In the first weekly didactic session (fancy word for education time) for CPE a hospital social worker came in to talk with us about Grief and Loss. She is someone who works in palliative care and does a lot of grief counseling in that role. One of the valuable pieces of information for me in her lecture had to do with moving past the cliched "five stages" of grief, a model which has been considered a little outdated by people who study grief and loss for a while now but is still quite prevalent in popular culture. I was aware that the stages weren't as universally accepted as they once were, but I didn't know what, if anything, had replaced them when preparing people for what to expect while grieving.
In our session we learned about the new model (1990s new, so not that new) by someone named William Worden that talks about grief as work - and there are tasks associated with that work that anyone who is grieving engages in. The work comes and goes, much like housework or any sort of domestic tasks, and we cycle through it with some days being more intense than others. I like this, and may write more about it later.
But the key thing I took away, the thing I am thinking about every day in and out of my work at the hospital has to do with getting rid of the idea of "closure" or "acceptance" as the final stage of grieving a loss. In fact, according to Worden's model, there is no final stage of grief because it isn't something that you complete. It is work you do, and unlike the idea of "stages" which imply progression and completion the work of grief is something that doesn't necessarily have to end, but is instead a new way of being in relationship with that which or whom has been lost.
Now, the social worker instructed us, we consider it more helpful to talk about "continuing bonds" with the person who has been lost. She spoke about the ways in which people commemorate their dead - marking the day of their death with a celebration, wearing a treasured piece of their jewelry, writing letters or having conversations with the loved one - all these are ways to continue in relationship with the one you have lost even though they are not physically present.
I haven't been able to stop thinking this idea and how it applies to so much more than death.
For example, much of what Open Adoption is about is creating a continuing bond between a first parent and child. I struggle with how to do this in ways that are healthy, honest, and good but it is essentially what I want for my kids - for them to weave the story of their first parents into their everyday lives in ways that are healthy and normalized for them, despite the loss of those first parents' as a physical daily presence.
Or, on another tack, I think about all the ways any of us work to keep parts of our past selves alive as we change and grow away from who we have been. The tattoo on my left arm is a way for me to keep a moment in my life - playing music with incredible friends - alive forever despite knowing when I got it that the opportunity to be in that sort of creative relationship with those women was someday going to end. The box of pictures from college that I can't yet make myself sort through and thin out is a similar bond with a time in my own life that has passed.
And yet another way I've been thinking about it is religion - thousands of years of rituals, belief systems, patterns of life and prayer that enable us to reach out to and maintain relationship with the Ultimate, that which no individual can physically touch or fully intellectually conceptualize but none the less much of humanity seeks and has sought after for all of the time our species has been. Religion is a powerful continuing bond - a way of coping with the loss of our God(s), the alone-ness of being a human being in the world. For my faith tradition the story of Adam and Eve is a way of describing that primal Loss - and all of our faith and belief and ritual since has been a way to continue relationship with a God who no longer meets us to walk in the garden as the sun is setting.
What do you do to continue your bonds with that which you have lost?