Art can help you figure out how to start.
Have you ever heard the term “grief work”? Author and Psychiatrist Erich Lindemann coined the term way back in the 1940s (learn more here). Approaching our grief as "work" can help us begin to understand what's ahead on our journey - and figure out the next steps we need to take.
There’s a big problem with grief in modern society: we allow for very little time and space for individuals to do the “grief work” necessary to return to a state of wellbeing. And then because our grief feels so big and overwhelming, many find that they have absolutely no idea as to how or where to start. If you’re like me, not knowing when and where to start significantly reduces the likelihood that I ever will start.
I like to equivocate this problem to the same problem the artist faces when there’s a blank canvas before them. The artist thinks, “How shall I start? Where shall I start? What if things don’t turn out like I imagined them? Will I be able to finish? Am I good enough to complete this work?”. If you’re not artistically inclined, these doubts can be creatively debilitating. I’m a working artist and I still feel these doubts!
There’s a similar “blank canvas” that is presented before you after experiencing a loss. That pretty picture you painted of your future with your loved one is suddenly wiped clean. You feel you know nothing at all about how to live moving forward. The overwhelming blankness of the lost one’s absence is simply too much to bear.
But life is lived in full color, and if you don’t start facing that newly blank canvas, the circumstances of life will start dropping paint on it for you. You can either be a passive observer of the work, or you can be an active participant in the masterpiece of your life. While it might be good and healthy to first sit and acknowledge that blankness, at some point, you’ll have to pick up that brush again.
Scared? That’s completely normal. But let me share a little secret with you that has helped me in my artistic process:
Begin by covering the entire blank canvas.
No, not with a sheet or paper bag. Cover it with color! Cover it with one color, cover it with a messy rainbow of them all, it doesn’t matter, just cover the blank! It’s amazing how good it feels to get rid of the white and simply start something. The next step in completing that painting is much easier because in your mind, you know you’re already on your way to creating something beautiful.
If you look at yourself and your emotional state as an artwork-in-progress, then every time you sit down to process your loss, talk with a friend about your feelings, or practice self-care, you are participating in a little “grief work.” So ask yourself: what brings color to your life? What brings happy yellow, orange excitement, blue nostalgia, purple introspection, green growth?
Cover your blank canvas with new experiences, relationships new and old, new learning opportunities, rediscovered hobbies. Try one thing a week, then after a while, try one new thing a day. Soon, your canvas will be covered in vibrant hues.
You will be well on your way to creating a masterpiece that’s not what you expected, but one that’s beautiful, nonetheless.
The art process parallels many things about the grief process. Art helps us begin to create something beautiful out of the “blankness” that loss leaves in our lives.
Remember, you don’t need to be an artist in order to experience the benefits of using art in your grief journey. Fine art (what people usually think of when they say, “I’m not an artist!”) is all about the product. Grief art, on the other hand, is all about the processof creating it. It might produce a result that’s less than aesthetically pleasing, but know what? Grief isn’t pretty, either.
Let's hear from you! What are some helpful ways to begin tackling your grief?
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