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Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

Thinking About Continuing Bonds

view of grief changing to focus on remembering

I had an interesting experience at the annual meeting of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) in Kansas City from April 7 to April 10, 2010. There were a number of papers about how mourners maintain a relationship to the deceased. This relationship provides them with comfort, and facilitates their coping realistically and effectively with their grief. It was of special interest to me since I was partly responsible for this change in the way grief and relationships with the deceased are now accepted. This may have been in part why I was awarded the first ADEC life time achievement award at this meeting. I felt very proud of the work on this subject, that was done almost 20 years ago. It was a time when we were talking a good deal about relationships and their importance in our lives. This was another aspect of living that we began to look at differently, letting go of the quest for autonomy of self that was seen as the goal of human development. The focus, for those who were mourning, was no longer on letting go, but on staying connected albeit in different ways.

No one that I heard at the ADEC meeting talked about letting go, of finding ways of putting the past behind them. There were also a number of books in the exhibit displays written to honor someone who was now deceased and to talk about their life and their meaning in the author's life. This is not a new phenomenon, but it's importance is now recognized.

Those of us trying to understand and be helpful to the bereaved are much more comfortable now with the idea that we always carry many relationships within us. A person does not always have to be present for us to feel connected. When the absence is the result of a death it is necessary to change the nature of the relationship rather than letting it go. As in life, relationship change shape and form as time passes. They may live in our memory, in the things we do, in the stories we tell.

I am often reminded of the children and teen agers we talked with in the Child Bereavement Study. They hadn't read the literature and so they didn't know they were supposed to let go of the past. They found many ways of developing a relationship with someone who wasn't there anymore. Dreams were one way of remaining connected. They proved to be opportunities to interact and continue to experience a dead parent. Some saw dreams as a means of receiving reassuring messages. A 15 year old remembered a dream that left her with a very good feeling:

I dreamed we met on my way home from school; he hugged me. I kept some of that warmth after I woke up.

Teen agers sometimes found it easier to share these experiences with me as part of my research. They worried that they might upset their parent if they told him or her, their dreams about their now dead parent. Regardless of what they bring up they worried that they might cause their parent to cry. They became protective. They did not want to cause their parent any more pain, and they also realized that this is the only parent they have.

Sometimes memories are personal and private but, on the other hand, it can be very helpful if they are shared. Even sharing tears can be helpful. It is a way of honoring the dead. The surviving parent is a resource as well to help their child know the parent who died. Sharing memories of the past when the other parent was alive is very important. This can be very helpful as children get older A young child typically considers what he or she has lost when they think of their now dead parent. As children move into their adolescent years they have a growing ability to see their dead parent as an individual who also lost something. These adolescents begin to see themselves as a living legacy for their deceased parent. They see themselves taking on aspects of their parent's values, goals, even behaviors, and in this way they remember them.

Remembering is not always easy for the surviving parent. It stirs in them the pain of what they have lost. Gradually with time this can become easier. Carrying memories of the deceased can be an important role for grandparents who are also grieving for the child they lost. A ten year old sought out her father's parents.

My mother won't talk about my father. She says we need to be strong and just carry on. My father's parents live nearby and I go visit them often. They love to tell me stories about him when he was my age. We talk and we laugh and we all feel better.

In talking about what we now call continuing bonds it becomes clear that what we know now is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many ways this can take place. Can this blog become a place where parents can share their experiences and how it helped. There may be negative sides to this and we need to know more about that as well. Please write and tell us about your experience.

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