Providing Opportunities for Expressing The ‘Continuing Bond’

Bateman VL

Abstract

This paper links the recently expanded bereavement theory about ‘Continuing Bonds’ put forward by Klass, Silverman, Nickman and others with the various programs offered by SIDSvictoria. The paper describes some of the ways parents maintain a continuing bond with their child who has died. It puts forward the notion that if parents accept support from a self-help organisation and go on to become involved in its activities, an opportunity is provided for the continuing bond they have with their child to be recognised, acknowledged and honoured by the community. The paper draws upon parents’ experiences of being involved in SIDSvictoria’s programs, and identifies the benefits of this involvement for the individual, organisation and the community.

Introduction

This paper’s aim is to focus upon the provision of opportunities to express, publicly, the continuing bond parents have with their child who has died, and the benefits to the individual, the community and the organisation, which result from these opportunities and resulting activities.

The Notion of the ‘Continuing Bond’

Over the last few years, writers, researchers and practitioners working in the field of bereavement have been arguing that the commonly held understanding of the grief ‘process’ needs to be expanded to include the notion that bereaved people maintain a ‘continuing bond’ with the person who has died. (Klass, Silverman and Nickman, 1996:3-5).

Klass, et al. (1996:3-5) in their book ‘Continuing Bonds – New Understandings in Grief’ challenge the dominant twentieth-century model of practise in relation to grief. The dominant model maintains that the function of grief and mourning is to cut bonds with the person who has died, thereby freeing the survivor to make new attachments, reinvest in new relationships, ‘work through’ their grief and let go of the past. (Peppers & Knapp, 1980; Rando, 1986; cited in Klass et al (1996:4)

Klass et al.(1996:xvii) state that, at best, the continuing bond bereaved people maintain with the person who has died has been overlooked or undervalued in most scholarly and clinical work; and at worst, deemed to be symptomatic of unresolved grief and/or pathology.

The book – ‘Continuing Bonds’, contains, among others, chapters on the death of a parent, sibling, spouse and child.

As each of the authors looked at the data from their respective research they realised that they were observing phenomena that could not be accounted for within the models of grief that most of their colleagues were using. They found that what they were observing was not a stage of disengagement, which they were educated to expect, but rather, they were observing people altering and then continuing their relationship to the dead person. (Klass et al. 1996:xviii)

Bereaved parents seemed to hold on to an inner representation of the child who had died, where associations, memories, and anniversaries helped in the continuation of this inner image of their child.

The authors’ research interviews (in Klass, et al.1996:200) revealed that bereaved people develop a set of memories, feelings and actions that keep them connected to their loved one. Rather than letting go, they seemed to be continuing the relationship by dreaming, by talking to their dead relative, by believing that he or she is watching them, and by consciously incorporating the characteristics or virtues of the dead person into the self.

“So, what’s new?” you say.

For those of us who have been bereaved, or who have worked within a SIDS organisation or other bereavement support organisation, these ideas are not new. We have known them as a result of our own personal experience of bereavement, or from listening to bereaved families after the death of their children.

The value, though, of this recently articulated paradigm – ‘Continuing Bonds’ – is that this implicit understanding has now been made explicit.

‘Continuing Bonds’ – A Guiding Principle of the Model of Service Provided by Bereavement Support Services

One could argue that the concept of ‘continuing bonds’ has guided the development of SIDS organisations around Australia and of other bereavement support organisations, which are founded on the concept of self-help and mutual support.

Dennis Klass describes the experiences of parents who have joined the self-help group – The Compassionate Friends.

Klass says: The dynamics through which grief is resolved by parents in the self-help group … involve transformations of the inner representations of their dead children in the parents’ inner (psychic) and social worlds. Many of the unique aspects of the Compassionate Friends (and we would argue SIDS organisations and other self-help groups for bereaved parents) are expressions of the shared bond parents have with each other’s children. Thus membership in the community means membership as a bereaved parent, a person whose life is not as it was before, and a person who is to be related to differently than before. And membership in a community means that the dead child is also a member of the community, that the child is valued, remembered, celebrated, and loved (Klass in Klass et al. 1996:206)

Providing Opportunities for Expressing the ‘Continuing Bond’

Like other bereavement support services which are founded on the principles of self-help, since its inception SIDSvictoria has provided many and varied opportunities for parents and other family members to express the continuing bond they have with the child who has died.

Some of the activities parents and other family members are currently involved in at SIDSvictoria include:

Parent supporting; facilitating and co-facilitating groups; speaking engagements; speaking to the media; organising meetings, memorial services and exhibitions; workshops for children; involvement in reference and focus groups; helping to develop booklets, brochures and newsletters; and fundraising. Some bereaved parents are paid members of staff and some work on the After Hours Service.

Benefits for the Individual, the Community and the Organisation

Benefits for the individual

It’s clear that many people wish to make a positive contribution to the work of bereavement self-help organisations in honour of their children who have died.

In return, the parent’s bond with their child is recognised, acknowledged and honoured by the community.

One contribution parents make in SIDS and other self-help organisations is that of providing support to more recently bereaved families.

In 1995 a small research project focussed on the experience of five parent supporters involved with SIDSvictoria. When asked what led them to volunteer their services to provide support to newly bereaved families, they were unanimous in saying that they undertook the role in memory of their child, and that it gave them the opportunity to talk about him or her (Bateman, 1995).

