Lita was the love of Jerome’s life. When Lita died of cancer after 27 years of marriage, Jerome was sure he would never remarry. Then he met Barbara.
Barbara had been married to the love of her life, Carl, for almost 30 years. She, too, was sure she would never remarry after his death. And then she met Jerome.
From the beginning of their lives together, Jerome and Barbara consciously chose to continue strong bonds with their loved ones: in the long hallway of their new home they hung a picture gallery that included favorite photos of their first spouses. Carl’s and Lita’s birthdays were always acknowledged with cake and story-telling and their favorite special-occasion dishes served at holiday meals.
After marrying Jerome, Barbara continued to talk to Carl - if she needed advice regarding a big decision to be made she ran it by Carl through imagined conversation and by Jerome on their nightly walks together. Barbara continued to tell Carl of her joys (a new daughter-in-law!) and sorrows (the death of her sister) and the funny and oh-so-human things that happened in her day-to-day life. And she continued writing letters to Carl in the form of a journal, maintaining a tradition first begun when he was alive, away on a business trip during their first year of marriage.
Jerome, too, continued to have imagined conversations with Lita. When Jerome told his best friend this, his friend said, “You know that sounds kind of crazy, Jerome. And I have to tell you, having all those pictures in your house is kind of weird – doesn’t it make you and Barbara uncomfortable or jealous or something to have to look at who you used to be married to?”
Jerome was hurt and baffled by his friend’s words. While Lita had died, his love for her had not. He knew he was happy once again because he had learned how to carry loss in a way that honored his first love and honored his new life. And Barbara had learned to do the same.
The Continuing Bonds Theory of Grief
Jerome was my father-in-law, Barbara the only mother-in-law I ever knew. When I was first welcomed into the family fold I found the way Lita and Carl were incorporated into the shared fabric of family life curious - and wonderful. All the relatives and family friends I knew who remarried after the death of a spouse made sure to put away all photos of the first husband or wife so as not to – presumably - distress or cause jealousy in the second spouse. And of course the first spouses were rarely spoken of. This was long before I was a grief support specialist but even then I thought there must be another way of doing things; it was Jerome and Barbara who first showed me that way.
There are many grief theories. Before the 1990s, most Western culture grief models were based on the idea that the goal of healthy grieving was to let go of or get past the death of a loved one by going through specific stages of grief, or by doing specific tasks until grief had reached an end-point and was now done. Such linear-based theories rarely meshed with the reality of the grieving process for most people. Then in 1996, the grief researchers Phylliss Silverman, Dennis Klass and Steven Nickman, challenged the assumption that grief has an end-point. They published a book called Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief that suggested the focus of a healthy grieving process is for the griever to create and nurture a new relationship with their deceased loved one, a relationship adapted or adjusted to the reality of what was lost and what now remains. According to continuing bonds theory, staying connected with your loved one is not only normal but can also be helpful in coping with grief and the pain of loss. This grief processing concept is now widely accepted by grief professionals as a healthy, even empowering, model for grieving.
In my work as a grief support specialist I have found continuing bonds behaviors to be a primary way my clients intuitively express, process and heal grief. Some common continuing bonds expressions include: holding onto your loved ones belongings; maintaining rituals you shared with your loved one; and continuing to visit places that you used to visit together. Some additional continuing bonds behaviors and activities include:
Talking to your deceased loved one. This is a common and normal way to continue a relationship with a loved one. We talk with our lost loved ones because it brings us comfort, helps us feel connected and less alone. Such conversations can be out-loud or in our heads – and even in prayer. I have a client who continues to end her evening prayers by saying to her long-dead sister, “Hi! Love you. Thinking of you. Hope all is well.”
Imagining what your loved one would say about… Imagining what your loved one would say can help make big or complex choices easier. A young female client told me she had recently begun seeking her deceased husband’s advice on how to handle their teenage son’s up-and- down moods. Lacking in confidence when it comes to “being the only parent from now on,” my client said she finds asking her husband what he would do in a given situation helps to ease her sense of overwhelm about being a single parent.
Displaying photos of your loved one. It is common in the grieving process to feel a sense of renewed loss when the face - or voice - of a loved one begins to fade from memory. Photos or the voice of our loved one on a voicemail can help us navigate the transition of our loved one from actual physical presence to presence in memory. Photos also serve as a reminder of the important role our loved one had – and continues to have – in our lives.
Incorporating your loved one into events and special days. Jerome and Barbara celebrated their first spouses’ birthdays with cake and story-telling and the holidays by making sure to serve at least one dish deemed a Lita or Carl favorite. Why? Because they knew they would be thinking about them anyway so why not involve them in events? There are many other ways to openly acknowledge the importance of loved ones on special events days (see the blog In Sadness and Celebration: Acknowledging Special Days).
Making your loved one proud. Jerome had two regrets after Lita died: rather than "work, work, work" he wished he had spent more time with her prior to her long battle with cancer; and he wished they had traveled to the places they talked about "someday going when we have time." A relatively young man when he married Barbara, Jerome vowed to be "a better husband the second time around.” And he kept his word. He cut back on his work hours and traveled to Spain, the Greek Isles and Italy – all places he had planned to someday visit with Lita. Jerome liked to think that Lita was proud of the man he “grew into being after she was gone."