Maintaining bonds with our deceased loved ones? Seriously?

It’s been five years since my husband Gary left this tilting, whirling globe for a cancer-free, no-pain, zero-stress life in heaven. 

My grief is long gone. In its place, there are movie reels of contagiously fun adventures that unfolded during the cancer years. In living color.


Hiking above Jenny Lake — Teton National Park, Wyoming
Running from Pacific Waves — hair, or lack thereof, designed by chemo
Exploring Arches National Park — Utah
Snow-shoeing out to a frozen Todd Lake in the Oregon Cascades

More than a year ago, I came across an article titled, “16 Tips for Continuing Bonds with People We’ve Lost.”

At the time, I thought, “Seriously? Staying connected with our deceased loved ones? 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 bereavement professionals, wrote about the Continuing Bonds theory of grieving and how, when a 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,” wrote Haley and Williams. “This is not only normal and healthy, but an important part of grief.”

I’d never heard of the Continuing Bonds theory. But there were several things I did intuitively as I grieved the loss of my husband.

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

1. Talk to your deceased loved one.

Back in the early days of grief, I talked out loud to Gary — usually along a trail. I reminded him what a good husband he was, how easy he was to be married to, how I loved our life together.

And it made me feel as if he was hiking a bit of the trail with me.

2. Write letters to them.

I also wrote a letter or two to Gary back then:

“I was thinking of all the value added from being married to you. There were the things I said to you frequently, like, ‘I love your sense of humor.’ ‘You’re a really great dad.’ And ‘I love the life you provided for me.’

“And then there were some things I didn’t say often enough: how much I appreciated that you supported me in most of my wild and crazy ideas, like fundraising and taking high school students to Europe and Australia and Hawaii. Thank you for believing in me, for being my biggest cheerleader.”

Turns out, writing those letters was amazingly therapeutic.

3. Imagine what advice they would give when you have tough decisions to make. 

Gary had advised me not to make any major decisions for the first six to twelve months of widowhood. Shortly after he died, though, I took an early retirement. And moved out of state.

Those decisions weren’t based on spur-of-the-moment flightiness. After counsel from my adult children and a couple of financially-savvy family members, my decisions were based on what I knew Gary would want for me.

4. Plant a tree, establish a recurring scholarship.

One family who lost a teenaged son in a car accident, planted a tree near his high school and established a scholarship in his memory.

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

My three youngest grandchildren never met their grandpa. 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.

Gary’s sister once thanked me for talking about him. “It gives us permission to do the same,” she explained.

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

I read an amazing example of this in a book by Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me. Kate was left with three children when her husband died on duty as a state trooper. Kate went back to college to become a chaplain to First Responders, because it was one of her husband’s life goals.

Grief counselors Haley and Williams wrote: “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.”

7. Enjoy their favorite foods.

Gary and I ate more healthfully during the cancer years, which means he gave up chocolate desserts and juicy steaks.

And then he wrote a rule: “On my birthday, I get to eat whatever I want.”

A short while later, feeling rather bold I suppose because his wife actually allowed this rule (smile), he came up with a second rule: “On my half-birthday, I get to eat whatever I want.”

Whereupon I gave him my best raised-eyebrow look and said in what I hoped was a firm voice, “Okay, but there will be no quarter birthdays.”

After which he grinned his cute grin.

I hadn’t thought about it during those early months of widowhood, but I should have eaten out on his birthday. And I should have ordered a steak and something sinfully chocolatey in remembrance of his rule-writing shenanigans.

8. Take a trip they always wanted to take.

After hiking in Oregon’s Cascades, the Colorado Rockies and the Tetons in Wyoming, Gary and I planned a Swiss Alps hike. But we ran out of time. A year after he died, I flew across the pond and trekked in Switzerland with 23 fellow adventurers, which turned out to be an epic, life-affirming thing.

9. Keep something that belonged to your loved one.

A couple months after Gary died, I made a lap quilt from some of his dress shirts in gray and blue tones. I don’t cuddle with this quilt any longer, but at the beginning of widowhood, I wrapped myself in it on those winter evenings. And it almost felt like a hug.

