Much of the 20th century focus of grief theory has been on severing bonds with a lost loved one, and moving on with one’s life. The 1996 book Continuing Bonds: Another View of Grief explores an alternate viewpoint: the idea that the bereaved maintain a link with the deceased. The continuing bonds theory has resonated with many mourners since the book’s publication, and this grief theory provides an ongoing methodology to explore a loss.

Exploring the Continuing Bonds Theory

Many of the older grief theories have dealt with the grief process in a linear manner. The idea of these models is that a bereaved individual must undergo certain steps during the mourning process, at the end of which mourning is completed and the individual is able to move on.

Under the continuing bonds theory, the bereavement process is not a linear series of steps with a finite conclusion. Instead, it is a time during which the bereaved finds a way to relate to the deceased, and adjusts the relationship as needed to continue the bond even though the other party is gone.

In more concrete terms, the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved must be redefined to compensate for the loss of the loved one. To begin this process, a series of questions can help a bereaved individual explore what he or she has lost with the death of the loved one:

  • What part did the deceased play in the life of the bereaved?
  • What did he or she contribute?
  • What is missing now that the deceased is gone?
  • Upon what is a continuing relationship being established?
  • Are there any faith-based beliefs that shape the way the bereaved is approaching the mourning process?

To build a continuing bond with a lost friend or family member, the bereaved must explore the relationship with the deceased and how it can manifest after the loss of this individual. For example, a bereaved individual may build a continuing bond that consists of:

  • A belief that the deceased is watching and providing support, even after death;
  • Talking to the deceased as if the deceased could see or hear the conversation;
  • Feeling the presence of a deceased individual and deriving comfort from this feeling;
  • Participating in mourning rituals;
  • Behaving in a manner that the mourner believes the deceased would want, or adopting aspects of the deceased’s behavior;
  • Turning to the deceased for guidance;
  • Adopting moral positions identified with a lost family member.

Through these behaviors, a bereaved individual can continue to remember and care for a lost loved one. However, the development of this sort of bond is dynamic - it changes as the bereaved undergoes other life experiences. It is not uncommon for a continuing bond to be redefined several times after the death of a loved one.

The ultimate takeaway of the continuing bonds theory of grief is that grief is never finished. A loss is not something that people “get over” - there is no finite process that provides closure and enables a bereaved person to detach from the lost loved one. This theory provides great comfort to many individuals, and reflects a more accurate representation of how many people deal with grief in today’s society.