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Why, and How, Relationships Go on Even After Death

A new approach to grief that rejects detachment.

Key points

  • Death ends the boundary of a life, but it does not end a relationship.
  • Along with loss, our identity no longer exists in relation to a familiar being, but our continued bonds may keep them with us.
  • Keeping deceased loved ones with us, in whatever way, resolves the painful discrepancy between current reality and past memories.

Just as Polaris—the North Star—is a fixed destination in the northern sky, a guiding directional light for navigators, and a metaphorical beacon of hope, relationships are also an anchor or watchtower that keeps us from getting lost amid the changes that happen in life. The awareness that someone is missing outside of our being corresponds to their absence within us that has contributed to our self-definition. Along with loss, our identity no longer exists in relation to a familiar being. However, our continued bonds may keep them with us.

If we share a life with someone, we accrue memories of the past, and we store dreams and expectations. We find it difficult to reconcile their death with our anticipated future. In essence, the continuing bond fits into a mental framework or schema that integrates our memories of someone while they were living with our recent memories of their absence and our current experience of life without them. Thus, keeping deceased loved ones with us, in whatever way we may do so, resolves the painful discrepancy between current reality and past memories.

Through thought and memories, we continue our bonds with those we love and have forever lost. Some people focus on a sign or signal of a loved one’s presence, such as the blooming of an orchid on the anniversary of a death, or a hummingbird fluttering at the window. Others privately communicate with departed loved ones through fantasies, prayers, rituals, holy objects, or conversations. Clients have described to me the “altars” they have created, such as a table with items of the deceased that honors their memory. One person told me that he plays the favorite music of a lost friend to “spend time with him.” Indeed, we can imagine our way into an ongoing relationship with the deceased.

Perhaps in our attempts to make sense of grief, we have ignored the processes that happen organically in human memory. For instance, the process of folding new information into memory involves reinterpreting a new experience so that it fits with preexisting information. One way to resolve the dissonance between memories of someone who was once living with the reality of their absence in the present is to create a continuing bond.

Although death ends the boundary of a life, it does not end a relationship (Hall, 2014). There is a healthy aspect to maintaining a bond with the deceased, and the severing of bonds may not be necessary (Klass et al., 1996). Nevertheless, some mourners may keep bonds with deceased loved ones to themselves, considering a connection with someone who has died as sacred, personal, or even shameful.

If we can use our memories to restore a lost connection, then imagining the person is still here with us in some way can be a pillar of support and a source of comfort. Many people have an occasionally one-sided conversation with someone who has died, assuming the departed can hear them or can help them. If we consider that we learned something from the relationship when the person was alive, we can continue learning through our memories of them as well as through any inferences we make about how they would respond. When one is vulnerable, calling up memories of someone as a source of hope or protection can create a sense of stability, a feeling that they are still here with us. We don’t know if the deceased are actually with us, of course. In my own mind, it does not matter.

Particular beliefs related to our culture, religion, and the environment in which we live affect the thoughts we assign to situations; therefore, our cognitive perception of a situation may determine how we interpret and respond emotionally to it (J. S. Beck, 2011). For example, if we believe people who have died are somehow looking after us, we may interpret disappointment as something that is ultimately in our best interest based on “their” assessment of the situation. People may use their beliefs to bolster their resilience, and whether or not this is helpful in the long run has yet to be determined.

Who benefits from maintaining ties to the deceased, or relinquishing them, continues to be an area of study (Stroebe & Schut, 2005). For example, researchers have found more significant separation distress in survivors who have strong continuing bonds but cannot make personal, practical, existential, or spiritual sense of their losses (Neimeyer et al., 2006). Any continued relationship with the departed involves retrieving memories to represent them in our thoughts or even in our dreams. A sad truth regarding continued bonds is that the deceased no longer grow with us, at least as far as we know.

In some cases, a grieving person’s attempts to maintain a connection with the deceased may elicit anxiety and subsequent maladaptive behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, in response to loss (Bonanno et al., 2001; Bowlby, 1980). Paradoxically, some research has indicated that merged identity, such as that which happens in a long and interdependent marriage, can lead to identity continuity and less severe grief. In other words, maintaining a continuing bond through recollection and ritual might be beneficial for individuals with a merged identity, compared with those who have a merged identity and thus cannot maintain a connection (Badia, 2019).

In the past, experts on grief have suggested that people confront the reality of their loss, review events that occurred around that time, focus on memories, and work toward detachment from the deceased (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991). Thankfully, contemporary bereavement research has shifted the goals for the bereaved, focusing instead on how we make sense of our suffering, find meaning in loss, and reconsider who we are (Neimeyer & Thompson, 2014; Strecher, 2016). In doing so, we may bring memories of those we lost with us into the present and future.

[Excerpted in part from Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]

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Strecher, V. J. (2016). Life on purpose: How living for what matters most changes everything. Harper.

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