10. Encourage kindness in honor of the loved one.

For the first three years of widowhood, I issued a Porch Fairy Challenge on Gary’s birthday — inviting friends and family to leave a gift on someone’s porch inspired by the original Porch Fairy who flooded our front porch with so much love at a time when my husband was slipping away from me.

It was sweetness to my heart to see on Facebook all the Porch Fairy fun-and-mischief in honor of Gary.

What if?

The professionals are now understanding no one really “gets over” or “moves on from” or “puts closure to” the death of a loved one. 

Instead, we learn to manage the grief. We turn the page and live forward while taking those living-color movie reels of memories with us.

There comes a day when you realize turning a page is the best feeling in the world — because you realize there’s so much more to the book than the page you were stuck on. — Zayn Malik

We add new friends and new loves and new adventures to our existing life. And we are richer for it.

What if, during this holiday season, we could put some of these living-forward, maintaining-bonds ideas into motion?

And what if that could be part of the growing and strengthening and healing process of grief?

We can. It could be.


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  1. Kathy Ward

    Beautiful! May you have a blessed Christmas!

  2. Allison McCormick

    Such great suggestions for those grieving loss. When my parents passed we planted trees for each and I still have a small chest that contains treadured memories. So wonderful to remember.

    But I wonder if we can’t practice some of the things on your list while we are sharing life with our loved ones. Talk, write letters, listen to their advice, honor them, make memories and then celebrate and archive them. Consciously, treasuring the time we have with them.

    Thank you for this reminder.

  3. Beautifully written. Blessings and Merry Christmas!

  4. Grace Lawson

    Thank you Dear Marlys for this wonderful letter full of awesome suggestions that I hadn’t thought of before. God bless you and give you a Merry Christmas !!!

    • Thank you, Grace. And don’t you love Allison’s suggestion to “practice some of the things on your list while we are sharing life with our loved ones. Talk, write letters, listen to their advice, honor them, make memories and then celebrate and archive them”?!

  5. Peter

    Dear Marlys,
    Thanks once again for stirring our thought patterns. It’s often said, “I wish I’d told her…….” and perhaps we’ve carried those regrets. My young brother was a serving Police Officer with me and he was taken from us when he was 29yrs of age, he would have been 71 this year. He was my best friend, we played sport together, played and wrote songs, our holidays usually, together as families. For me personally a heart wrenching loss which has been hard to face, BUT I include him when I sing solo, with The Breeze and choir, when ever I’m thinking of what to write in a song, he’s with me always and that’s how it is with US. Our ‘spirits were often one’, so I’ve never allowed myself to forget this ‘togetherness in spirit’. He always remains… so young and I often smile when my thoughts drift to him for help. Blessings this Christmas time, to you and yours from me and mine, as we remember Jesus’ birth. Bx P & family.

    • What you’ve written about your deceased brother is awesome, Peter: “Our ‘spirits were often one’, so I’ve never allowed myself to forget this ‘togetherness in spirit’. He always remains so young and I often smile when my thoughts drift to him for help.” Thank you … and blessings to you and Barbara during this holy season.

  6. Cheryl White

    Thanks for sharing those suggestion. Like you Marlys, I discovered I’ve been doing a lot of these and will be adding some of these to what I do.. You just past the 5 year anniversary,of Gary’s death, yesterday was my 5-month anniversary. It’s good to be able to talk to someone who has not only made it through 5 Christmas, but is thriving! I am looking forward to spending time with your next week. Love you!

    • Wow, 5 months, Cheryl. Still so new and fresh and raw, I would imagine. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be where I am today — mentally/emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. God is good. Love and prayers to you, dear sister and friend.

  7. Wonderful insights. Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Julie

    So encouraging, Marlys. These ideas seem very comforting for someone suffering loss. I actually did a couple of these things when I lost my mom.

  9. Marlys Keenan

    Very good article. Merry Christmas.

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