Grief is a universal experience, and it's pervasive. Research published by the National Academy of Science suggests that every COVID-19 related death in the United States impacts at least nine people, which means that millions of people are grappling with the physical, mental and emotional aspects of grief. Photos, videos, and shared stories can comfort those grieving the loss of a loved one. But a more tangible item—an article of clothing, a favorite book, or, in my case, a boxy chair—can build a strong connection and make the grieving process a little less painful. We call these tangible items 'transitional objects.'
What are transitional objects?
“A transitional object brings a certain level of comfort to a person,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. “It can be anything from a blanket, stuffed animal, to a pet. Transitional objects can help someone remember who they’ve lost by having a tangible thing that keeps them ‘alive.’”
Yes, a pet can also be a transitional object (er, living being). “You may find comfort in being able to hold, cuddle, pet, and play with your dog or any pet you may have, as their companionship can be exactly what someone that is grieving needs,” Dr. Hafeez says. Furthermore, she adds that traditional objects can also help reduce stress, ease anxiety, lower blood pressure, and generally make someone feel better.
And while transitional objects are most often used to help bring comfort during the grieving process, Dr. Hafeez adds that transitional objects can also serve different purposes. “Prized possessions can be used as transitional objects and serve the purpose of reminding one of the happier parts of their childhood or any point in time,” she gives as an example. “They can help comfort someone when they feel stressed, depressed, or very anxious and are sometimes even referred to as ‘lucky charms.’”
Naiylah Warren, LMFT, a therapist and clinical content manager at Real, an online mental wellness platform, adds that transitional objects can also provide safety and comfort during other life circumstances such as through an illness or medical treatments, while experiencing anxiety or depression, while transitioning to a new job, or even just falling asleep. “These transitional objects provide touch points throughout the day with memories and situations that can help you feel grounded and even better equipped to navigate the day,” she says. For instance, snuggling with a childhood stuffed animal may help you fall asleep faster, your favorite blanket may provide emotional support during tough times, or a piece of clothing may help ground you during a big presentation or a job interview.
How transitional objects can help you manage grief
Easing grief through someone's possessions isn't a new phenomenon. A 2021 study conducted by the University of York suggests that during the Ice Age, people kept everyday items like grinding stones and spoons to maintain a connection with those who had passed. The researchers explained that holding on to these items helped people maintain an emotional bond with the deceased. While the objects we keep in the 21st century have changed, the advantages of holding onto a deceased loved one's belongings are still relevant.
"Items and objects often hold a lot of memories and experiences and bring our loved ones back to us more readily," says Helen Marlo, PhD, chair of the department of clinical psychology at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. Dr. Marlo says that you may be motivated to invest mental energy into an item, even if it doesn't hold significant meaning, because you can channel your longing for the person you lost onto the object.
"For a lot of people, it's evidence that the person existed, especially if the death was unexpected," says Megan Devine, LPC, psychotherapist and bestselling author of It's Okay That You're Not Okay. "Even when the death was expected, sometimes there's that unreality like they were here, and now they're not."
Transitional objects for adults
Dr. Marlo notes that transitional objects—items like dolls or blankets that help ease anxiety—have been used to help children separate from a parent but sees a similar application with adults. "Even though we're adults and technically independent, we're transitioning from them not being in our life at all," she says. By keeping my dad's chair, I'm not seeking independence from him. Instead, I'm relying on it to deal with the anxiety and feelings of grief around our final separation. A 2020 study published in Comprehensive Psychiatry surveyed mothers of deceased infants and found that transitional objects help provide security and symbolic links for the bereaved.
While a meaningful item can ease grieving, others may not understand your need to hold onto a parent's sweater, a sibling's CD collection, or a partner's shoes. They may think you should move on from your sorrow. "Sometimes when people are telling us to move on, they're saying, 'I don't want you to be in pain anymore,'" says David Kessler, bestselling author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, and founder of Grief.com. He explains that we don't move on, get over it, and don't recover. Grief is not like an illness we get over, he says. Instead, we learn to live with it.
When faced with a home full of clothing, photos, and collectibles, knowing what to keep as one of your transitional objects can be daunting or straightforward. What Kessler often asks the bereaved whether an item in question brings them comfort. Also, he suggests thinking about how you feel about an object and considering how the person would feel about it, too.
In Finding Meaning, Kessler talks about his younger child David's death. The things that were important to his son are important to Kessler, and he treats them that way. "I feel like they're part of the person," he says. Recently, Kessler was sorting through one of David's boxes and spotted his high school algebra book. His instinct was to keep it, but after realizing his son would say, "Why on earth would I want to keep my algebra book?" he felt he could let it go. The bottom line: you don't have to hold onto every little thing. Kessler suggests photographing items, as you can get the same emotional response from the picture.
Dr. Hafeez adds that you can also find creative ways to memorialize a loved one and put transitional objects to good use. For example, she says, “if you have a favorite shirt of your dad’s that you want to keep but know it’ll just collect dust in a box, you can grab several shirts and turn them into a blanket or allow yourself to wear them as pajamas or give it to one of your children.”
When reaching for transitional objects, in general, whether to cope with grief or simply to bring comfort, Warren suggests getting curious about how a transitional object can support you throughout the day to reap the most benefits. “When you interact with your transitional object, take a few minutes to really notice the shift in your thoughts or notice how your heart stops racing,” she says. “I like to encourage folks to engage in grounding activities with the object, to meditate, to breathe, to engage in meditative activities to help them notice how this object makes them feel in comparison to when they do not have it with them.”
Using objects to embrace grief and keep the connection alive
At the same time, you don't have to rent a dumpster and fill it to the brim. "We've got this sort of cultural idea that the best thing to do is to get rid of everything," says Devine. "That you don't need 'reminders' of your grief.'" Just as every relationship is unique, so is every expression of grief. That may mean keeping anything that holds meaning or eliminating most of what the person left behind.
In addition to my dad's chair, I've kept a few pieces of his clothing. The one I wear most is a cobalt blue sweatshirt. I've rolled up the long sleeves and kept two pieces of candy he stashed in the left pocket. Some days when I'm missing him, I pull the oversized hoodie out of my closet and slip it on. "When you put on a parent or a partner's article of clothing, it's like they're holding onto you," says Devine. "You're literally being wrapped in something that used to wrap them, so there's a continuation of the relationship there."
Weeks before the first anniversary of my father's death, my sisters, mom, and I plan to clear out his closet. We'll donate his suits, dress shirts, and shoes to a charity providing clothing for homeless individuals seeking job interviews. I may pick out a few sweaters and t-shirts as reminders of him, but knowing that my dad spent his last days in the same seat I see each morning keeps us connected. I imagine his chair will always be the item that brings me peace.
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