Death *AND* Non-death Related Grief: living another life

While much of my own personal grief experience comes out of the deaths of our three boys, many times in my life, I find myself exploring a more non-death related grief experience. For example, in the documentary Babbleonia, the actor Al Pacino talks about how the practice of our art is about allowing the unconscious to become free, to rise to the surface, to express itself. It got me thinking about how much rises to the surface when I can allow grief and hurt to rise up to the surface of my heART, how much is then set free, and how much more open space I seem to have in my being when done. 

As I then later watched the documentary Looking For Richard, I found my heart strings pulled by all the actors sharing their visions. Something in me began to long for the life where I was going to be an actor. And suddenly I found myself surrounded by all this free floating grief and disappointment at all the things I have not done, all the roads not taken, all the years gone by such that it is too late in some ways for some of those dreams.

And frankly, many grief experiences do this same thing. I remember all the free floating grief after each of our sons died. The just rampant longing for the life that was now gone, the path that was absolutely closed to us now. We are still mom and dad to those boys, but our parenthood is of a different kind. I've probably made the most peace with this fact through the art-making process, both re-member-ing and he-ART-making, over the years, working creative prompts myself, pushing the exploration visually, in writing, and conversation.

So I began to wonder what I should do with this free floating, non-death related grief coming up now about all the roads not taken?

I started working the layers and textures and text of the piece shown in the image at the top of this post. I started with "In Another Life I Would Have Been..." and then I added all these empty window frames and meditated on what I would see through each of them. I flashed on images of a tilted drawing table, something a comic book artist would use. I flashed on a beautiful kitchen with the stove in an island where you can actually use all four spots on the stove top! I flashed on a small theater room where actors were improving, where spoken word poets don't feel the least bit self conscious about screaming and over-the-top rapping with their writings. And then I flashed on a fountain in Italy.

As I then came back to my piece, pondering how to draw or paint or collage each of those peeks into each of those windows, something interesting happened.  As I surfed thru my digital library of my art and photos, I found:

  • Images sharing the cover of our collaborative Heroes & Demons graphic novel/comic book from a good many years back. I illustrated the cover and two of the interior pages. It isn't exactly being a full time inker or writing a comic series, but huh, look at that... I sort of am a comic book artist.

  • Images from several of our celebratory, ritual meals. The one in particular shared here is from the meal made for my 40th birthday party.  I made the bread from scratch. The lemon, ginger, honey dressing is from scratch. The salad is bursting with fruits and vegetables, many we bought fresh from the local farmers market. All washed, cut, mixed at my own hand. It was not a very gourmet meal, not very complicated. But still, I was the chef for that meal and many of the others that were photo documented by my lovely husband.

  • Images from the early 2000's Vagina Monologue days.  A funny publicity photo taken of me and a fellow actor at a rehearsal one day in the lead up to the show. We sold out the house for those shows that first year. We raised a lot of money for local non-profits. And the following year, I helped coordinate and organize the art exhibit that was companion for the second year's run of the show. It was not Broadway or Hollywood, but I was the actor doing the Hair monologue that first year.

As I filled the windows of my heART-work with these images, the grief and disappointment freed up from my unconscious. I realized consciously that I actually had done many of those things I was longing to do, those things that unconsciously I carried as being disappointed to not have done!! And the conscious realization of all this freed up a huge space in my BEING for coming up with new dreams or for pursuing these dreams more in-depth ways.

And more than that, this conscious realization gave me space to have my humor return. As I looked at that last window where I would explore something about the fountains of Italy, it became light-hearted.  I found a public domain image of one of the fountains I long to see, and when I pasted it into the frame, I suddenly started laughing.

I flashed on myself as my doll character self -- since I have her anyway, I can put her into Italy right now. When I looked over at her, she was still in the headstand position I put her in when I wrote up a "different perspective" prompt a few months earlier. And suddenly, I was laughing and visioning what I would want to do at those Italian fountains, and I plopped her right into the frame, doing a headstand right in the fountain!

I may or may not get to Italy, but I don't think of it now with such disappointment and longing and ache for a road not taken. I think of it and laugh at myself doing headstands in the high art fountains!  :) That's a big shift for me.

