Grief and the Arts
No one is immune to grief. Loss comes in many forms. We face personal losses in the endings of relationships, the deaths of loved ones, life changing illnesses or injuries. We face collective losses of war, terrorism, fires, and floods. Hardship can fundamentally change us. We can be changed for the better.
We have a collective cultural blind spot when it comes to death. Often, we are asked to minimize our pain; to pretend we are fine when we aren’t. We have been taught how to gloss over terror, rage, and anguish becoming plastic versions of reality. In order to live fully we must be willing to release our conditioned hiding; to recognize our common longing for authentic presence.
While the human spirit is transformed by loss such change typically starts as unbearable, excruciating, pain. Pain that crumbles the world as you know it, brings you to your knees, and reduces your sense of self to disjointed fragments. In these moments we need containers for the unknown and portals to places beyond words or conceptual ideas. We need people who are unafraid of deep emotional process. We need art to heal the broken heart.
“A poem, a song, a painting, or a dance can awaken the tender places in the heart. The corners of the soul can become heavy with sadness or numbed by an unidentified depression. Art has a way of extracting the stuck and pulling us out of despair. This is why I am a musician, a dancer, a lover of the creative–so that I may walk and work in flow with life. So that I may live fully: art and soul.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
To Live Fully
Recently I attended a cabaret of grief related art. Collectively the pain of many losses was honored in dance, poetry, and song. Heart wrenching and uplifting, we were reminded of the power of the human spirit to be transformed by adversity.
Consciously making space for loss is essential if we are to heal our collective wound of minimizing pain. We gave grief a well deserved place of honor. We wept for ourselves and for each other. We hugged and held each other. But we did not stop there. We also danced! We danced our tearful, joyful, ecstatic celebration of life.
Sobonfu Somé from West Africa teaches her cultural traditions around loss. She shares that her community does not rush grief away. Rather they ask questions that create space for pain such as “Have you grieved enough?” “Have you cried enough?” Then with drums and music the grief is honored. The invitation is to breathe, shake, sob, laugh, yell, stomp and reveal the ecstasy of full hearted living.
Music from the Heart
Music has been a creative outlet of mine since I was a young child. I have always had the community of choir. Initially learning a piece of music involves a patchwork of notes and words. In time the meaning, the musicality come forward. Our harmony is literally a community of sound that requires that we work together, that we listen to each other deeply. The inner ear awakens, the heart responds.
At times music can reach places that reflective thought cannot touch. When we are torn apart by the pain and ravages of war, art can help us find peace. We listen with the ear of compassion. One example of the power of art in community. (You can read more here on the healing power of music).
Feeling without Flooding
Watching the news, listening to the radio, or scrolling through your Facebook feed and it is easy to become flooded or overwhelmed by the pain of the world. It is also easy to become desensitized as a means to shut off our empathic resonance with what we are seeing.
There needs to be a balance of staying aware and self care. I encourage you to pause and take a deep breath. Each time you see an image or story of terror, death, or pain take a moment to close your eyes, check in with your body, notice any tension or shock. Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? Stay sensitive, not desensitized or overloaded.
Make choices about when to look and when you have seen enough for today. Turn off the news at that point. Look at the blue sky, play music, paint, dance what inspires you.
Art and Soul
Poetry has the power to transport us into the realm of the soul. In the months after the September 11th attacks people connected to poetry as a means to cope with the tragedies that occurred. An interview between Alice Quinn, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, and poet, Deborah Garrison, looks at this connection. Garrison describes, “There was almost a poetic horror to that day, in that one moment you suddenly registered a before and after, and the poem seems to be a form that captures the largeness of one moment, and the largeness of one day.”
This poem by Adam Zagajewski was first published in the weeks after 9/11.
Try to Praise the Mutilated World
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? For, grief has a way of extracting the stuck, pulling us out of temporary shutdowns—so that we may walk and work in flow with life. So that we may live fully: art and soul.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Fall, 2016). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.