Losing a Loved One: A Continued Bond

I recall many years ago seeing clients that were navigating the death of their loved ones, and at the time a referring psychiatrist alluding to my role in "helping them let go, so they can move on".

At the time I recall thinking that in my own culture we have rituals that perpetuate the bond with the dead, quite the reverse from detaching. In fact I recall clients from a range of cultures also alluding to their continued attachments with their dead loved ones, and furthermore how these bonds were in and of themselves a source of support in their current lived reality.

Of course the bond is not a physical connection but it is transformed nevertheless into an altered attachment. Lalande and Bonanno (2006) found that grieving individuals in China experience stronger continuing bonds with their deceased than in the United States. They attributed this to the communal rituals which value social support and cultural identity. In contrast these authors suggest that the individualistic practices of the west do not promote the notion of forging a bond with the dead (Lalande et al, 2006).

It may even be that ritual is possibly underutilized in the western, more secularized society (we are governed by more medical notions of "letting go"); perhaps rituals that memorialize our dead not only serve to forge bonds between the living and the dead, but they may also unite the living together with one another. For example there is a Jewish ritual where a ceremony called kaddish (mourners recite daily for 11 months after a parent's death and then annually on the anniversary of the parent's death) uses at least 10 people to facilitate a smooth journey of the deceased into the next world ( Rubin, 2014).

Also in some eastern cultures these continued bonds appear to offer reciprocal benefit to both the living and the dead, whereas in the west it is more a one way benefit for the survivor to use the continued bond to self support. For example in my grief work, I may work with that attachment bond as a means to an end, assist the survivor to cope better in their current life space. In contrast the essence of a continued bond in some eastern cultures is not purely around an inner psychological state as in our western research, but it also has a meta physical resonance, known as a soul or spirit (Valentine, 2009).

Finally when addressing continued bonds through a cross cultural lens the value systems attached to specific communities construct and mould the nature of how we bond with the dead. The 21st century seems to include somewhat of a revival of community and ancient traditions surrounding death (Walter, 2014) and thus it is possible that in the same way that we cannot separate ourselves from our community, we also cannot separate the living from the dead.