Maintaining Bonds With Our Deceased Loved Ones


The park on my parents-in-law’s ranch in the remote hills of northern California had been decorated in fernery, and Gary and I were married beneath the monkey bars (don’t read anything into that).

My father-in-law, Jack, had welded together adult-sized playground equipment in a stand of tall, fragrant trees above their ranch house.

Casterlin Ranch Park (Photo: Oliver Johnson)

There was the swing with its 50-ft cables that you backed up a small incline and let loose, hanging on for dear life; and the zip line that thunked against a large spring strategically placed to keep zip liners from doing face plants on a tree. The merry-go-round still flies at 60 mph, even when weighted down with a dozen people.

I’ve not been back to the ranch since long before Gary died of cancer, but this past weekend, we laid mom-in-law’s ashes next to dad-in-law’s grave, and a few of Gary’s ashes were buried beneath a nearby headstone (with room for me, the siblings-in-law noted, which makes me wonder what they’re up to).

After a family time of remembrance in the tiny cemetery that looks out to high green hills across a beautiful little valley, we joined up with 75 or so people crowded into the small community center that used to be a one-room schoolhouse. Memories of my mother-in-law were shared by the good folks whose lives she impacted, some of whom still live in these beautiful remote hills.

After a full sit-down meal, three generations of Johnsons gathered at Casterlin Ranch where Gary and I were married, now owned by family friends, to play in the park that Jack built.

This past week’s activities opened up a fresh tenderness in my heart. Is it worth it? These events and remembrances? This heart-soreness?

Oh, yes. Absolutely yes.

Recently, the title of an article, “16 Tips for Continuing Bonds with People We’ve Lost,” caught my eye. Maintaining bonds with the people we’ve lost? Really? Doesn’t that sound a bit communing-with-the-dead-ish?

But then I read the article and was surprised to discover I had done several things on the list.

Eleanor Haley and Litsa Williams, two mental health care professionals specializing in bereavement, write about the Continuing Bonds theory of grieving in an article entitled, “Continuing Bonds: Shifting the Grief Paradigm.”

“When your loved one dies, grief isn’t about working through a linear process that ends with acceptance or a new life. Rather, when a loved one dies, you slowly find ways to adjust and redefine your relationship with that person, allowing for a continued bond that will endure. … This is not only normal and healthy, but an important part of grief.”

I’d never heard of the Continuing Bonds theory of grieving, but there were things I did innately in what I hoped was a healthy way of keeping Gary’s delicious memory alive.

Listed here are 10 ideas for maintaining connection with a loved one — some from the list compiled by grief counselors Haley and Williams, and some of what I practiced:

  1. Talk to the person you lost.

The times I talk out loud to Gary are mostly along a favorite trail. I remind him what a good husband he was; how easy he was to be married to; how I loved our life together. It makes me feel as if he’s hiking a bit of the trail with me.

  1. Write letters to them.

Two of my letters to Gary became blog posts — “An unsent love letter” and “You are missing from me” — which ended up being quite therapeutic.

  1. Imagine what advice they would give you when making tough decisions.

Gary and I had talked about not making any major decisions for the first six to twelve months of widowhood. And then shortly after he died, I took an early retirement. And moved out of state. But these decisions weren’t based on spur-of-the-moment flightiness. After counsel from my adult children and other family members, my decisions were based on what I knew Gary would want for me.

  1. Plant a tree, establish a recurring scholarship.

One family, whose teenaged son died, planted a tree near the high school he attended and established a scholarship in his memory. Every year, it goes to a deserving band member because their son was in the high school band and enjoyed music.

  1. Talk about your loved one with people who never got to know them.

My three youngest grandchildren never met their grandfather, but I’ve shown them the video my son-in-law created for Gary’s Celebration of Life service—often, because they keep asking to see it—and I talk about Hubby to all the grands. And to anyone else who will listen.

  1. Finish a project your loved one was working on.

A most amazing example of this is from a book I read by Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me. Kate was left with three children when her husband died on duty as a highway patrolman. She went back to college to become a chaplain to first responders, which was her husband’s goal.

Grief counselors Haley and Williams write, “Be it a project around the house, a piece of artwork, a team they coached, or a volunteer project they were involved in, consider picking up where they left off.”

  1. Take a trip they always wanted to take.

After hiking in Oregon’s Cascades, the Colorado Rockies and Wyoming’s Tetons, Gary and I had planned a Swiss Alps adventure. But we ran out of time. A year after he died, I trekked through Switzerland and it turned out to be an epic life-affirming adventure.

  1. Keep something that belonged to your loved one.

I made a lap quilt from my husband’s shirts. My only regret is laundering the shirts beforehand, which means my sweetly comforting quilt doesn’t smell like Hubby. But when I wrap it around me on chilly evenings, it most certainly feels like a hug from him.

  1. Enjoy their favorite foods.

After we were eating more healthfully during the cancer years, Gary wrote a rule: “On my birthday, I get to eat whatever I want.” And then he wrote a second similar rule for his half-birthday. After which I firmly said, with hands on hips and raised eyebrow, “Okay, but there will be no quarter birthdays.” After which he grinned his cute grin.

I hadn’t thought about this, but I should eat out on his birthday, and order a steak and something sinfully chocolate-y in remembrance of his crazy birthday-rule-writing ways.

  1. Encourage kindness in honor of the loved one.

Every year on Gary’s birthday, I promote the Porch Fairy Challenge — inviting friends and family to leave a gift on someone’s porch, inspired by the original Porch Fairy who flooded our front porch with love at a time when my husband was slipping away from me. It is sweetness to my heart to read about all the Porch-Fairying going on. In honor of Hubby.

* * *

“Most ‘regular’ people haven’t gotten the memo yet,” write Haley and Williams, the two grief counselors. “The old school models of ‘detachment’ and ‘letting go’ still run deep in our pop culture.”

“Hence the insensitive comments from people telling you that you need to ‘move on’ or ‘find closure.’”

The professionals are now understanding no one really gets over grief. Instead, we learn to manage it, and create a new life while taking part of the old life with us.

What we did as a family this past week — the sprucing up of gravesites and placing new headstones, the partaking of good food and great memories and copious amounts of laughter — was part of staying connected to our deceased loved ones.

No matter that a fresh missingness has torn open in my heart, I can’t help but think Gary and his parents were pleased with this gathering of family and community, this continuation of bonds with them and with each other.