It is often in our darkest hour when grief has cracked us open, that we find access to the purest creative voice with us. Through the gift of art, music, and all creative expression we can begin to address the deep spiraling waves of feeling that overtake us as we try to make sense of our lives following loss. Like the turning of the soil, which creates chaos, having our lives turned upside down by grief is disorienting and overwhelming. At the same time that very chaos can open up huge opportunities for growth. With some intention and a few tools of creative navigation, discovering the hidden gifts within the loss can bring a sense of inspiration and hope. Here are some avenues that worked for me following the loss of my husband to cancer in 1994. And when I found myself diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer in 2000, once again it was creativity that guided me through.
Give Yourself Permission to Float
It is essential to take care of yourself as much as possible when you are grieving or coming through any difficult time such as treatment for an illness or depression. Getting nutrition, sleep, and support is top of the list. But this is also a good time to be very forgiving and easy with yourself when you just want to do nothing. Give yourself a wide margin for fluctuations in moods and emotional dips, waves and whiplash. Allow yourself the room you need to check out, to say no, to be a lump, or to have ice cream for dinner, or whatever else feels right. How is this creative? Well, play and floating and noodling are essential elements that invoke the flow of imagination. Stay open to this and give yourself the gift of time, which is a big part of healing. There’s power in floating when it comes to cultivating creativity! This fact is very underestimated. Pour your busy mind a cup of tea and let it blather on in the background about productivity. When you plant a seed there’s a whole lot going on before you ever see the sprout come through the dirt so dabble around a bit while you float and see what comes!
Push Some Color Around
When I was in the most difficult months of my grief I could plan a whole day of stuff and then end up coloring in the corner like a zombie just because I needed to get still. It can be very soothing and actually helpful to unplug from the intensity of the feelings of grief. You don’t have to have a goal or something to show for your creative playtime. Try drawing, coloring, mashing around clay (without pressure to “make” anything), or even just painting stripes of color and blending them in. This can be very relaxing and non-goal oriented. It’s very possible that something will start taking shape and if you are inspired to follow it that’s great! But try to avoid putting pressure on yourself to have a goal. The goal is to play…and it’s ok to cry right in the middle of it! I did more than one watercolor painting with teardrops plopping on the paper. I look back at those times playing with colorful paint as essential to my healing. I treasure those paintings now as they hold a memory of a passage I came through and I believe I can see when I look at them the presence of spiritual support even as I was too deep in grief to know it at the time. For some reason I was drawn to making angels and now they smile at me from all around my house.
Make A Sound
My son Ernest was just 13 the summer that his Dad died and I remember how important music was for him literally as a vehicle to help him work through the great sweeps of emotional shifts he went through following his father’s passing. Luckily my being a professional musician, songwriter and artist, there was already a vortex of recording equipment, instruments and fellow musicians coming and going in our house. I remember hauling electric guitars, amps, drums and anything else I could find for Ernest to bang on and blast through. It was like feeding a hungry lion. He was so deeply sad, yet not ready to go there. He practically had a sign blazoned over his head that said “leave me alone I’m fine!”
I experienced my own grief as frozen inside me for the first year. Grief was this giant boulder and the universe wanted me to get on the other side of it. Only I couldn’t go under, over or around it, only through. I think I knew in my soul, when I wrote the song “Sand and Water” I was trying to search for some way around that problem. Now I believe that I was opening to a gift of some sort of wisdom that came through the creative flow in the writing of that song. Weeks later I was able to read back over the lyrics I’d written down almost in a fog, and grasp the meaning of the words. The song taught me that I could believe that we can remain connected to our departed loved ones even as we cannot see our way to the other side, that even as we stand before an impenetrable boulder of grief, even that, with time, can be transformed into sand and water which, in that form, can be passed through. Creativity helped me to find my way through what should have been impossible.
I will see you in the light of a thousand suns
I will hear you in the sound of the waves
I will know you when I come, as we all will come,
Through the doors beyond the grave
Solid stone is just sand and water, baby
Sand and water, and a million years gone by
From “Sand & Water” on the album “Liv On”
Written by Beth Nielsen Chapman
Even if you’re not a professional musician give yourself the gift of listening to music and sing along at the top of your lungs. Take this time to pick up a guitar or plunk away on a piano because there is truly magic healing power in music. Though I couldn’t cry for at least a year after my husband’s death, much of my sadness was released through in the singing and the writing of my songs.
And as I watched my son coming through his grief he too embraced songwriting and music. I knew it would save him many times over and it did. Sometimes we would also just jump in the car and blast really loud music through the opened sunroof and with all the windows rolled down and I’d drive the car very slowly around the neighborhood while he screamed and bellowed as loud as he could until the end of the song. Sometimes this was the most successful therapy for shifting despair and anger out of his body. Thank goodness my lovely neighbors understood!
