What Does a Swan Have to Do with Grief?

The year: 1975. The people involved: My parents. The decision: Build a new house.

It was to be a ranch home with an attached garage. It was to have more space. More cupboards. More closets. And the main bathroom was to be blue as it was my mom’s favorite color. When I say blue, I mean blue. It may have had white walls, but it had a blue tub and surround. A blue counter top and sink. A blue toilet. Blue and white linoleum. Blue curtains. Blue rugs. Needless to say, it earned the name “the blue bathroom.”

However, for my mom, the ensemble was not complete until she had one item: a swan figurine.

My mom was not looking for swan faucets although they do exist. She did not want swan decals or wallpaper. She simply wanted a swan. This would require her to physically go into stores to search for her swan. Not an easy task when one considers my family lived in a rural community with the nearest town of any size 30 miles away; however, that town of about 13,000 had a store that offered fine china and gifts, which was called the “Little Zee Shop.” My mom did not venture into this store very often. After all, many of the items were fragile, and . . . well . . . she usually had me in tow . . . Do I need to say more? . . . But this was a mission . . . a swan must be found . . . And so it was. “The Little Zee” was able to fulfill my mom’s longing. She got her swan.

The swan was blue, of course. It appeared exceedingly fragile since it was made of crystal. Its back was shaped like a bowl in which my mom placed blue decorative soaps shaped like plants and animals, such as a rose, a bear, and . . . you guessed it . . . a swan. When my family moved into the new house in November of 1975, my mother had her blue bathroom. And in it . . . on a shelf . . . she had a blue swan. Life was good.

Today, that deep blue, crystal swan is in my bathroom. But there are differences. Rather than being in a “blue bathroom,” there are blue accents. Rather than decorative soaps, the swan holds colorful rocks. Rather than a shelf, it sits on the ledge of a large soaking tub. Every day I see the blue swan, but I do not see my mom. And yet . . . sometimes . . .  providing I am self-aware . . . I will notice how my mind turns to my mom. For a couple of nanoseconds, it is as if she is there . . . Her love for the color blue . . . Her longing for a swan . . . Her search for the swan . . . Her success in fulfilling her desire. My reasons for having the swan, however, are different from my mom’s. My mom wanted a swan. I want my mom.

And this is the way of grief.

Oh, don’t get me wrong . . . it isn’t as if every minute of every day I am pining for her and being overwhelmed by this longing. Not at all. Instead, I am holding two things simultaneously: an awareness and acceptance that we live and die as my mom has, which is juxtaposed with my love for her that is seen in my missing her and a longing for her to be here.

This is the way of grief.

It never ends, and it has many faces. It may be like a mood, prolonged and somber, a melancholic state of reflection and sadness. It may be bold and brash, announcing itself suddenly as a wave of grief washes over me, baptizing me with tears. But it also may be subtle and brief, such as seeing the fragile blue swan and thinking of my mom. These latter moments are fleeting so that it is necessary to slow life down to notice them. This is the way of grief. If we have loved and lost, we continue to grieve in some form or another. And many of us use transitional objects to help us in our grief journey. . . objects like the blue swan.

It is interesting how objects outlive our physical bodies. Objects, which we own during our lives, become objects that signify our lives when we die. For those who loved us, they become our presence in our absence, a transitional object. I ponder about the objects which I have desired and purchased. Will one of them come to represent a griever’s longing for me, a transitional object? Will it become my presence in my absence? Will it eventually become a keepsake, something that serves as a remembrance of my life?

And this is the way of grief.

We have several such objects (be they transitional or keepsakes) on display in our home. A cane. A picture. A rock. A crystal bowl. A vase. A shirt made into a pillow. WW II shell casings. Some hold more powerful sentiment than others, drawing me to recall the original owner just for a second, reminding me simultaneously of the owner’s absence and presence. Others do not hold this power; nevertheless, the reality is the same: the reason I have the object is because the original owner is gone.

This is the way of grief.