So that's your creative prompt:

  1. Ponder the idea of, "In another life I would have been..."
  2. Make a list of all the images, words, ideas that come to you as you ponder that thought.
  3. Then collage, draw, paint from that list.
  4. What comes to the surface?
  5. What perspectives shift for you?
  6. What rises up from the unconscious and becomes free for you now?

Here's to continued creative explorations!

[previous published version was in Radical Creativity January 2012]
If you are looking for other creative prompts to explore your grief experiences, take a look at the eBooks we have available in our Shop.

Never Feeling Safe Again: why bother to love when it all boils down to loss

There is some bottom line experience to grief that boils down to this:  we never feel truly safe again.  In truth, “safety” was always an illusion really.  But prior to the rattling of grief, we could pretend we were safe.  We could love as if loss would never touch us.  We could pretend that the ground beneath us was solid and unshakable. 

After grief comes along though, the innocence of that kind of “safe” perspective seems to get lost.  We come to full consciousness of how the pain of grief is equal to the amount of love we felt for the person who died.  And it is painful.  We come to a full consciousness of how quickly our life and the lives of our loved ones come to an end.  We awaken to the vulnerability of being alive.  And nothing feels safe.

In my own grief experience, I found that I initially wanted to become as hardened and emotionally risk-less as possible.  I recalled how, during my pregnancy, my husband and I would both talk to the baby inside me.  We played with him, felt him move, touched his hand as he reached thru my skin, and we read him stories each night.  We invested in our love for him whole-heartedly.  After he died, my first response was to think that I would never ever do that again.  I would never invest in another pregnancy or child that way.  I would never risk the emotional attachment again, so that if and when another child dies, I wouldn’t hurt so badly.

Can you see the absurdity of grief in that?! 

Of course when I calmed down and came to my senses again, I realized how ridiculous it would be to withhold my love from any child.  How could I NOT love and communicate with our other children?  If I got pregnant again, why in the world would I NOT want to parent that child from the moment I knew of their existence?  Why would I NOT want to love and invest in whatever amount of precious time we have together?

The larger reality of all this was the acceptance of the fact that death does happen; grief does hurt; nothing and no one is safe; AND I choose to live a full life anyway. 

It is true that grief takes away a certain innocence or ignorance about being safe.  But all we really have is this present moment anyway.  Yes, you can touch on the past in your memories. Yes, you can touch on the future with your intellectual planning.  But truly all that really exists is this very moment.  

In this moment, I am safe as can be.  

In this moment, I can choose to tell my husband I love him.  

In this moment, I can choose to tell my son I love him, regardless of the fact that he's dead.  

In this moment, I’m doing the business of my being.  

That is all we have.  If there is any sense of safety, it is in this moment.  And grief taught me to stop fooling myself into trying to build a structure of safety or to insulate myself by living out of fear of loss.  Grief taught me that I truly do want to love fully this moment.  And if loss comes in the next moment, so be it.  That will be the business of that moment. 

But in this moment, I chose love and being fully alive.  
And we all have that choice.

Reiki to all eyeballs seeing this,

[previously published version ran at Radical Creativity in November 2011]

Tea With Grief: creative prompt

There is such a prevailing attitude in our world today that says, implicitly or explicitly, that grief is bad. It is one of those horrible things. Something you have to heal from or get over or move through to get to a place where there is no grief (as if that place actually exists). Some experiences seem to tell us we need to get past the grief to return to the state of being we were before the grief-causing-incident (as if you can just forget what happened and be who you were before grief came). Some experiences seem to tell us we can be changed, but it has to be spun to have a packaging that says we are some how a better person now, or we've learned something from this, or there were gifts that came from it all.

The more time I spend on this planet, the more I think both extremes of this spectrum are hooey.  Really. You can keep your DSM V, and your theories, and your medical journal speak, and even your new age healing manual and workshop speak. I think that both the idea that you have to heal from grief OR the idea that you've changed now to be a better person -- ALL of it seeks to escape grief.  Anything to just not sit with grief.

Heal from it. Get over it. Move past it. Integrate it. Find the gifts. Evolve from it.

