Portraits with Purpose: Continuing Bonds by Dr Christine English, Associate Lecturer, Northumbria University and Chair of Trustees, St Oswald’s Hospice, Newcastle.

As family nurses we frequently support families facing death, dying and grief in their lives and that of their loved ones.    I hope this blog will be useful as you help families or perhaps it will help you with your own losses and grief.

During the recent #DyingMattersAwarenessWeek I was truly overwhelmed when I visited the poignant portrait exhibition entitled Portraits with Purpose: Continuing Bonds in Newcastle Upon Tyne. This creative project celebrated the lives of loved ones and provided a positive focus for grieving families who had used the bereavement or care services at St Oswald’s Hospice.   https://www.stoswaldsuk.org/portraits-with-purpose/. Such a beautiful exhibition that has hopefully encouraged more open conversations about death, dying and grief – something many people shy away from in today’s society.

St Oswald’s Hospice hosted this exhibition in collaboration with the talented portrait artist Leanne Pearce.  After meeting with the families in Autumn 2023 and talking with them about their special memories of their loved ones Laura then created the 12 beautiful portraits. Some families also helped paint the backgrounds of their portrait canvas.  These portraits embrace the notion of continuing our bond with our loved ones after their death.

When the Continuing Bonds Theory was initially identified in bereavement care (Klass, Silverman and Nickman, 2014) it provided challenge to existing views that saw grief resolution as being associated with detachment from the deceased person.  In contrast, Continuing Bonds recognised the enduring attachments the bereaved individuals have with their loved ones through memories, actions or symbols all of which are potentially beneficial in adaptation to loss. This is perhaps most recognisable to us in the way that we keep alive memories of the person through talking about them, engaging with possessions and photographs and using them as a role model for our lives. Rather than detachment, the Continuing Bonds Theory, encourages the bereaved person in developing a new relationship with the person who has died so that there is a continuation of their bond that then supports them to grieve and be at peace.

More recently, Hewson et al (2023) further acknowledged the beneficial nature of maintaining such bonds with lost loved ones identifying that this could provide comfort and allow accommodation of the person’s death within a coherent narrative.  Despite favouring encouragement of these bonds, it was noted that further research is needed to better understand the rare situations where such bonds may become more problematic for some individuals. Generally, the bereaved are helped through these continuing bonds to make meaningful reconstruction, transformation of self-identity and affirmation of spiritual beliefs.

The portrait exhibition truly did embrace continuing bonds. St Oswald’s Hospice acknowledged that it was only possible because of the families’ generosity in openly and honestly sharing their stories with the artist.  The families were offered support by St Oswald’s Bereavement Team throughout and the portraits will be gifted to the families following the exhibition.

I hope you will visit the portraits online (https://www.stoswaldsuk.org/portraits-with-purpose/) and  be encouraged to have open and honest conversations  about death, dying and grief in the future.

Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. (2014). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Taylor & Francis.

Hewson, H., Galbraith, N., Jones, C., & Heath, G. (2023). The impact of continuing bonds following bereavement: A systematic review. Death Studies, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2023.