Unresolved Grief and Continuing Bonds: An Attachment Perspective

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Stellenbosch]On: 05 October 2014, At: 09:19Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

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    Unresolved Grief andContinuing Bonds: AnAttachment PerspectiveNigel P. Field aa Pacific Graduate School of Psychology , Palo Alto,California, USAPublished online: 23 Nov 2006.

    To cite this article: Nigel P. Field (2006) Unresolved Grief and ContinuingBonds: An Attachment Perspective, Death Studies, 30:8, 739-756, DOI:10.1080/07481180600850518

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  • UNRESOLVED GRIEF AND CONTINUING BONDS:AN ATTACHMENT PERSPECTIVE

    NIGEL P. FIELD

    Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, Palo Alto, California, USA

    Much of the contemporary bereavement literature on the continuing bond to thedeceased (CB) has emphasized its adaptiveness and given limited attention towhen it may be maladaptive. The attachment literature on disorganizedunresolved attachment classification in relation to loss, or unresolved loss, isinformative in identifying CB expressions that are indicative of failure tointegrate the death of a loved one. In this article, an important linkage is ident-ified between a prominent indicator of unresolved loss that involves a lapse in themonitoring of reasoning implying disbelief that the person is dead and the clinicalwritings of J. Bowlby (1980) and V. D. Volkan (1981) on maladaptive variantsof CB expression. The aim is to highlight the value of the attachment literature onunresolved loss in clarifying the conditions under which CB is likely to bemaladaptive.

    There is increasing agreement among bereavement theorists andpractitioners that an ongoing attachment to the deceased can bean integral part of successful adaptation to bereavement (Klass,Silverman, & Nickman, 1996). This position, commonly knownas the continuing bonds perspective, is counter to that presentedby Freud (1917=1957) in his classic work Mourning and Melan-cholia, in which he proposed that successful adaptation to lossrequired the bereaved to detach his or her psychic investment inthe deceased, or relinquish his or her attachment to thedeceased, in order to complete the mourning process.

    Much of the bereavement literature on the continuing bond tothe deceased (CB) has emphasized its adaptiveness while payingminimal attention to conditions under which it may be maladap-tive (Fraley & Shaver, 1999). Despite its value in identifying CBas a normative aspect of bereavement adjustment, and its positive

    Address correspondence to Nigel P. Field, Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, 935East Meadow Dr., Palo Alto, CA 95006. E-mail: nfield@pgsp.edu

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    Death Studies, 30: 739756, 2006Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 0748-1187 print/1091-7683 onlineDOI: 10.1080/07481180600850518

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  • impact in drawing attention to the importance of interventions thatserve to promote such an inner bond (e.g., Neimeyer, 2001), theCB literature also may have had some unfortunate consequencesin ignoring possible maladaptive variants of CB expression. In fact,there is a tendency among those who advocate the adaptiveness ofCB to summarily dismiss classic work in the bereavement literaturethat identify maladaptive CB expressions, such as the writings ofVolkan (1981) and Bowlby (1980), on grounds that these theoristshave embraced the Freudian (1917=1957) relinquishment perspec-tive (Silverman & Klass, 1996). In this article, I will attempt to showhow there is noteworthy overlap between some of the clinicalinsights of these classic writings with empirical findings in contem-porary adult attachment literature on unresolved=disorganizedstates of mind with respect to loss, hereafter referred to as unre-solved loss, in terms of their implications for the maladaptiveuse of CB.

    In a previous paper, my colleagues and I introduced anattachment theory-based framework for distinguishing adaptiveversus maladaptive CB expressions (Field, Gao, & Paderna,2005). Here, we attempted to point out how this perspective isinformative in identifying the kinds of changes that occur in therepresentation of the relationship with the deceased in the norma-tive course of bereavement that allows for a continuing tie to thedeceased while satisfying what is required in accommodating tothe loss. This work also provided a means for distinguishing suc-cessful versus maladaptive ways of maintaining CB. The presentarticle extends this previous work in introducing the reader tothe attachment literature on unresolved loss and its relevance inidentifying maladaptive CB.

    Attachment Theory Perspective on SuccessfulMourning

    According to Bowlby, healthy mourning occurs when an individ-ual accepts both that a change has occurred in his external worldand that he is required to make corresponding changes in his inter-nal, representational world and to reorganize, and perhaps reori-ent, his attachment behavior accordingly (Bowlby, 1980).Implied here is that successful mourning is more accurately con-ceptualized as a process of transformation, or reorganization,

    740 N. P. Field

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  • rather than detachment per se. In this context, Bowlby recognizedthat CB could be an integral part of successful adaptation tobereavement: In his words, For many widows and widowers itis precisely because they are willing for their feelings of attachmentto the dead spouse to persist that their sense of identity is preservedand they become able to reorganize their lives along lines they findmeaningful (p. 98). As elaborated below, Bowlby also pointedout, however, that certain CB expressions may indeed be indica-tive of failure to adapt to the loss.