I do it for Josh (Danny)

When I’m with a bereaved family, it gives me the opportunity to talk about Lachlan … it keeps his memory alive. (Carol)

Klass (Klass et al. 1996:212) states:

Part of the resolution of grief is making the pain count for something, or, put another way, of making the parents life, especially the experience of the child’s death, count for something. In making their own life meaningful, the inner representation of the child is made real. One of the ways parents’ lives can count, and the child be real, is to help others.

As Peter, a long-standing parent supporter says:

We want Brendan’s life to mean something, and if that’s reflected in trying to help a few other people then so be it – that’s great.

And Jill, who works part-time at SIDSvictoria:

The days I work for SIDS are my ‘Molly Days’.

One of the many other contributions parents and others make to the work of SIDSvictoria is involvement in the writing of booklets, pamphlets and brochures.

The recently published booklet ‘Always Your Child’ contains reflections of family members of 27 children who have died suddenly and unexpectedly. The booklet is testament to the continuing bond the families have with the children whose photos appear within it.

Adele writes:

Thankyou! … Although my own contribution to the booklet was not much … I feel good having been asked to be a part of this booklet. I like the title ‘Always Your Child’ as the children always will be. Parents need to know that just because people cannot see them, touch them, they are and always will be our children.

And Sue, who wrote the booklet ‘Henry’, says:

I only had 13 days with Henry and it was important to me that people didn’t forget him. So two weeks after funeral, I began to write … I needed to tell his story. … Then we realised that we could share Henry’s story and our feelings with other families. SIDSvictoria began giving our booklet to other parents who’d lost their baby, and it gave me such a thrill to think someone, somewhere, was saying my little boy’s name. (Mamos 2001).

Benefits for the community

Cally, a friend of a recently bereaved couple writes:

I can never explain the pain I feel for (my bereaved friends) in the loss of their dear little daughter …When I read Sue’s book ‘Henry’ I felt very privileged and cried a lot more. As I read each line I thought of my (bereaved) friends and began to make some sense of the past six weeks of fractured communication. This is a book that every friend should read.

When bereaved parents publicly express the continuing bond they have with their child, the community becomes more informed about how to support bereaved families.

As Walter Mikac states in the epilogue to the booklet:

The booklet ‘Always Your Child’ will fill a void in knowledge for many people … Death is a part of life and when people stop thinking of it as a taboo subject we can all be much more genuine.

Other ways in which parents’ expressions of the continuing bond they have with their children benefit the community include: parent supporter involvement in family and friends network meetings, in-service talks to emergency responders and other professionals, and media interviews.

Benefits to the Organisation

SIDS and Kids, like other SIDS organisations, is, in essence, a parent-based organisation. The service is provided by a partnership of professional counselling staff and trained parent supporters.

At times, professional counsellors may feel that asking bereaved parents to undertake activities such as supporting a more recently bereaved family, or speaking to a group of emergency responders is an onerous task for parents.

However, as shown in the recent evaluation of SIDSvictoria services:

Families overwhelmingly valued being given the opportunity to contribute to the work of SIDSvictoria and to remember and honour their child through this participation …. (O’Neill, 2001)

As Giljohann states, the organisation benefits in other ways as well.

Services and programs (at SIDSvictoria) are developed in response to the emerging needs and interests expressed by families, and families are involved in their implementation. This keeps the services and programs fresh and responsive. (Giljohann, 2000).

Conclusion

Klass, Silverman and Nickman (1996:355) in their discussion of the ‘new model of grief’ provide researchers and practitioners with a new perspective on grief. They recommend that professionals shift their focus from the end of the living bond, and focus on facilitating the bereaved person’s construction of a bond with the person who has died.

We would add that the provision of opportunities to express the continuing bond publicly, benefits the parents themselves, the organisation and the community.

Self-help organisations like SIDS organisations, SANDS, TCF and others are well placed to build on these concepts, and to continue to provide and devise new, varied and rich opportunities for parents to publicly express what Klass et al (1996:3) term healthy, enduring bonds with their children.

As Cas O’Neill sums up, so well, what many parents have indicated over so many years:

…I am privileged to be part of a SIDSvictoria network of parents who support newly bereaved families whose children have died … In supporting other parents in their darkest time, my daughter lives on as part of who I am and what I do. This is a celebration.

References

Bateman, V. (1995). Understanding the Parent Support Role. Unpublished paper.

Dyregrov, A., & Dyregrov, K. (1999) Long-Term Impact of Sudden Infant Death: A 12- to 15- year Follow-up, Death Studies, 23:635-661. [full text]

Ford, D. (1993). Some Reflections on the Integration of Self-Help and Professional Support Services to SIDS Families. In Walker, A. & McMillen, C. (eds.) SIDS International Conference (2nd: 1992: Sydney, N.S.W.). New York: Perinatology Press. Find in an Australian library

Giljohann, B.A. (2000). Principles and Theory of SIDSvictoria’s Model of Service. Unpublished paper.

Klass, D. (1993). Solace and Immortality: Bereaved Parents’ Continuing Bond with their Children. Death Studies, 17, 343-368.

Klass, D., Silverman P., & Nickman, S. (ed). (1996) Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Washington, DC : Taylor & Francis. Find in an Australian library

Marnos, S. (2001) For Me, periodical

O’Neill, C. (2001) ‘Down the Track” - Recently Bereaved Parents Speak. Unpublished paper.

Silverman, P.R., Nickman, S., & Worden, J.W. (1992). Detachment Revisited: The Child’s Reconstruction of a Dead Parent. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 62, 494-503, cited in Dyregrov, A., & Dyregrov, K., (1999) Long-term Impact of Sudden Infant Death: A 12- to 15- Year Follow-up. Death Studies, 23: 635-661.


Last reviewed: 23/3/19