Category Archives: Loss

Telling Our Grief Stories to Heal Our Grief

When people tell me their grief stories

they often ask me “does this sound normal?” Because everyone goes through grief in their own way, it can be hard to see what might be normal about your own experience. The fact that our culture doesn’t encourage us to talk much about death, grief, or the down-side of change makes it even harder, because you might not have heard many other people telling their stories about what it was like for them. Worse, you might have been subtly discouraged from telling your own grief stories by (hopefully well-intentioned) people telling you how to feel or jumping instantly into their own experiences without hearing yours. I’ve seen this cultural habit leave people feeling isolated and stewing in their memories, feelings, or fears, afraid to speak their truth in case it might start a flood of unwanted advice or hurtful platitudes. Some end up just hoping the pain will somehow go away on its own over time. Sometimes it leads to a sense of bitterness and cynicism about the possibility of healing at all.

That’s why it’s so important to be open to hearing mourners’ own stories.

Truly hearing means listening to understand, rather than to come up with the perfect response that will fix the grief. I know it’s hard to sit with someone (including ourselves) while they are feeling horrible, and not to leap in with something we hope will make them feel better. What we don’t necessarily see at the time, through the tears, is the healing that happens through the telling itself. We are story telling creatures, whether that’s with pictures or words; human beings make sense of our world this way. When we tell a story, even if we’ve told it over and over again, we come to understand new things about it, about ourselves, about other “characters” in the drama, and even about the world itself and how it works. There is a really great article on the importance of telling your story here.

Mourners worry that if they keep telling the same story

over and over again their friends and family will get frustrated or bored with them. Sometimes friends and family worry that the mourner will get stuck in their grief if they let them keep talking about it. For both mourners and supportive listeners, the important thing to remember is that we can always listen deeper into the story, each time it’s told. Telling them you’d be interested in hearing about their memories of the person who died, or about what it’s like for them right now can be a loving thing to do. Of course it’s also always a good idea to let the person know that they don’t have to answer you if they’re not comfortable! A really wonderful little resource about what to say when you don’t know what to say is the book There Is No Good Card For This: What to say and do when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love  published this year by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. I found it useful for thinking about my own grief, too. It really validated my feelings and helped me understand my own needs a bit better.

Your path through grief starts with your story.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.        Shakespeare, Macbeth IV:iii

You can find lots and lots of personal grief stories on YouTube, Ted Talks, and blog sites. I think this is because finally we are beginning to recognize the importance of telling them, while not being quite ready as a society to hear these stories without the escape valve of clicking away. Reading and hearing these stories can be helpful to some grievers; others’ stories can give words and a shape to our own struggles when we’re not able to tell our own. In the end, however, it’s your own story that will you show you the path you need to take through grief.  Your story will illuminate what is important to you. Your deepest hurt can show you what your deepest needs and desires are. They can be the compass that points the direction to your greatest healing.

 Many times my clients have come to me because they feel they’ve exhausted the energy of their friends and family to hear their story any more. So often the people closest to us when we grieve or go through big changes are experiencing their own difficult journey. The first step I take with them is to make room for telling the story, with or without words, in whatever way and at whatever pace works best for them. As the story unfolds, they can begin to see where they want to go, and we can work together to map their path.

 

Signposts on the Path Through Grief

You’ve probably heard about the five stages of grief…

Stages of Grief
the 5 stages of grief

…originally talked about by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. She labelled five distinct stages that people who are coming to terms with their own death generally seemed to go through: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The five stages of grief model was an incredible breakthrough at the time because it identified a lot of what grieving people go through as being normal and healthy.

Kübler-Ross never intended those stages of grief to be used as a model for how people ought to approach their own mortality, or how we ought to experience grief for someone else’s death. As human beings, we so badly want to be certain about things, don’t we? We often think, “if I just knew how I was supposed to do this, then I could work really hard and do it right.” The reality is, the process of grief isn’t a tidy series of steps or stages that we can do once and be done with it. It’s really important to remember that we all grieve in our own unique way. That way is impacted by our personality, our situation, our relationship with the person (or pet, or job, or role) that we have lost, and many other factors.

Other grief experts later identified specific needs that all people seem to have during the grieving process. An author I very much admire is Dr. Alan Wolfelt. He has written a number of very helpful books addressing griever’s needs in all areas of life, from the physical to the mental and emotional, to the social and spiritual. He focuses on our human needs for recognizing the reality of our loss, feeling the pain and other emotions associated with it, remembering the person who died, adapting our self-identity to our new situation, searching for meaning in our life, and accepting the help of others. When I first read his work his thinking really resonated with me, and it still does.