    Even among bereavement theorists who emphasize the role ofCB in successful adaptation to bereavement, it is understood thatthe nature of the bond is different from what it was when thedeceased was alive (e.g., Klass, 2001). Following the death, the con-nection is exclusively internal and no longer a bond involving thephysical existence of the other. Accommodation to bereavementrequires revising the mental schema of attachment to the deceasedin accord with the reality of this new life situation (Horowitz, 1990,1991). Such revision may encompass changes in the representationof the self through internalization of valued attributes of thedeceased into the ego-ideal. As well, changes will occur in the rep-resentation of the relationship with the deceased so as to adhere tothe reality of the permanence of the physical separation (Baker,2001). Despite the fact that the deceased now exists exclusivelyas an internal bond, the transformed inner representation of thedeceased nevertheless may continue to provide importantemotionally sustaining attachment functions. For example, thebereaved can mentally evoke the representation of the deceasedas a safe haven, or comforting presence, when under duress(Field et al., 2005). Likewise, they may continue to make use ofthe inner relationship with the deceased as a secure base in aproblem-solving capacity, imagining their viewpoint on practicalmatters and using this as a basis for making decisions (Field et al.,2005). CB also plays an important role in sustaining identitythrough enabling the bereaved to maintain a sense of continuityamidst the flux of change required in accommodating to the newlife situation without the deceased. CB thus can serve as an auto-nomy promoting inner resource in enhancing the bereavedscapacity to function on their own (Baker, 2001). In this respect,CB is an integral part of successful adaptation to bereavement.What is also clear, however, is that the bereaved has fully accepted

    Unresolved Grief and Continuing Bonds 741

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  • the reality of the ending of the physical attachment. In fact, asargued below, it is the failure to differentiate the past from the presentand recognize that the deceased exists exclusively at the representa-tional levelor failure to recognize a clear boundary between theliving and the deadthat establishes CB as maladaptive.

    An Attachment Perspective on Complicated Mourning

    Integrating the loss of a loved one is a gradual and emotionallypainful process (Horowitz, 1990, 1991). According to attachmenttheory, news of the death leads to activation of the attachment sys-tem goal of which is to re-establish physical proximity to thedeceased (Bowlby, 1980). Because the attachment system hasevolved to respond to loss as though the separation were revers-ible, initially following the death the bereaved will engage in theeffort to achieve the attachment system goal of recovering thedeceased (Archer, 1999; Shaver & Tancredy, 2001). Hallucinationsand illusions of the deceased as well as the urge to visit placesformerly frequented by the deceased are CB expressions thatreflect such an attempt to search out the deceased (Field et al.,2005; Parkes, 1998). Given the permanence of the loss, attemptsto reclaim the deceased are met with failure; such behavior there-fore is said to be disorganized in the context of this changedenvironment (Main, Goldwyn, & Hesse, 2002). The bereavedscapacity to tolerate the emotional turmoil precipitated by suchfailed attempts at physical reunion provides the impetus for revis-ing the schema of attachment to the deceased (Horowitz, 1990,1991). From an attachment perspective, resolution of mourningis marked by termination of search behavior in recognizing theimpossibility of finding the lost figure and reorientation to every-day life and its tasks (Bowlby, 1980; Parkes, 1998).

    Although in certain respects the bereaved is said to never getover the loss (Tait & Silver, 1989), even so, the goal to reestablishphysical proximity eventually becomes disengaged in the normalcourse of bereavement (Bowlby, 1980; Parkes, 1998). It is alsothe case, however, that the bereaved may fail to integrate thelossor fail to revise the goal of reestablishing physical proxim-ityif the emotional pain precipitated by the failed searchingefforts is too overwhelming (Horowitz, 1990, 1991). The loss islikely to be particularly fear-invoking when it involves the death

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  • of a caregiver such as the death of a parent during childhood, or atraumatic event in which the bereaved directly witnessed the deathor whose life was also under threat (Green, 2001). Such circum-stances are inherently frightening in alerting the bereaved to thefact that they are helpless to protect the self or loved ones fromdanger.

    The quality of the past attachment to the deceased may alsoplay a role in the bereaveds ability to integrate the loss. Forexample, emotional turmoil may be more pronounced in bereave-ment involving an ambivalent attachment (Horowitz et al., 1984).In knowing that it is not possible to reconcile the conflict withthe other now that he or she is dead, the bereaved may experienceintense anger and guilt toward the deceased. Such unfinishedbusiness involving the deceased can be difficult to manageemotionally. Similarly, those who were highly dependent in theformer relationship with the deceasedparticularly those whorelied on the deceased for self-esteem regulationare under threatof becoming dysregulated following the death (Hagman, 1995).

    Under such conditions, the bereaved is prone to resort to anextreme form of avoidance in which the implications of the lossbecome defensively excluded from experience (Bowlby, 1973).Although functional in the short term in serving to ward off dyspho-ric affect, this defensive process will have longer term detrimentalimpact in preventing the bereaved from revising their schema ofattachment to the deceased to accomodate the permanence of theloss (Horowitz, 1990, 1991). As elaborated below, certain types ofCB may be indicative of this. Such CB expressions reflect both acontinuing search to reclaim the deceased and a defense againstacknowledging the finality of the separation. As a searching phaseexpression, CB is dissociatedor, to use Bowlbys (1980) term,segregatedfrom the knowledge that the deceased is truly dead.As an avoidance-motivated expression, it serves to ward off the painaroused when reminded of the loss. Although searching-related CBexpressions may be common early on after the death, their promi-nence at a later point after the death suggests that they are beingused defensively to ward off full appreciation of the loss. To theextent that they impede the bereaved from revising their schemaof attachment to the deceased, they can be said to be maladaptive.

    Bowlby (1980) identified various maladaptive adjustments tobereavement that are indicative of such failure to acknowledge

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  • the loss. He noted Gorers (1965) concept of mummification asone such example. As a metaphor of the Egyptian practice ofembalming the body and burying it with various provisions in prep-aration for the after...

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