By Ellen Kanagy, MSW, LCSW
The poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “Heavy,” wrote these words:
“It is not the weight you carry
but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it.
When you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
Many times when someone loses a loved one, there comes a point when well-meaning people communicate — either directly or indirectly — that it is time to move on, find closure, resolve this grief, let go, or even get over it.
Sometimes, even those who are bereaved may be giving themselves these messages.
Theories on grief
Traditional theories on grief suggest it is possible to reach closure or resolution that allows you to move forward into a new life beyond your loss. For years, experts spoke about the stages of grief a bereaved person moves through, with the last stage being acceptance.
More recently, though, grief specialists have begun to say that grief does not follow predictable stages. And that “closure,” as we call it, may not be possible or even desirable. These experts suggest instead that reshaping the relationship and developing a continuing connection with the one who has died is a healthier way of dealing with grief.
This is called continuing attachment or “continuing bonds.”
What do continuing bonds of grief look like?
Upon first hearing of this idea, someone may be afraid or concerned that they’ll always be grieving, experiencing crying, and feeling the painful loss and sadness. But there is a way a significant loss can be integrated into our lives and lead to gifts that would be lost if we focused on simply getting over our loss.
Finding ways to activate continuing bonds with a loved one can help, and there are countless possibilities for doing this. Here are a few examples:
- A family places a special ornament on the Christmas tree each year in memory of their grandfather.
- A mother sews “memory quilts” for her teenage children using pieces of T-shirts that their father wore prior to his death.
- A social worker wears an inexpensive necklace given by a hospice patient and remembers enjoyable visits in the home.
- Feeling sad, a child cuddles up on the sofa with a pillow and a pillow case he decorated for his grandmother who has since died, and feels comforted.
- A teen keeps her best friend’s picture on her cellphone and reviews the last texts they exchanged when missing her friend.
- A daughter sees a rainbow and senses her deceased mother’s presence, as her mother had always loved rainbows.
- An adult child makes pies each Thanksgiving for the family using their mother’s time-tested recipe.
These are a few examples that those who have loved and lost can maintain some sense of ongoing connection with loved ones — and there are many more.
Fear of forgetting
Many people experiencing grief express a fear of forgetting their loved one. They cannot or will not put down the weight of the memories or even their grief as they feel life pressing them to focus on the current demands of school, work, family, and community involvements.
In the midst of this, an intentional act to continue a bond with a loved one can ease their grief, extend the loved one’s influence in a positive way in their lives, help them integrate the loss in a healthy way, and introduce joy and even humor.
But what if the relationship with the deceased was not a close, warm one? What if the relationship in life was complicated or unpleasant? What if the death occurred in a sudden or traumatic way?
In those cases, it may be wise to explore the potential value and meaning of continuing bonds with a close friend, family member, or a counselor. The idea of a continuing bond is not helpful for everyone, and you may find other avenues more healing.
Samaritan Counseling Center offers counseling to cope with the loss of a loved one, as well as a film and therapeutic guide on grief: “Death Valley: A Love Story.” This resource shares an emotionally honest exploration of love, loss and the grieving process, and illustrates the powerful role of creative expression in restoring balance and hope.