Mapping Grief

In my own work with people who are grieving, whether they are working through the death of a loved one in their life, or coming to terms with a major life We need a map to guide us through our grieftransition that results in a sense of loss or overwhelm, I’ve noticed another thing that seems nearly as universal as the needs of grievers. It has to do with the way we imagine and talk about ourselves in grief. The process of loss or change often leaves us feeling lost ourselves – adrift on an unknown sea, perhaps, or wandering in an unfamiliar and harsh landscape. The words that my clients and I have used to describe our own various experiences of grief have so often been ones that bring up images of a place: sometimes terrible, always strange, and often frightening or lonely.

In short, it’s not so much that we need to know the names of stages of grief, it’s that we need a map of our grief, and a compass to guide us. It’s pretty common for a while at the beginning of grief to want to find THE map – something to tell us exactly where we are, and how long it’s going to take us to find our way back home again, and which road to take. Oh how I wish there was just one!

What eventually has become clear to me is that the best grief maps are those we have made ourselves. Maps we’ve drawn of the contours of our own lives and what we know about how to navigate our own challenges with the tools we have and know best. In order to make an accurate map, up until mapmakers could access a real-time satellite photo of a place, you needed to be in the place itself, tread the ground, and measure carefully. This is doubly true of geographies of feelings and relationships. There are no satellite cameras or Google Maps for this. The mapping of grief is a process that takes time and care, and needs a lot of support. I won’t try to stretch this metaphor any further or it will fall apart – but remember how many ships all those historical explorers used?

Your path through grief…

Signposts for grief journey…will depend a lot on what kind of terrain you’re trying to navigate. In the next few weeks, I’m going to write more about grief maps, and the kinds of helpful signposts we’re likely to need as we make them for ourselves. For now, if you find yourself struggling and feeling lost as you grieve, I hope you’ll remember to be kind to yourself, and accept as much support as you possibly can. One place you can start is by downloading my e-book, Finding Peace In Your Grief, right here, for some practices from Art Therapy to help you create the calm space to nurture yourself during this time.

 

And of course, you can contact me for a personal conversation about working together on mapping your path through grief.

I’ve included a couple of additional resources for you. More on the 5 stages of grief.  And another great article on The Journey Through Grief

 

 

Welcoming Love: One Small Part of Moving On

Last month I wrote about moving on after my dog died

Moving on, photoI’d like to share how it’s been working out. It might be just me, but I do find that once I open up to an experience, I seem to be granted the opportunity pretty quickly! Having decided that it was time to at least start thinking about welcoming the love of another dog into our lives, my husband and I (well, okay, mostly I!) allowed ourselves to surf the various local dog rescue websites. We knew a few things about our limits – no dogs with so much emotional baggage this time that they couldn’t be trusted with other dogs or people. We wanted an adult, or even a senior dog that was already known to be safe with cats. Oh yes – we also both wanted at least a medium sized dog. Famous last words!

Picture after picture, story after story

The number of dogs that need a home is staggering, and heartbreaking. But not every one of them would be happy with us, nor would we be happy with all of them. Boundaries can be tough to hold on to when you’re confronted with suffering. I had to remind myself many times that, even if I’d feel really good about rescuing a dog from Iran or Thailand, I wouldn’t know until they were with us if they would be a good match for our household, and that handling some of their issues would create a level of stress for us that would therefore create stress for them too.

Being self-compassionate is not selfish.

 A regret I still hold about our life with Audrey is that her emotional issues probably would have been better served in a family with no cats, or by an owner more savvy with fear-based aggression. We did our best, and she knew she was loved, and I also know that our best wasn’t always THE best. It was good enough. With a new dog, I wanted to be better prepared and less impulsive, while still following my heart. It’s been an interesting balancing act.

Fast forward (really, really fast…)Big love

So somehow we found ourselves looking at an organization that rescues Greyhounds when they can no longer race … and there’s this lovely fellow with a missing toe and eyes like a deer … Welcome home, Aodhán! (Which we’re pronouncing Aidan, possibly incorrectly, but we don’t think he cares much.)

