. Yet there seems to be a lack of appropriate language for describing mourning as part of the life cycle. People need to stop thinking of grief as being entirely present or absent. People rarely just "get over it," nor do they ever really find "closure." The phrase "continuing bonds" is one contribution to a new language that reflects a new understanding of this process.
A continuing bond does not mean, however, that people live in the past. The very nature of mourners' daily lives is changed by the death. The deceased are both present and absent. One cannot ignore this fact and the tension this creates in the bereavement process. The bond shifts and takes new forms in time, but the connection is always there. Mourners, especially children, may need help from their support networks to keep their bonds alive or to let the deceased rest. Connections to the dead need to be legitimized. People need to talk about the deceased, to participate in memorial rituals, and to understand that their mourning is an evolving, not a static, process. In the words of a nineteenth-century rabbi, Samuel David Luzzatto, "Memory sustains man in the world of life" (Luzzatto, p. 318).
See also: Freud, Sigmund; Grief: Theories; Grief Counseling and Therapy
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PHYLLIS R. SILVERMAN
See Cadaver Experiences.