Wednesday, September 26, 2012

continuing bonds

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her lecture had to do with moving past the cliched "five stages" of grief, a model which has been considered a little outdated by people who study grief and loss for a while now but is still quite prevalent in popular culture.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?


  1. such an interesting post, especially your discussion on continuing bonds.

    when we lost our son, I saw a grief counselor who trained with elisabeth kubler ross -- she of 5 stages fame -- and even years ago EKR knew her framework was "only the beginning," merely a way to look at death and grief, not instruction for how to DO it. the stages are also not linear, except for ultimate "acceptance" which is better viewed as integration into your "new normal" life. grief certainly is WORK and I think worden's model makes a lot of sense.

    on continuing bonds, for our ancestors no longer with us, we keep framed photos and light candles on their birthdays, and we tell stories.

    for our daughter's birth family, we have framed photos among our family pix and we discuss them as we do other family members. we regularly draw connections to make explicit those bonds. for instance, when discussing eye color, we remind J that she shares the same gorgeous shade of green as her (birth) uncle, or we show pix of her birth mom as a young girl to show the similarities -- e.g., her golden locks and wide open smile. or we tell stories. all in the hopes of normalizing their presence, even when they're not here.

  2. When I was 35 and very very single, I married myself. "Eloped" with myself to Lake Ozatte for a solo backpack trip. Got a ring at my favorite little art gallery in the Fremont neighborhood. The ring has 7 opals (7 sacraments, 7 chakras, 7 people in my family of origin) framed by three grooves on each side (mind, heart, soul-God, Son, Spirit). Inside the ring, i had craved the words: To thyself be true. I wore this ring on my left hand, third finger for 4 years...until I got engaged and married. Now 8 years later when I feel completely swamped by family life (we have a 3 yo daughter) and disconnected from my self and who I was before all this life happened to me...I wear my ring.

    Like Luna, we have framed photos of our daughter's first family out to look at everyday. Almost every night I do a "litany of love" as our daughter drifts off to sleep. I speak the names of everyone who loves her starting with her first mother, us, family members and their pets, neighbors and their pets, our best friends, and ending with God...the sky...the earth... Our daughter sometimes adds her own names of loved ones to the list. I say the name of someone and add ...loves you..." Sometimes when we are tired and I shorten the list, our daughter asks "More love?!"

  3. I am so sorry for your loss...I know how hard it is, as we lost a four year old son the same way. We actually keep in touch and send birthday and Christmas cards. But it is not the same...

  4. That's so interesting, I'd love to hear more about the "new" model.

  5. I'm setting up a blog tour for the book Open Adoption, Open Heart. Wondering if you would be able to put up a post as part of the tour?

    More info can be found here:

    If this isn't for you but you know some who might be interested I'd appreciate if you could pass the info on to them.

    Thanks for your time!