“The 40-mile-an-hour Couch Potato”

 I am learning a great deal about Greyhounds at this point. Aodhán is definitely “at least” a medium sized dog – not quite Great Dane sized, but awfully tall nonetheless. In between bursts of manic playfulness he spends hours and hours asleep. I would like to move towards inviting him to join me in the office, to keep me (and those clients who are willing to have him) company. He needs a bit more work on polite manners, and I think he’ll be great when we get there. He’s not taking up the space in my heart that Audrey left; he is creating his own space there, and I find that there’s room for them both. It wouldn’t be true to say she would have liked him – she didn’t like any dogs – but somewhere in her Wolfhound soul I’m pretty sure she is glad that at least we got another long-legged sighthound!

I’ll let you know when he’s ready to join the Open Hearth Studio staff. Until then, keep your tail wagging!

Moving on: Good-bye Audrey New love, moving on

 

Am I Ready For a New Dog? Moving On After Loss

How long should this take? Am I supposed to be moving on already?

 

red heart, broken with threaded stitches

These questions come up for my clients all the time, regardless of whether they’re grieving the end of a relationship, a big change in their circumstances, or the death of someone deeply important to them. “How long am I supposed to feel this way?” “Someone told me I had to wait a year – when am I allowed to make some big decisions?” “How do I know I’m ready to have a new relationship?” “People are telling me I need to be moving on already.” And for me, for a couple of months now, “Am I ready to welcome a new dog into my heart?” “Can I handle having to go through falling in love again, knowing I’ll just have to watch another friend die?”

Moving on doesn’t mean the end of the feelings.

A few months after our dog Audrey’s death, I had to acknowledge that sticking with my intention to keep going for a healthy walk by myself every Should I be moving on?morning wasn’t happening. I didn’t like being out there without company, I hated bumping into my feelings every time I passed landmarks like where we were when I first saw the symptoms of her cancer, and the ice-cream joint where we shared her last treat, and I was also frankly enjoying the freedom NOT to get up ridiculously early because an elderly doggy bladder needed me to. Yet as time went on, I began to identify another feeling upon waking up, sometimes even at 6 am – a tiny hint of an urge to get out there anyway, the desire to move. I mostly just watched that feeling, and didn’t act on it. I would go to considerable lengths to convince myself not to get up. “It’s too cold; it’s too dark; I need sleep/rest more than exercise; it’s probably dangerous out there without a dog.” I noticed the same messages would play even at a really good time for a walk on a warm sunny evening. “I should stay home and work this evening instead.”

After all, it’s always far easier to stay stuck…

…in a warm bed, or in patterns that feel safe, but really aren’t. By refusing to walk or have a more balanced life, I wasn’t even avoiding the feelings of sadness. Instead I was actually doubling my pain. No exercise, increasing stress, and a life tilting more towards “all work and no play” – all things I thought I’d already handled! Time for using the tools I had been ignoring, right? I have to thank my husband for a small off-hand comment on one walk that I did go on with him. He said something about how I was walking made him imagine that I was holding Audrey on a leash next to us. It was sweet and funny. It made tears come to my eyes, and suddenly it also made everything feel lighter.

I love how imagination let me see a new way through.

Silhouette of dog and master - what if she'd like me to start moving on?I thought: What if I did let myself play with the idea that she was here, and that she’d like me to get going? What if I said to myself, “I’m taking ‘Audrey’ for a walk because it’s good for both of us,” and then followed through? Would that feel different? Would I maybe get out there more? Lo and behold, what looked like a silly mental game has allowed me to listen better to my own inner desire to get moving at least once, and sometimes twice a day! Of course I haven’t completely silenced the sabotaging voices that tell me to stay in bed or cocooned at home! What has happened is that I’m gradually moving on out of that stuck place, and I’m less afraid to feel what I really feel, and know what I want. And one of those things is to have doggy company again when I walk. Even if it comes at the expense of sleeping-in time, and even if it means we have to walk past the ice-cream stand, and even if I have to experience strong and painful memories. I can also make some new memories with a new friend. I’m feeling excited, and more peaceful with the awkward combination of my sad and happy memories. I can imagine myself joyfully accepting a slobbery face-wash and seeing if the laser pointer is still as good a game as I remember.

 You can assume you’ll see some news about my search for a new dog in the near future!

 

It’s All About The Process

People tend to ask me the same question when they find out how I help people.

