Continuing bonds refer to the connections people often continue to feel towards important people in their lives who have died. People maintain and experience these continuing bonds in different ways. These ways include intentional behaviors, such as visiting that person’s grave. Or they might involve spontaneous experiences, such as a dream of the person.
The purpose of this study is to better understand factors that might contribute to the types of continuing bonds people experience and how they feel about them. As such, I devised a survey to explore this more systematically. What follows is a brief description of the survey and preliminary results of that survey. This is being made available to those who took the survey and other interested parties. More detailed analyses of the results will follow in Clinical Research Projects conducted by graduate students at the Minnesota School of Psychology.
Factors Impacting Continuing Bonds
The Factors Impacting Continuing Bonds Survey consists of 34 multiple choice questions. It was constructed in 2017 by Mark Carlson-Ghost, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Minnesota School of Psychology at Argosy University. Its construction was shaped in conjunction with feedback from fellow faculty, and his research team of four graduate students. The survey and associated methodology was approved by the Internal Review Board of Argosy University—Twin Cities.
The choice of elements to include in the survey was based on a review of existing literature on continuing bonds and perceived gaps in that literature. Demographic information sought in the survey about participants included current age, their age at the time of death of the departed, gender, ethnicity, childhood and current religious affiliation (if any), and specific beliefs about life after death. Participants also answered a ten-item brief personality measure. Participants were then asked to identify one important person in their life who had died, their gender, their age at death, how they died, how long ago they died, how old the participant was when they died, and the nature (parent, sibling, etc.) and quality of that relationship.
Finally, participants were asked about 16 actions or experiences that are reflective of continuing bonds. Participants answered if they had done or experienced each one in the last 12 months. If so, they also identified what their primary emotional reaction was to that action or experience. They could choose from eight descriptors of emotions: peace of mind or gratitude; happiness or love; yearning; sadness or grief; frustration or anger; conflicted, unsettled or fearful; sense of awe; or other.
A total of 380 people completed this survey. All of them were obtained through a panel of 505 potential participants provided by SurveyMonkey Audience. Of the original panel, 48 people declined to agree to the informed consent. An additional 57 did not meet the criteria of having an important person in their life who had died. An additional 20 people did not complete the entire survey once they had started it. SurveyMonkey Audience was utilized in order to obtain a larger and more personally and geographically diverse sample than can often be obtained through conventional e-mail appeals to members of various groups or organizations. Using SurveyMonkey Audience also assured a sample that was not specifically interested in or struggling with this topic.
Gender: Women 65%, Men 35%
Age: 18-24 14%, 25-34 18%, 35-44 20%, 45-54 13%, 55-64 20%, 65-74 13%, 75 or older 2%
Ethnicity: White 77%, Hispanic or Latino/a 9%, Black 6%, Other 12%
Departed: Parent 36%, Grandparent 29%, Partner 5%, Child 6%, Sibling 6%, Friend 7%, Other 11%
Years Since Death: Less than one year 12%, 1-2 years 11%, 3-5 years 19%, 6-10 years 23%, 11-20 years 20%, more than 20 years 15%
Summary of Continuing Bonds Results
What follows is the percentage of participants who either did or experienced the following things in the past 12 months. These figures combine all participants regardless of how long ago the death occurred. Subsequent analyses will explore how these percentages change as the time after the death increases. Percentage are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Shared memories of the departed with others 91%
Looking through photos or mementos 80%
Honored them in some way on a birthday,
holiday or anniversary 62%
Strong sense of presence of the departed 60%
Talking to the departed (in your head or
out loud) 55%
A dream of the departed 51%
Daydream of the departed still being alive 48%
Something in nature (the wind, a sunset,
rustling leaves) made you feel
connected to them 48%
Visited their grave or place of death 37%
Vision of departed while awake 26%
Maintaining a small altar or shelf of mementos
in their honor 26%
Lighting a candle or burning incense
in their honor 22%
Making a contribution or planting
a tree or flowers in their honor 21%
Hearing the voice of the departed
while awake 18%
Creating or visiting a social media
memorial page 16%
Leaving a small portion of food for them
In their honor 8%
Analyses of statistical significance have yet to be made. All types of actions or experiences had a wide range of emotional responses in varying degrees. That said, peace of mind or gratitude was the most common emotional reaction to a strong sense of presence, lighting a candle, something in nature, making a contribution, or talking to the departed.
Happiness or love was the most common emotional reaction to sharing memories, honoring them on a special occasion, or looking through photos.
Grief or sadness was the most common emotional reaction to visiting their grave or place of death.
No one emotion was strongly characteristic of reactions to having a dream of the departed, a daydream while awake, a vision while awake, participating in a social media page, or maintaining an altar or shelf in their honor.
Subsequent analyses in the coming year will explore the impact of age, gender, personality, and beliefs in life after death on the frequency of the 16 varieties of actions and experiences that contribute to continuing bonds. Possible differences in intentional actions vs. spontaneous experiences and the emotions they evoke will also be examined. The posting of these preliminary results is consistent with the promise made in participants’ informed consent statement.
Closing Thoughts on Continuing Bonds
Trying to grapple with loss and the “new normal” that so often comes with it is one of the most challenging adjustments we face in life. Realizing that a continuing sense of connection with departed loved ones can be a source of resiliency is a positive shift in our thinking about the process of grief and mourning. Yet grief can also get stuck and if it feels like that is happening seeing a mental professional may be helpful. One of the best resources regarding a continuing sense of connection with loved ones who have died is a book appropriately titled Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, Dennis Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven Nickman, editors. My hope is that this research will add to the existing literature and prove helpful to both clinicians and those journeying through loss.
As an aside, I have been asked about my last name, Carlson-Ghost, and its possible connection to this research topic. Total coincidence. My husband’s last name before we married was Ghost. Mine was Carlson. Hence, Carlson-Ghost. I will say being a Dr. Ghost does feel more interesting!
For those who participated in this survey, I once again convey my thanks. For those interested in the possible psychological implications for clinical practice of these results or other questions related to this research, they may contact me below or at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, 1515 Central Parkway, Eagan, MN 55121.