Good Grief

February 3, 2023

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“The only cure for grief, is to grieve.”
(Earl Grollman)



Making Space for Grief

One of the places I work is a respite care center for medically fragile adults who are experiencing homelessness. The center provides living accommodations, food, case management, and a medical care team. Unlike the bustling larger homeless shelter that I begin my day at, this location has a quiet and subdued energy on most days. There are fewer clients and the art therapy group takes place during “quiet time.” Anyone who does not participate in group spends time napping or relaxing in their rooms.

Last month I sat across from a new group member at the table. She was in her 70’s, with untamed white hair, piercing eyes, and a tense facial expression. I had been inviting her to join the group at the table for a few weeks now. She would often make a noncommittal sound and turn away or amble out of the common area when we began. So today I was inwardly happy that she had chosen to join me. I was very curious to see how the time together would unfold. As it happened, most of my regular members were away at medical appointments, so it was just the two of us.

Her grey blue eyes darted around nervously. I noticed that her body was angled away from me, as if she had a greater chance of escape if things became too intense. I slowly and methodically laid out my art materials: watercolor brushes, cups of water, brushes, washable markers, watercolor pencils. She commented on the array of materials. I smiled and said “this is a little art buffet for the day.” I demonstrated how the different materials interacted with the water. She was especially intrigued by the watercolor brushes.

Despite her interest she expressed some anxiety and said,”I’m not an artist. I can’t draw.” I replied that most people who came to group had said similar things. I encouraged her to just choose one of the watercolor brush pens and see if she could make some marks with it on the paper. It was perfectly fine to just focus on the feel of the materials and experiment.

As her hand began to shakily move across the page, the rich silence settled around us. The gentle water rhythms of the fish aquarium behind us was the only noticeable sound. I didn’t rush to fill the silence. It felt nourishing to me and I wondered about her experience of the quiet.

After a few minutes she began speaking. At first she spoke so softly that I had to lean in to hear her fully. She told me that her daughter had died a few years ago. I heard the catch in her voice. Her daughter had a medical condition that worsened. But her death had come as a surprise, and the client felt that it had been needless and due to medical negligence. As the woman spoke, her voice grew a bit louder and was tinged with understandable anger. She continued to speak about her daughter and all of the things that made her daughter unique and lovable. She peppered her sentences with the occasional swear, especially when voicing anger and disappointment. I occasionally asked a question, but mostly just listened with my full attention.

At one point she took a deep breath and said, “Everyone else has told me to just move on. That it’s been a few years now and I should be feeling better. But it hurts every day.”

I looked her in the eyes and said,

“If someone tells you there is a correct amount of time to grieve and a certain way to do it, they’re full of shit.” 

Her eyes widened. And then she gifted me with a teary-eyed smile. She said “No one has ever said that to me. Just let me grieve. Without trying to fix it. Thank you.”

As the session unfolded, she continued to work with the watercolor markers. She began drawing a sand dollar in the bottom corner of the paper. She said “I have no idea why I’m drawing this” but stuck with the image. As it took form she told me a story about her beloved father, and how he would take her to a certain beach as a child. The two of them would collect sand dollars for hours. It was one of her fondest memories. She missed her father and his presence. The grief she felt for his loss was wrapped into the loss of her daughter and other people in her life. She kept expressing surprise that the sand dollar had emerged on the page. I spoke to her about the intelligence of symbols in our art and how they tend to find a way out when needed. Together we held space for both the special memories and the grief.

Shared Grief

About a month later I was quietly sitting with my own grief at the art therapy table with this woman and a few other group members. She had become a weekly regular and was often heard telling other apprehensive clients that they should come to group.

As we sat there, my heart felt heavy. I had recently lost two very special people. My cousin and my best friend from college had both died during the same week. They had been my age of 42. A couple days after learning of their deaths, I had gotten Covid for the first time. I spent the first 5 days in quarantine, wrapped up in blankets and grief. I would look out the window and wonder how everyone else could be bustling about their day, when the world had lost these two incredible people. I felt intensely disconnected from myself and the world around me. Having Covid added a surreal layer to my mourning.  I wanted to be held and close to others, but needed to maintain physical distance as I made my way through Covid. Even though I knew the quarantine period would not last forever, I knew that the sense of loss would be a companion going forward.

The theme of loss happened to emerge in group that day as the woman and other members shared stories. It was a cohesive group of people and everyone was invested in the art before them as we spoke.  I decided that a little self-disclosure in that moment might be supportive of the group process. I told the members that I had recently lost two close people. That even though we all grieved differently, I was appreciative of this group and our support of one another. As we sat there making art together, they offered me their condolences and appreciation for being vulnerable with them. They were able to offer me the same quiet open-hearted space that I had offered to the woman weeks ago. I had the feeling (that I so often do)  of us just being together in our humanness. As Ram Dass once said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” 

Yesterday I attended on online meditation group and the theme happened to be grief. As the facilitator spoke a bit I noticed a number of teary eyes spring up around the screen. Even though this was a group of strangers, there was a shared experience of holding space for grief even in our little Zoom boxes on the screen. I was again reminded that grief is not a solid form that we can mold to our will. Rather, it is a bit like watercolor. Just when we think we have some “control” over the process, the materials and life will remind us to let go a little more.

Mono No Aware

There is a beautiful Japanese phrase that is hard to translate exactly. But if nothing else, the sentiment is what touches me. The phrase “mono no aware” points to the ephemeral and transient nature of life. It is an awareness of the impermanence of things and a deep yet gentle sadness about this reality. As a child I was aware of this concept. I remember spending hours in the woods and watching the rise and decay of natural forms. Marveling at the transitions in mother nature. I remember lying awake at night and staring into the abyss too. Wondering what happens when we die and trying to part the heavy curtains that seemed to block the living world from the world beyond.

Perhaps this is part of what drew me to art therapy work. I see each art therapy group as a world within worlds. There is a definite beginning, middle, and end to the group itself. But each moment has the potential to drop us more deeply into the mystery of life. We show up with our vulnerabilities. We don’t know where the art will take us, just like we don’t know where life will take us. We bring humor, sorrow, curiosity, and many other qualities to the experience. Each moment is ephemeral because it is always changing. But as we gather together, I am struck by the sense that we are arriving fully in each moment in the best way we can.

If you are in grieving or supporting someone who is, remember that there is nothing to fix. This can be so hard to practice, especially in a culture that rushes and encourages us all to just move on. However, our deepest need is presence. And presence takes many forms. I often weave poetry into my groups. For me, poetry is like a healing salve. And many of my clients express similar sentiments. Like visual art, poetry does not attempt to solve a feeling. Rather it acts as a faithful companion as we walk through our lives. What brings you into presence? How can you hold your grief more gently? Here is a poem by a favorite poet, Mary Oliver.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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