“Do I have to be creative, or an artist?” they ask, with a look of fear in their eyes. I get the feeling that if they were less polite they might have already left Art Processmy office, leaving a person-shaped hole in the wall like in the cartoons. I always answer them the same way, “No, this isn’t about making pretty Art, with a capital A, it’s all about the process.” I love this question, and I’ve never gotten tired of it, because it leads so nicely into why I use art materials with my clients to help them find their way through their struggles with grief, loss, and life transitions.

So what does art that’s all about the process look like? Honestly, it can look like anything at all, from a page left blank for an hour, to a piece of clay that has gone through a thousand shape changes, to a piece of art that could earn a place on a gallery wall. Art made for the purposes of personal growth, change, or healing is united in its intention, not in its form. Some professional artists do begin with an intention to focus on process, and then shift their intention to form and outcome after some experimentation. The line can blur. But what I’m asking you to do when you come into my office-studio is truly ALL about the process.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been talking with a dear friend a lot about mid-life, and about how our purpose and perspectives change so radically. She left me with the beautiful and challenging question, “Who are you?”  When I was a teenager, that question had the power to throw me into instant turmoil. It often came in the negative form of “Who do you think you are?” when I would do or say something that wasn’t what those in authority wanted to see. It’s also the question that comes up in the middle of the night for many of us when we’re feeling unworthy or incapable.

“Who are you, now?” is the question I work with on a daily basis with my clients who are readjusting their entire life to fit around the loss of a vital person, relationship, or role in their life. But it’s been a long while since I’ve intentionally sat with it, in a curious way, about myself. Not trying to come up with a definition of myself in the old ways, like “I’m a mother, a therapist, a wife, a friend….” or “I’m a person who likes…” or believes or does certain things. Just to sit with the huge question of “who am I?” and to wait for an answer. Clearly the only way for me to hang out with this question was with art!

I start with the paper.

Art ProcessIt’s a terrific (= terrible, terrifying) question, so: big paper – 4 x 4 feet. How about some movement to start, to pull me down out of my head? I cover the paper with plain white gesso – big, loose strokes with a huge brush. The paper’s too thin, it’s stretching and just about to tear… why didn’t I use something stronger? Just breathe. Wave the hair dryer around; my head is as noisy as it is. What’s my next step? Keep moving. I pull out some big charcoal and make as big a circle as I can. It feels good to do it, so I keep going. The black on white and the crackle of the paper as it reacts to my movement reminds me of newspaper, of text. I write the question, “Who Am I?” as big as I can, in charcoal and then in white paint. I hate how it looks – aggressive. It’s never asked just once though, I think, so I settle in to the effort of writing the question over and over across the whole paper. I look up how to write a proper cursive “I” on the internet. Nice avoidance, but the effect feels better, friendlier. Keep breathing, keep trying not to just jump in there with an answer.

Black and white get boring… and my arm is really tired and sore! Yellow, then oranges and reds. More circles. What’s important in my life? I’m thinking as I paint. How much space and time do I give myself to be with those things, to even know what those things are? Lines happen, dividing up the space, filling in, covering up. Feeling a tightness around all the things I don’t give time or space to, and a desire to just run away from the question. “Who am I?” I’ve given it a few hours of work so far. It’s not done yet – in the same way that I’m not done yet. I’m thinking of pulling it out to work on it progressively (once a week maybe?) over a long period of time, just to see what will happen.

Art ProcessIt’s not supposed to be pretty (but I do like parts of it.)

It’s not immune to my self-judging voice that fears rejection and embarrassment above all else (but I think it’s important not to make my clients do anything I’m unwilling to do!)

So, yes, even though it’s not about the end product, I do recognize that asking you to do art that’s “all about the process” is still a mighty scary thing. I promise that I know what it’s like to put paint on paper, or form to clay, in front of someone else. I know what it’s like to wait for the other shoe to drop – of judgment or disappointment or failure – to watch the paper tear and the clay crack and fall apart just when it might have been becoming beautiful. But what I also know, and know deeply and for certain, is that it IS the process that’s beautiful. It’s the learning and the yearning in YOU that are beautiful.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is yet another one of those holidays that carries with it a whole lot of baggage! At its best it’s an opportunity to surround ourselves with warm feelings about our own mothers or to bask in our relationship with our kids. At its worst, it’s a focus for guilt, regret, anger, anxiety, grief, or feeling left out or unacknowledged. For some people I know, what they hope for each year is that it will pass quickly and with as little attention as possible.