The term “transitional object” was used by D. W. Winnicott to describe an object selected by a child as she gradually separates from her main caregiver and learns “you are not me.” The object serves as a way to comfort the child when he is anxious and/or alone, such as at bedtime or during an illness. Whether it is a blanket or a teddy bear, the parent does not know what object the child will select, but it does not take long for the parent to quickly learn which object the child cannot be without. It is an ordinary object that holds significance to the child, serving as a substitute for the caregiver’s presence. By attaching to this object, the child is learning to comfort and soothe herself in her caregiver’s absence.

Grief theorists eventually began to use the term “transitional object” to describe objects that grievers select to assist with their own transition of permanent separation from a significant person. This person moves from being alive to being dead, being no longer present but permanently absent. Objects vary that serve in this capacity. Clothing is a common item as it contains the smell and the shape of the former wearer.[1] Or it could be a utilitarian object that was used regularly by the deceased, such as a cane. In the television series Monk, Adrian’s transitional object is his deceased wife’s pillow, which he removes from a bag to hold and smell in order to bring his wife close. Such objects provide a certain level of presence of the deceased, generating comfort amidst grief. Yet, the object may also intensify the sense of loss, producing tears as the mourner acknowledges that the object signals the deceased’s absence.

As the grief journey continues, the mourner reaches a place where the item no longer serves as grief support to the mourner in the same capacity. It is here that the mourner realizes the object may be given away, stored, or even used in the home since it is deemed to longer be necessary in the grief journey. Thus, many times it may become a keepsake, a way in which to remember the person whose presence is now absent.

And such is the way of grief.

It is interesting to me that as a Christ-follower, Jesus Christ has given us One who is present during his absence: the Holy Spirit. Such is the emphasis in Luke-Acts as Luke stresses Jesus’s physical presence in Luke’s Gospel but underlines his absence in Acts. The Spirit, like a transitional object in grief, provides comfort to believers while serving as a reminder that Jesus is physically absent from the earth. Similar to transitional objects, which provide a limited sense of presence of the deceased, the Spirit is a taste of God’s presence forthcoming in the eschaton, a time when God will be all in all. Yet, as is the way of many analogies, this one also breaks down. Unlike a transitional object, the Spirit is a person, not an object; the Spirit is present in the absence of Jesus, who is alive, no longer deceased, and seated at the right hand of the Father; and the Spirit is the very presence of God, not simply a reminder of a deceased person.

As a Christ-follower who is a Pentecostal, this understanding of the giving of the Spirit by Jesus in his absence points toward a praxis of congregational care. Pentecostals stress a Spirit Christology in that Jesus Christ is the center while also being the Spirit-baptizer, which places a theological emphasis on the Spirit. It seems fitting, then, that Pentecostals theologically underscore the Lukan corpus: Luke’s Gospel, which centers on Jesus’s presence, and Acts, which highlights the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’s absence. Bearing this in mind, I believe that Pentecostals theologically have a unique foundation for being present to mourners. Pentecostals stress Jesus’s giving of the Spirit, who provides comfort and a sense of divine presence in Jesus’s absence; they underscore the Spirit’s presence by stressing a theology from the book of Acts; and they underline the second coming of Jesus, which simultaneously emphasizes the Spirit being present with them as they currently wait and groan for the redemption of the whole world. Such theological emphases may become a praxis, or a truth in action, an action of being present to others who are grieving the absence of a significant person. As Christ-followers are present to those who are grieving, they are participating in the Spirit’s presence to Christ-followers in the absence of Jesus. As the Spirit offers comfort to Christ-followers in Jesus’s absence, so a Christ-follower’s presence to the griever provides comfort.[2]

I close with these words from the Apostle Paul:

For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord–for we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor 5:1–7)

 

[1] This is asserted by Judith. M. Simpson, “Materials for Mourning: Bereavement Literature and the Afterlife of Clothes,” Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty 5:2 (2014): 253–270, https://doi.org/10.1386/csfb.5.2.253_1.

[2] This blog is taken from a paper that will be presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies. See “A Linking Object’s Presence in Absence: The Giving of the Spirit as a Theological Praxis of Presence in Mourning Absence in Luke-Acts.” Paper to be presented at the 48th annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Lanham, MD, February 28–March 2, 2019.

 

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