Creative Tools to Shatter Grief
WHEN I WAS young I made a vow to myself – to live my life as creatively as possible. I expressed myself through dance and choreography, writing journals, poetry and songs. My childhood career as a member of a family folk singing group gave me the opportunity to explore the power of music to connect people and to highlight the need for social change. I remember singing at civil rights rallies and anti-war events as well as folk festivals and early morning TV programs across the country.
My interest in folk music extended to an interest in folk arts and crafts. Quilting, lace making and cooking provided outlets of creative expression just as much as dance and singing protest songs did. And I found that these creative skills gave me a language and an unusual method to cope with difficult events in my life.
I continued to create dances and perform when I married and started a family. Our home was filled with music along with the sounds of hammers as our old farmhouse was being renovated. We encouraged the children to explore their own creativity through dance, art, sports and building forts, teepees and luge runs outside. We cooked together, danced in the kitchen, laughed, debated and we all grew. My husband, an engineer, found his job changing along with technology. He began working longer and longer hours and was less available to participate in family life. This concerned me deeply: I was worried about his health and well-being as well as his connection to his own creative self. I longed for a change in his working situation so that he would not be so stressed. We decided to take a trip and my secret goal was to help him relax completely. Then I planned to start the discussion on how to change our lifestyle.
So it was a terrible shock when he suddenly died the evening before this conversation could take place. I felt completely shattered, lost inside my life, still with teenagers to raise. This sense of brokenness pervaded my being and I desperately longed to feel whole again. In the months after he died, I returned to my creative tools to help me grieve. I used a wide variety of modalities to cope with episodes of extreme emotion. During that first year, I wrote ten journals. I quilted images of a man’s face hiding behind branches with waves of silver energy coming out of one eye. I splashed swirls of color on paper, drawing the waves of feelings that pulsed inside me. I took long walks in the woods, breathing slowly, reorienting the flow of my body through space, trying to feel alive again. I made a long list of major events in my marriage, tracking them on a graph, both to celebrate our relationship and to grapple with the fact that I was no longer married.
While engaging in these creative exercises, I experienced an odd, split feeling. I felt like I was watching the process as I was doing it. But then a small voice inside told me there might be a way to use creativity to help others. It took me a couple of years of coping with my own grief, but then I entered a master’s program and two certificate programs to study grief theory, thanatology, and counseling.
Now, as a certified grief counselor, I guide my clients to discover resilience and ways to cope with their losses and to grow through the experience. By telling our stories and finding connections within those stories, we can begin to re-write our lives. We can rediscover our wholeness after the shattering of grief, although it can take a long time. Through non-verbal modes of expression such as collage, drawing, journaling, meditation, and even simple creative reframing of negative thoughts, we slowly learn to live fully again. Life on the other side of death will be somewhat different that it was before, and creativity provides navigational tools for a journey through grief.