After being batted around by grief for a time, many of us want to do something creative with grief’s raw materials and regain a measure of control. The writer Isak Dinesen said that when she could put her trauma into a story, then it could live there instead of inside her. I don’t compose music, paint, dance, weave, or create sculptures, but I do write, and I wrote down every memory, image, and insight that came, and shaped them into essays and poems.
Artists have long responded to grief by creating works of art. After his wife died, Thomas Moran painted “Pueblo at Sunset (Laguna)” and in the rich colors beginning to fade, we feel him saying goodbye. Arvo Pärtcomposed “Cantus in Memoriam” for Benjamin Britten that uses a tolling bell and heartrending strings that descend into the lower registers of grief.
Judith Jamison danced “Cry” as an expression of dealing with loss and finding the strength to rise above this. Albert György created his sculpture “Melancolie” out of copper and tin that expresses the hollowness of those who have suffered tragedy. Dmitri Baltermants’ black-and-white photo “Grief” depicts Russian civilians trying to find family members in a field where they had been killed by the Nazis in 1942.
We need each other to be creative with grief:
- painters who explore grief’s dark night and bring back images of light
- writers who create the stories of courage and fire up our imaginations
- musicians who compose songs that move us deeper into grief and higher into hope
- dancers who remind us that the body can say what words cannot
- photographers who capture the starkness of sorrow and the strength of community
We are each creative in our own way. Choose an art form. You don’t have to be good at it. Let it guide you in exploring your grief. Do a first version and step away. Listen to the world, other people, yourself. Reflect. Come back and revise. Take some things away and add others in.
Play with the techniques of your art. Use its craft to challenge you to express your thoughts and emotions differently. Maybe an unexpected glint of color will show up in a painting, or an interesting phrase in something you’re writing, and you feel a burst of delight because it’s a surprise and it opens a window into something you hadn’t considered before. Let being creative bring you joy.
JOY. I’ve resisted mentioning this until now because it’s one of the hardest aspects of grief to accept—feeling good about life again. There comes a time, after the death of someone we love, when we will feel happy, if only for a moment. Right now some of you are wincing. We think that feeling joy signals our turning away from our loved one, and we feel guilty about that. We feel guilty about many things in grief, but enjoying life again is one of the worst. If joy shows up on your doorstep, invite it in.
In his notes for the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky said: “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Go out among the people. See how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings.”
In the 18thcentury, during a dark time in Ireland, the blind Celtic harpist Turlough O’Carolan was asked why he composed songs of joy in the midst of such turmoil. He said that when it is the darkest, that is when people need to be reminded that the dawn will come and the sad times end.
Our flame still burns, my friends. Today’s darkness will not put it out.
This post first appeared in The Grief Dialogues.