I don’t think there’s any one, right way to handle Mother’s Day. But maybe there are ways to think about it that can help. Certainly one of the best places to start is an acknowledgment that the definition of  “mother” is an evolving, complex thing, even on a purely intellectual level. Add to that, the fact that (however you define it) the relationship between a mother and a child is also one of the most emotionally complex relationships we will experience, and you’ve got a recipe for disillusionment, faulty assumptions, and volatile reactions. So first of all, you’re NORMAL if you are riding a bit of a rollercoaster on the second Sunday of May every year.

I think it’s healthy to spend some time in our lives considering and tending to what we’ve experienced as nurturing in ourselves and others. Whether that happens on the specific day in the calendar our governments have chosen to publicly acknowledge as Mother’s Day, or in some other way of our own choosing, is probably less important.

Perhaps with more attention to the qualities of care, nurturing, love, and peace that the originator of the holiday wanted to honour her own mother for, we’d be a more peaceful, nurturing and loving society. If you want to know more about her and the history of Mother’s Day, Wikipedia has an interesting article you can read here. 

If you’re feeling grief, loss, or stress in any way related to your own relationship with your mother, or to your own experience as a mother, Art Therapy is a gentle way to work through the pain. Sometimes words, just like holidays, aren’t quite right or aren’t quite enough.

A Shelter in Stormy Weather

Have any of you wondered what the name Open Hearth Studio is all about?

stormy weather - hail on grassWhen I think of the image of the Open Hearth, what I see is an old fashioned kitchen: a shelter from the stormy weather outside. I envision a life centred around the fireplace where it is warm, bright, and comfortable, and where conversation is intimate. This is the environment that I try to create, despite not having a fireplace in my studio! This is the atmosphere where I believe healing can happen. I’m writing this in a brief sunny moment, right after a sudden and surprising hail storm.

People usually come to Open Hearth Studio in the midst of the most stormy and stressful periods of their lives:

when they are grieving, or struggling with a big change, either happening in the present or coming up on the horizon.

Grief, loss, and change can arrive much like that hailstorm – we might know that it’s natural, but it might have surprised us if it arrived without warning. We’re certainly having a lot of feelings, and some of them might not make sense or seem “right” to us. A move, retirement, or job change can be exciting and full of potential, and it can also bring feelings of loss and fear. A divorce can feel devastating, and sometimes we see a glimmer of new possibilities.  A new diagnosis can be frightening, and yet there may be some relief that at last you know what is wrong. Death can come with terrible sadness, worry about the future, and confusion. Yet alongside it may live tender memories, feelings of love, and gratitude for suffering ended.Stormy Weather

So the invitation is to come in out of the cold, stomp the snow off your feet, and settle down for a healing conversation, where all the parts of you – the pain, doubt, confusion, love, and hope within you – can be met with warmth and acceptance, and where you can move towards reconciliation and healing. The Open Hearth (even without a real fireplace) is waiting for you.

This month, I am offering an introductory Art Therapy Workshop for grief called “Art to Ease a Grieving Heart” where you will

  • Connect deeply with yourself so you can discover exactly what you need to avoid emotional overwhelm as you grieve.
  • Learn how to communicate with family and friends about expectations so you can make plans and decisions without defensiveness or guilt.
  • Create a concrete self-care plan for dealing with important milestones and special days to help you stay grounded and moving forward in your healing.

You can find out more about it on my workshops page, and registration is available online at Eventbrite or by contacting me directly by email or phone (250) 595-0405.

Pet Loss: Grieving For My Dog

Audrey - by Marion Evamy
Audrey’s memorial portrait by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery

I’ve been preparing to write this post for about 8 months…

thinking that it would be helpful for those who have felt left out of the discussion around grief because they are “only” grieving the death of a pet. For those who have been told that pet loss is “not the same” as mourning a person. In a sense, that much is true. There is no such thing as “the same” grief.  Every death is a terrible loss. Every grief is a complex experience of memory, pain, and myriad other emotions. No one wins in the competition of “who hurts worse?”

My dog, Audrey, died four weeks ago, and the preparation made no difference at all.

I have been conscious of watching myself grieve pretty constantly since then. It’s an odd experience, being fully immersed in the feelings and direct experience, and then unexpectedly finding myself popping back up into my head to think “I’ll have to remember this, so I can write about it later.” I don’t really recommend it, but it’s what is happening, so I guess I’ve just got to go with it. My hope is that both you (and later I, too) will find it useful.

