"These evolving bonds continue to bear relevance in our lives. The departed continues to be a relevant family member or friend or colleague. As our story continues to unfold, their story does as well in relation to us."
Whenever humans find a way to make a connection between them and any sentient creature - there is a bond. We tend to think of these bonds in more practical terms – being engaged in activities, making plans, working on projects, enjoying each other's personality. We also think of them in rather static terms, as “we are married,” “we are best friends” or “we are team mates.”
These tangible expressions could also be thought of in intangible terms. Perhaps the connections of “wife”, child” or “loved one” are, for example, codified methods of simplifying our interior landscape of connectivity. If that connectivity were tangible and visible to the eye – it might look like a map with two cities and traffic moving back and forth along foot trails or country dirt roads or two-lane highways or super-highways spanning between them. The cities represent our interior heart-space, the trails, roads and highways represent the active bonds traveling back and forth between us, slow or fast, large or small, that keep connection flowing.
These traveling arteries, as it were, change over the course of time and space. They may start as small footpaths only to become large traffic-bearing roads. Bridges sometimes need to be built. Seasons may affect the traffic, were we to take this metaphor to a further description.
Couples who are separated by military service or careers that require travel can stay successfully bonded when they experience their bonds and connections as still bearing traffic even when the real-time presence of their partner is not afforded to them. As well, friends can be separated for years and have sweet reunion with one another, showing that the bonds have still remained regardless of physical proximity. Children can move away from parents without losing emotional warmth. These are more like bridges – and we might call them "bridging behaviors." They keep a relationship relevant when physical separation is a factor.
In this way, the intangible nature of our bonds can be seen as hyper-flexible to accommodate conditions and circumstances that can be downright catastrophic. When I was a docent at the Tolerance Museum in Los Angeles, I recall a speaker sharing that research had been done on those that had survived the holocaust as to what might have contributed to their endurance. Why did some survive and some perish? The researchers posited that the singular most evocative possibility that helped people survive under such horrific events was the bonds that caused people to long to be reunited with their loved ones.
Piaget was a psychological researcher who delved into a developmental phase that all infants experience he called “object permanence.” This describes when an infant begins to understand that things and people still exist even when no longer visible to the eye. This insight comes to the baby as early as four to five months, and is when the infant's delight over the game “peak-a-boo” reaches its apex. Other psychologists have joined Piaget in coaching young parents to understand that the idea of object permanence can help them to reduce their children's separation anxiety. If a parent handles the object permanence phase of their infant's life well, it sets children up to be able to experience separation as adults without becoming emotionally unravelled. We learn that periods of separation are not only survivable, but like the peek-a-boo game, can make life more interesting. It is interesting when our beloved leaves and comes back with stories and ideas that refreshen our experience of the world and our bond between us.
What does this have to do with grief and loss of a loved one through death? I want to suggest that, even though we understand our relationships most often in static terms among the living, that since bonds are intangible and dynamic, we might consider the possibility of “evolving bonds.”
Even though the separation we face at death is a horrible tangible loss – even so, no matter how horrible, the loss cannot detract from the intangible bond. This bond may not function in physical real-time like it previously has- you cannot pick them up for a cup of coffee - but the bond can be available to you nonetheless after the moment of separation. We may not sit for a meal together, but we may maintain an interior landscape rich with relationship and meaning. The possibility is there for us to explore.
In 1996 there was a book published, entitled: Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. This book rebutted the idea of Freud's that was in heavily in use which purported that the function of grief and mourning was to cut bonds with the deceased, thereby freeing the survivor to reinvest in new relationships and in present-day life. This 1996 book advocated that the resolution of grief enables one to maintain a continuing bond with the deceased that is not supplanted by the present. In fact, the book heralds the idea that the relationship with the deceased may actually provide resources for enriched functioning in the present.
I am indebted to this concept, and I have taken this idea a bit farther, by morphing the phrase “continuing bonds” to “evolving bonds”. Participating in mourning rituals, having conversations with the deceased, experiences of the deceased in dreaming, pilgrimage to places associated with the deceased, honoring the deceased - all are examples of tangible ways that the relationship with the deceased continue. One might make a scrapbook, plant a meditation gardens, host a fundraiser in honor of the deceased – all ways of tangibly maintaining connection and bonds.
Intangibles may include adopting aspects of the deceased's behavior, character traits, or welcoming the deceased conceptually into their present and future in a meaningful way. People needn't have a spiritual sense of the beloved deceased person, they may attribute these bonds to a psychological presence or a presence of energy. An example – perhaps when we are watching a news story, it occurs to us that the departed might have had opinions on this story and through these contemplations a new set of insights and ideas are afforded to us – in real time – through interjecting our beloved.
Evolving experiences with the departed can also be thought of outside of a static “past-tense” terms. This is more dynamic of a role between the living and the dead, and why I felt the need to open up the phrase by using the word “evolving” over the word “continuing.” Maybe we need to make a decision and we have a moment of thought or communication with the departed about what they would like to see us do. These communion moments might include our work as survivors in making adjustments to or helping resolve our grief. They also needn't be individual, as there is a social and communal nature of evolving bonds. Families and communities might be enriched from continuing connection with the deceased. Rather than severing and viewing the deceased in past-tense, the relationship is present-tense and "bridging behaviors" are utilized. There is a geographic separation, but not a heart separation.
These evolving bonds continue to bear relevance in our lives. The departed continues to be a relevant family member or friend or colleague. As our story continues to unfold, their story does as well in relation to us. The love expressed is as strong or stronger as it was previous to the loss. And, people I have spoken with who report this kind of active relationship with the deceased say that it makes them feel better. They outlive the acute pain of early loss and are sustained over time, demonstrating that the departed is still playing a relevant role in their surviving and thriving.