Healing My Grief with Creativity, Part 1
Trusting the Process
When it comes to grief, there is no “fixing” separate from feeling.
Preface: In my previous blog post, “Married to Amazement,” I wrote about my emotional roller coaster of a week in the hopes that it would bring clarity and help alleviate some sadness about my friend’s recent death. Since then, it occurred to me that my thinking process had entered what I’ll call the “cerebral realm” towards the end of that post. After noting that I felt sad, I posed some thought questions to myself, shifted my perspective to focus on new beginnings, offered myself reassurance, and gave myself other-oriented appreciation tasks to offset my grief (which I will undertake with sincerity).
These cognitive strategies can be helpful, but they are also are a way in which I can unconsciously detach from emotionally-charged events. Sometimes I rush to “fix” situations for myself without fully feeling the underlying emotions they have generated. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of response. In my case, though, staying in the cerebral realm is a remnant from my upbringing and I long to connect more fully with my underlying emotions. I strive to notice when I am detaching, consciously or unconsciously. So, as much as I wish I could say writing that post “fixed” my feelings, it did not. The next day, the sadness lingered and seeped into the remainder of my week. This is not surprising–my friend just died; it’s going to take time to process and integrate this change into my life in a lasting way. The lingering sadness, however, is a reminder that when it comes to grief, there is usually no “fixing” separate from feeling. At least not for me.
As you will learn here, I found it virtually impossible at times to hold the sadness in my heart and also be productive (I’ll define “productive” as engaging in goal-directed behavior). In this five-part post series, I describe how I used meditation and the creative process for self-healing during the week after my friend died. I also share some insights about grief and self-compassion I gained in the process.
January 22, 2019
Today my monkey mind is telling me all the things I should do (“I should put finishing touches on the creative writing lesson I’m giving tonight”; “I should publicize my next workshop”; “I should finish the blog post I was writing before my friend died”). And all that is true; completing those tasks would help me in a macro-sense to earn an income from my creative work, and that is necessary. But I know that whenever I use the word “should” towards myself it tends to invite feelings of fear and anxiety; I start to feel like I am boxed in and I have no options. The truth is, however, I do have options. I know I could ignore the “shoulds” for a while and listen to what my heart is telling me. I could invite a mindful presence, I could be here now, I could place self-compassion first.
I take a few deep breaths and invite the self-compassion option into my consciousness for a few minutes. As I breathe, I notice a sensation of heaviness in the middle of my chest. It feels like a boulder is weighing me down, and I know this sensation will remain for as long as I try to ignore my feelings. And if I try to compartmentalize my feelings into boxes labeled “later,” and go about my day, the distress will likely shape-shift and emerge in other ways, perhaps towards other people. What to do?
At times like this, when I don’t really know what to do with myself, when my mind is telling me to do one thing but my heart is pleading with me to do another, I try to create space for whatever my confused heart is trying to tell me. And today my heart is telling me that I need to center myself and be present to what’s there, even if what’s there is painful. If I dive into the pain, if I use the creative process to both express and contain it, maybe the heavy weight will lift a bit. From past experiences, I know that the only way out of emotional turmoil is through (compartmentalizing is a short-term solution at best). I also know that the tasks on my to-do list will still be there afterwards if I take a short break. I can set aside temporarily the planning and writing that was in progress. I can engage with and express what’s here, what’s present, what’s “now.” I can open myself to surrender instead of arming myself for battle. My inner perfectionist who tells me there is one “right” way to spend my day is not always right.
So, sometimes I just have to give myself permission to do whatever is necessary to give my heart the relief it needs and make space to breathe. What tends to help me is usually one of two things, and more often, both: 1) Meditating or doing some movement or sound-making practice followed by expressing myself creatively using traditional art supplies, or 2) Showing up at Mother Nature’s doorstep, meditating in her presence, and making images using some of her tangible gifts. Writing, of course, is involved in the process, too. But the writing that comes is not like the writing you are reading now. When I am in the thick of emotional pain, writing prose often feels like pulling myself out of quicksand with both palms greased. Not always, but often.
On this day, I decide to give myself the gift of one hour’s informal art-making time. By “informal” I mean I’m going to engage in an improvisation, of sorts. I have created enough formal mindful creativity experiences now for myself and others that I can often simply relax into my process without creating a strong structure around it as I would if I were preparing a self-directed project or small group experience. First, I set an intention for this practice: I am curious about the weight I feel in my chest and I would like to “move” it (preferably off my chest). I feel physically tired, however, and one of my arthritic knees feels weak… a full-body movement practice is not going to happen. Instead, I set up my table with my journal, a couple of brushes, a coffee cup filled with water, and a tray of watercolor paints. I select watercolors because they are a fluid medium that can express movement with little to no effort on my part.
After I set up my supplies, I light a candle and set the timer on my phone for 60 minutes. I relax into a chair, place my feet flat on the floor, place my hands on the paper, and tune in to the rise and fall of my breath. Soon enough, as my mind quiets, my thoughts turn to my friend’s passing and the tears come. Good, let them come. This is the release of pain. This expression is cleansing.The color blue enters my consciousness. I turn to the watercolors, wet my brush, and load it with blue. Wait, I do want some structure here, some containment. I have to go back to work after this. I reach into a drawer, retrieve a white oil pastel crayon, and draw a spiral that turns into a circle. I don’t plan this, it’s just what comes and I go with it. Circles are safe spaces for me. I know the waxy spiral will resist the paint and I can follow the line with my paintbrush. I apply the blue paint, then purple, then yellow… I blend some colors…
About forty-five minutes later, I see before me a circular rainbow of sorts; an expression of my intuition. I am reminded of a Native American proverb that has brought me comfort in the past: “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.” Then I engage with the artwork more directly. I dialogue with the oil-pastel spiral I drew, still somewhat visible on the page. It may sound unusual, but I use an imaginative process I’ve learned from my mentors to generate some writing: I name the spiral, then ask it how it is feeling, what it needs, and what it needs from me.* From this writing, a short poetic letter arrives:
“Dear Sadness, You are a part of the journey, my journey of acceptance. People are born, they live, they love, they die. So shall I. So shall I. No satisfying why. And through it all, it’s okay to cry—a puddle, a stream, a river, a waterfall… All of them clean.”
My timer rings, but I need a bit more time to close my process; I reset the timer for 15 more minutes. I take the artwork outdoors and prop it up against an oak tree. I sit with my image and my letter for a bit, gaze into the colorful circle, focus on the center. As do this, I notice that I no longer feel the heaviness in my chest that I had felt when I first sat down at my art table. I release a long exhale. Somehow, through the creative process, the boulder has shifted, the hard energy has dissipated, and my sadness has lifted enough to go back inside and return to goal-directed work.
In closing, I can’t help but think of a phrase I learned from my expressive arts mentors, often attributed to Shaun McNiff, a leader in the field: “Trust the process.” Yes, when I don’t know which way to turn, when I feel confused or overwhelmed, I can trust the creative process of noticing, feeling, and expressing. That is my intention going forward as I focus on self-healing and integrating this new grief experience into my life.
*Note: This practice is based on the work of Shaun McNiff, the author of Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go.