While I'm sure some of these might come to be a reality for some people, I still think that most people try to steer the bereaved -- or we get sucked into steering ourselves -- toward one of these goals without ever truly SITTING WITH GRIEF. Rarely do I hear anyone say to a bereaved person, "I'll sit with you and your grief." Or, "How much time did you spend sitting with your grief today?" Or, "When you first sat with your grief, what did you think about? What did it look like?"

For some, the idea of sitting with grief is repulsive because they have not experienced grief themselves and our grief seems like a dis-ease they do not want to catch.  For others, the idea of sitting with grief is overwhelming precisely because it is happening to them and they feel they'll be overwhelmed by it.

But I propose that we can approach sitting with grief in a multitude of ways. As many tools as there are in the creative box, there are just as many ways to sit with grief. Below are a few creative ideas.  Pick one at random. Just try approaching your grief in as many ways as possible, from as many angles as you can possibly dream up. You may well end up feeling a sense of healing or moving through or discovering gifts in the end, but those things are so not the point and maybe not even necessary. It is simply about discovering ways to SIT WITH GRIEF. Be in the same room. Talk to one another. Re-member your shattered heart.

  • Imagine your grief as a stuffed animal.  Either draw or get a stuffed animal similar to what you imagine.  And then spend a 1/2 hour each day this week offering Reiki (or just a healing touch) to the stuffed animal.  I have had experiences where the doll I'm using represents the person I was at the moment of trauma.  From my different perspective and place today, I offer Reiki to the doll as a way of sending Reiki back in time to myself when my heart first shattered.

  • Cut out images of chairs from magazines, papers, art books.  Look also for images that might represent your grief.  You can draw images as well.  Then collage the chairs and images of grief into the chairs on a piece of paper.  You can do a chair and image to represent yourself as well.  Looking at the collage, write a dialogue of what you say to each image of grief in each chair.  Write down what they say back to you.  You can even do it with talk bubbles right on the collage if you want.

  • Many of us schedule everything into our lives these days.  Very few people I know have the ability to live a stream of consciousness kind of life.  So we schedule what time we wake, when we'll be in meetings, what night to go out with our partners, when we'll travel, what day we'll use those free tickets to the Science Center, when we'll have dinner with friends, when to catch that new film.  Why not schedule time to sit with your grief?  Seriously.  Put it on the calendar.  Friday, June 10, Noon to 2pm, Sit with my grief.  And then keep your date for it as conscientiously as you would keep any other date on your calendar!!  If you are into meditation, take the time to mediate with grief.  If you like to walk, go for a walk with your grief.  If you like art museums, take your grief to the museum with you.  Think of it as an Artists Date with Grief.

  • Have a tea party with grief.  I know it sounds weird.  But often the things we refuse to allow into the party are the very things that get blown out of proportion, seem like monsters we are trying to keep at bay.  Invite the monster in.  Serve him tea and cakes.  Talk with him.  You can do the whole fancy table and hat and music playing in the background if you want.  Or you can do this by drawing or writing or collage.  Cut out images from magazines and such that make a tea party scene for you.  Looking at the collage, write up a little description of what happens at the tea.  
Before jumping to the candlelight vigils and rituals *for healing*, instead, lets really hear it when *grief support* is asked for...and then try making space for exactly that support to be given.

If you are looking for other creative prompts to explore your grief experiences, take a look at the eBooks we have available in our Shop

[Previously published in Radical Creativity June 11, 2011]

Business Card Of Grief: a creative prompt

FOREWORD: For clarity sake, I stress here -- because apparently offense has been taken when I have previously shared this prompt in other formats -- this is NOT actually my business card!! I do not hand these out to anyone. This is a creative prompt, an expression of grief where I was exploring -- and encouraging anyone else who wanted to explore -- what it would mean if we actually were REAL with the world at large about about death and grief experiences. As always, my work is not for everyone, so please, if my prompt and expression upset you, feel free to unfriend, unfollow, don't read here, or whatever you need to do.

PROMPT: Many years ago, teaching at a grief retreat, a newly bereaved mom told me that she was sick of being silent about her grief in order to be polite and keep the social awkwardness at a minimum. She was considering having a t-shirt made up that said, "Dead Baby Mom," with the black and white image of her dead baby's footprints under it. I LOOOOVED that idea and made note of it in my notebook. She is the inspiration for this creative prompt.