Having to hit the “reset” button every other moment …

For me, anyway, that’s what it felt like for the first few days. That scuffle I’m hearing: no, that’s not Audrey following me, it’s just wind outside. Her collar jingling? No, that was a cellphone in the next room. Thinking that I should wait a few more minutes before getting up to go to the kitchen to make sure Audrey’s soundly asleep so I don’t disturb her? Oh, she’s not here; I can get up and do anything I want without bothering anyone. Except what I want is to have her here, to have to (to be privileged to) consider her, to be irritated by her constant needs. While I am surprised less frequently by her absence now, after a month (which feels like about two weeks), it still happens more than I expected, and I imagine that it won’t go away entirely any time soon.

Self-Care, whether you think you need it or not

I  thought it might be a hard decision to cancel appointments in my Art Therapy practice when Audrey died. I knew I’d “probably” need to give myself the same time and permission I advise to others to deal with her inevitable death. Good old ego, thinking only in terms of “probably,” and thinking that all the other pet losses I’ve “had experience” with would have anything whatsoever to do with this loss. I thought I’d feel responsible and a little guilty, so I might let myself waffle a bit on self-care. In the end, there was no question. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted so badly not to see anyone that I gratefully accepted my clients’ graceful responses to my last-minute emails telling them I had family circumstances that required my attention for two days. Thank goodness I did. And thank goodness there was a weekend and a “business and paperwork day” as a buffer zone in there too. I would have been good for absolutely no one if I had stuck it out and kept my appointments. I’m still catching up on paperwork.

So what would be useful for me to say here?

It surprised my “witnessing self,” how many of my assumptions about my own reactions were inaccurate. I thought my previous experiences were going to make more difference for me than they did. I thought I was completely committed to one particular course of action, and in the end I went with something else. What my heart wanted in the moment was stronger than any of my rationally considered plans. Perhaps what I want most to get across here, and what I know is still just outside the reach of my language, is the sensation of grief, beyond the whirling thoughts that want to explain explain explain – not really able to mask the true experience. No matter how often I slide upwards into heady observations, turning clever words and ideas over and over in my mind, that I would write a great little essay with, the solidity of the feeling remains, and grows oddly comforting. Stay with that, I remind myself. That is the truth; that is the medicine that will heal me.

Since my own art and poetry haven’t quite come through yet, I leave you with the image of Audrey painted by Marion Evamy of Red Art Gallery (above) and the words of David Whyte, a master of finding words for grief:

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

from River Flow
New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press © David Whyte

Acceptance and the Unexpected

audreynov2016I’m pretty sure I owe you all some news. I’ve been asked off and on for the past few months, often tentatively and apologetically, whether my dog Audrey was still alive. I wrote some months ago about the expectation that she would die soon because of an inoperable cancerous tumour. It’s a funny thing, expectation. When a vet (or a doctor in human medicine) tells you that illness has taken hold and that death will come immanently, you tend to make plans based on the numbers given. “You have about six more good months; you should do what you can to wind up your affairs and make every day count.” “She’s close to the end, you should come and visit now while she’s still lucid.” Or in my case, back in March, “July’s a really long time from now, for her, I don’t think you will be needing a pet-sitter for that trip you have to take.”

July was four months ago, and while I still think in terms of “will she be here for (whatever the next holiday or visit is)?” I have become pretty used to Audrey still being here. We joke that she is “the dog that never ends, yes she goes on and on my friends…” like the children’s song that goes around and around (and never ends). Under the joke though, is the sure knowledge that one of these days we’re going to have to go through whatever her death will look like. I am reminded of a line in an obituary (and I’m not sure if this is a real memory, apocryphal, or from my own imagination) that says someone died “suddenly, after a long illness.” That’s what it feels like. We can expect the inevitable, but no matter what, somehow it still manages to sneak up and grab us by surprise. And so we waver, caught in that gap between expectation and acceptance.

So I’m writing this little piece to simply let you know, Audrey is still here. She’s even slower, has the same temper, and the same sweetness that lies just under her skin if you take the time to let her show it. I have to help her up and down the stairs, but she still seems to be happy to be a dog, despite her limitations and occasional limp. For whatever reason, she perfectly happily munches up her various pills without needing the bribe of a treat. We suspect she’s trying to make up for her old habit of snapping before thinking. Good dog, Audrey.

Goodbye: Endings in art and life

"Grieve", Acrylic, 2012

Goodbye – What word creates more intense emotions?