Make A Move
Just last week I went Salsa dancing with a friend of mine. I totally loved it! There’s something about getting past 50 where you can do this kind of stuff and not be burdened with being accurate or looking perfect. But what took me off guard was that about half an hour into it I found myself feeling the urge to sob! I was perplexed at first but then I realized I was probably shaking loose some old stuck tears somewhere in some forgotten muscle I’d not been using. I woke up the next morning feeling really different and lighter in spirit. So watch out world! Salsa Beth has been activated!
Grief can leave us feeling locked in such deepest sadness it can seem like only the fetal position is possible. Resting is good. But if you’re feeling stuck there for too long it might require a kick-start to loosen the gears. I usually start with some fairly loud music to get myself up and going. Something ridiculously over the top is good in any genre. From the Beatles to Heavy Metal we’ve tried them all! The main thing is to find something fun to dance to. Even three minutes of this for every hour can be tremendously good for getting stuck emotion released through the physical plane.
If crazy dancing isn’t your thing then find a way to trick yourself into putting on your walking shoes and get yourself out the door. Nature has a whole lot going on in the department of healing for us on so many levels. Get under the sky and, weather permitting, take off your shoes and ground the soles of your feet into the grass. Nature is creativity and life bursting at the seams, collapsing, and blooming again. Somehow the fact of this was a huge source of comfort to me and being in nature reminded me to just keep breathing and know that life would indeed lead me forward and that I could come back to nature again and again to feel that connection to my loved one who had died.
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond’s glint on snow
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn’s rain
When you awake in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there I did not die
From “Immortality” on the album “Liv On”
Music: Olivia Newton-John/Beth Nielsen Chapman/Amy Sky
Lyrics from the original poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep”
generally attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye, 1932
Make Some Notes
Another sure-fire way to access the power of creativity is to plop your self down with a pen and paper and a timer set for 10 minutes. The idea is to keep the pen moving and pay no attention to the editor part of your brain, which might be screaming on the sidelines that you’re not making any sense. It’s really quite interesting what can end up on the page, and at the same time it’s not about what you wrote. It’s that you bypassed the editor/critic for just a few minutes. That bypass is a muscle worth building because so much of the greatest inspired creative stuff comes out of the mist of “not knowing” and “not fixing” (at least until later). You can always call in the editor/critic later to clean up. But you can’t have the flow going while the editor interrupts.
After that 10 minutes, just write for another 10 minutes as freely as you can from your heart and start with one of these beginnings:
- Today I feel…
- I remember…
- I’m so grateful for…
- If I could guess I would say my greatest fear is…
- If I could choose one wish to come true it would be…
Why do this? Well for me it brought so much comfort and reassurance to read back over my journal and see as I went along that I was actually making some progress. Grief feels like going around in circles…and it helps to have left a trail behind you so that you can look back and see that perhaps even if you are going around in circles you’re also slowly rising up through this spiral to a place where you feel lighter and more able to feel a sense of hope and trust that the intensity of grief will continue to lift as you go.
Make A Promise
Give yourself the gift of one small act of creativity every day. Music, painting, dancing, cooking, and writing can all seem like activities that require skill. For so many people, some who struggle to feel that they even have talent, much less genius, it can be daunting even to try. But creativity is like air. It’s just like the oxygen hanging out all around us ready to be breathed in and provide lift off.
Each person’s creative lung capacity is a function of his or her sense of self-worth and how their creative efforts have been received and supported. Feeling uncreative is not a function of being born with or without talent. Feeling untalented is a result of not having developed to full creative capacity. It is each person’s birthright to create. You can’t be born without creativity anymore than you can be born without air all around you.
So if you’ve struggled with any of this you’re not unusual! And there is no better time to embrace your inner creator than when your world has already flipped upside due to grief or loss. Creative flow can fill the cracks in your heart if you give it a chance to be a part of your healing. Like opening windows on the opposite ends of your house on a clean spring day let the flow begin!
If you’re like me your know-it-all mind might try to take over and start pressuring you to wait until you “know what you’re doing” but don’t be fooled. Creativity by definition is the act of stepping right over the edge of what you “know” and dangling a toe into the world of “don’t know yet”. It’s a very juicy place to be. All the best stuff happens from there and that’s where the clues come from. Trust it and set aside just a bit of sacred time everyday to take a creative in-breath and play and let yourself stay in a place of “not knowing” and keep creating, keep playing and toss around the clues, the colors, the words, and the sounds. The power of what takes shape will teach you about yourself and who knows what beauty you will leave behind?
Like an undercurrent of wisdom, creative flow, when we can manage to open to it, has so much to say and it can only speak and live through us, pulled through the filter of each of our hearts, brought into being through each of our stories, with the unique originality of each of our voices, speaking as the sole inhabitant of our one-and-only spot which is our place in this moment in time and space, each point of view exactly like no other and universally connected at the core. Make art for yourself and your contribution will be like no other. Find your truth in the heart of your creative expression and the taproot of that will hit the groundwater of every other heart. This is how we heal what is otherwise beyond our comprehension to overcome.
By: Beth Nielsen Chapman