There is so much speculation and judgment about grief, how we express grief, what is healthy, and what is socially acceptable. Sometimes the truly unhealthy stuff is actually coming from trying to conform your grief to some set of rules or another. The therapists consult their diagnosis books and say, "You have 2 weeks." The social workers consult their resources and tell us, "Grief has 5 stages." Our friends and family tell us how hard the first year will be, but often never realize how hard it is to face the second year. It is often socially unacceptable to talk about how the second year is a killer because this is when you realized that EVERY year for the rest of your life will be like this. The dead person will not come back in any of the following years.

Of course our perspectives shift and change as we learn and grow ourselves. We become our own best advocates and start to find our way. BUT the initial hindrances of grief etiquette can feel extremely constricting. Like wearing a whale bone corset 24/7.

So this creative prompt is asking you to be honest about wherever you are in your grief experience. If you shed the polite stuff, what would your business card really say? What t-shirt would you really wear? When you attend events and have to fill in those "My Name Is..." stickers, what would you really like to write?

Try actually making up a mock up of one of these like I've done with the business card image in this post. You can do it up digitally on your computer OR get out the paper, scissors, glue, and markers and begin playing. Use up old business cards by using the blank backs to make your business card of grief. Have a few of those random name stickers in a drawer? Take one out and write what you really want to write. Cut out paper in the shape of a t-shirt and write what you want across it. OR take an old t-shirt, turn it inside out or backwards. Write on it with a sharpie marker!

You get the idea. Give yourself permission to express what you actually want to express about your grief and life experiences. Even if it is only art that you make in private for you and yours to see. Even that is a first step away from the constrictions!

If you are looking for other creative prompts to explore your grief experiences, take a look at the eBooks we have available in our Shop.

[originally published at Radical Creativity - July 27, 2010]

Post-grief, even the smallest things change...

There is a scene in the film Losing Layla where Layla’s mom Vanessa is in line at a bank or post office sometime during the first weeks after Layla has died.  The line is long and moving slowly.  A few people ahead of Vanessa in line are a mom and young child who is jumping and dancing around with a sweet little voice.  And the camera pans to Vanessa’s face.  You can see all the crumbling walls of pain and heartbreak falling down her body and spilling across the floor.

Let’s face it.  After grief comes, nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface anymore.  

The everyday things, like running errands, become complicated. Going to a café for a few minutes of quiet coffee time can be very difficult when you are a bereaved mother and the table next to you fills up with people who’ve just finished their Mommy and Me class. Going to any social event can feel arduous.

Sometimes it just is a reality that we have to be creative in our post-grief life to change up all the things that, prior, seemed so simple.  It may not be something you are up to in the first days or weeks after grief comes, but one small creative choice at a time will add up to a new way of doing things. Simply not being afraid to change your plans is a great way to allow yourself to step out of line, do a different errand, come back to the post office later.  Or getting your coffee to go and heading to the wide open space of the beach to enjoy it instead of staying at the café.

Much of the time, the changes required are a matter a paying attention to your heart, tending her as she needs tending, and being gentle with yourself instead of judgmental about the whole process.

In my own personal experience, after the death of my son, I just found it less heartbreaking, and much easier, to do my grocery shopping at one of the 24 hours shops, heading out late night, after 10pm to get what we needed.  That shop even had a 24/7 ATM of my bank, so I could do my banking in the late hours, too.  And they had a branch of the post office inside, too. While the branch itself wasn’t open that late, I could still post through the slots and buy my stamps via the machines there.  It was a heavenly gift to be able to do my basic, everyday things this way at first.  It allowed me to be creative and gentle in finding new ways to reconnect to the world at large without feeling rushed and pushed to do so because of errands.

Everyone will of course be different in how they feel post-grief.

The key is to be curious and tolerant with yourself as you discover what will work for you and what will not work for you.  And know that over time, your creative choices will shift and change and get bigger or maybe shift back to something more pre-grief-like.  But you need not force anything.  You are your own best advocate.  You are extraordinarily capable and response-able (able to respond) to your heart.  Take the best care possible.  And know that it is very normal that the simple things don’t seem simple anymore!

Much love <3 to each eyeball who stuck with it to get here :)

[Originally published Radical Creativity March 28, 2012]