It can be said in so many ways. Goodbye can come with an emphatic exclamation point; a slammed door. Sometimes it comes as a question. Is that all there is then? Are we done? Really? Other times, it’s simply the end of a sentence that has gone on too long, and we reach the period with a sigh, perhaps relief.

My preference is for the type of goodbye that is followed by an ellipsis (. . .) 

Pardon me for geeking out on punctuation for a moment! And please, don’t go looking up a grammar guide online – I’m sure my writing wouldn’t pass the test. Let’s just go with the metaphor for a moment here. If we end a sentence with a dot, dot, dot; we are left with the knowledge that something is being left out – with a sense that there might be something more.

Goodbye . . .

Welcome to the Open StudioI made a hard decision this spring. After more than three years, I chose to end the Open Studio program at St. George’s Church here in Victoria, BC at the end of this month. We’ve made art together, laughed, cried, ranted, made messes, and cleaned up. Over eighty people, in all, at some point experienced our little community. At any individual session, our attendance usually didn’t get much above six people, but WOW, those six (whichever six came that day) were invariably brave and sweet and committed to their process and to each other. I got to witness kindness, comfort, and respect. I watched courageous souls take a look at themselves and make decisions to change, to try something new, to stretch and to grow. I watched hurting souls find comfort in quietness and colour, a brief touch or a cup of tea offered by a stranger. I watched the shy and the gregarious, the young and the old, men and women, self-identified artists and those who say they aren’t a bit creative, figure each other out and figure out how to BE with each other. Just to be. What an honour and adventure it has been.

Of course, we’ve had to end things all along in this process. Every piece of art made at the Open Studio has needed to be dismissed at some point. Sometimes the dismissal has been unconscious. I think of the occasional artwork left behind and never reclaimed, its creator having done what they needed to do at the Studio, and choosing not to return. Sometimes an artist needs to put their work on hold, set it aside for a session or a  month or a year, until the time is right to say “hello again!” and continue to work. On those lucky occasions when an artist feels satisfied with their work and can say “I’m done now! It’s finished,” the goodbye can be clean and optimistic, looking towards the next idea, the next canvas. More often though, the ending is fraught with doubt. Is this finished? Did I miss the mark somehow? Where did my original idea go? This looks nothing like what I planned. What can I make of it now? Or even with work that feels good to its creator, there can be the doubt of what to do with the piece. Should I give this away? Am I ready to let it go? And of course, always, the wondering – Will I ever have a good idea again? I loved this creation, and now it’s over, and now I feel so very empty!

Sometimes my job as an Art Therapist is to hold the lamp of hope that there will, of course, be more good ideas. And the lamp of acceptance that sometimes there will be a big, blank canvas. And that that is okay too. There will be different canvases, different opportunities, different relationships. There will be new knowledge. Practice will never make perfect but it will do a much better job than never trying again. I might say. “Art is a way to practice all the hard stuff in life – like letting go and learning something new and tolerating just not knowing!” And sometimes I know I’m lucky no one has dumped a paint bottle on my head (yet.) We want so badly to move on to hello.

I know you all know this.

Life includes endings. Without Goodbye, we do not get to say Hello. We’ve heard them all. I’ve said most of them. And sometimes I’ve said those things at the right time, but not always.  And despite the truth in all of them, and despite my desire to go zooming past the ellipsis . . .  right away into the next truth . . .

That would be unfair. And grammatically incorrect. Those dots are there to tell us something is missing, or left out. And to rush past that space is to deny the time we need to feel the absence. For me there is a breath that happens at . . . .               I think it’s an inhalation – an anticipatory gathering of my energy. Something in me probably knows I’m going to need it.  So let’s take a minute to breathe here. We know there will be a helloBut right now it’s vital to recognize the loss. Whatever loss might be up for you right now. If you’re one of those who is directly affected by the ending of the Open Studio, or if you’re someone who missed it, or someone who is just here checking this space out – take that breath. What’s missing that needs to be acknowledged? What has life required you to say goodbye to – with all the pain that entails – right now? And what needs to be felt and known in this time of ending? Not what your friends think, not what our culture tells us we should feel, or know, or do, but what do YOU feel and know about goodbye right now, in your own soul and bones?

Let’s just be here for a while. Take the time we need. We can wait together until it’s time for the  Hello  after the  . . .

 

If you are feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, or alone as you mourn a loss, ending, or other goodbye, I help people find their way to the other side of their unique grief. Please contact me if you feel I might be of service.