Processing Loss Through Your Art

A gentle warning before you read this. This was supposed to be a celebration article, but things happened that led me in a different direction. You might find it sad.

Stick with me because there is a message here that you might need. Maybe not now, but someday. And I promise that there is a happy ending.

Thank you in advance for allowing me to share this story with you.

©Carol L. Myers, Now. Encaustic monotype on Kitikata paper, 20 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

©Carol L. Myers, Now. Encaustic monotype on Kitikata paper, 20 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

15 Years of Art Biz Coach

This week I celebrate 15 years of writing a weekly email to artists, which I mark as the anniversary of Art Biz Coach. The newsletter is now posted here on the blog where you’re reading it.

It was on March 25, 2002 that I sent my first private email as a sample to artists I found on the Internet.

I remember the reply from one person: “How did you find me?!” She thought it was a little creepy that I found her online – as if her website were supposed to be a secret.

I don’t know of anyone who was sending a weekly newsletter to artists at the time. Many artists appreciated it because it was exciting to get email about the art business and feel connected.

Those were the days! Now we don’t need more email. We don’t want more email.

This is one of the many reasons why I’m extraordinarily grateful that you invite me into your inbox each week.

You’re busy, and now there are many other business tips out there for artists. I don’t take your trust for granted.

I can’t promise this newsletter and corresponding blog post will go on forever. I can’t even promise they will happen next week. But I’m pretty proud that I have never missed a weekly issue. That’s 780 newsletters if you’re counting.

I take this seriously.

I fired my first virtual assistant because she didn’t get my newsletter out on time. By golly, I promise it on this day and it should be delivered on this day!

This week’s newsletter – the very one you’re reading now on the blog – was a close call. Here’s what happened.

You Have Something To Say

My delightful father-in-law passed last weekend. He wasn’t well, but it wasn’t imminent. His passing capped off a week in which I said goodbye to my sweet kitty, Dharma, and – I can’t make this up – had my first car wreck in recent memory.

©Pattie Byron, The Journey Within. Copper, stainless steel, steel, and powder coat, 16.25 x 10.25 inches. Used with permission.

©Pattie Byron, The Journey Within. Copper, stainless steel, steel, and powder coat, 16.25 x 10.25 inches. Used with permission.

If bad things happen in threes, circumstances can only get better, right?

You surely wouldn’t blame me if I skipped my weekly missive, and I am not writing this to prove a point or to maintain a perfect record.

I’m writing in the middle of this turmoil because I have something to say.

I watch many of my clients deal with illnesses and deaths of loved ones. Several in the last few weeks alone.

We need to know that it’s okay to grieve. Everyone deals and heals at his or her own pace. Take as much time as you need, and don’t let anyone tell you how to mourn.

Me? I needed to work this week. I’m processing these major life events by writing about them.

I wrote in my journal about the joy I got from both Dharma and John. It was important to do so before it was too late – before I forgot why they took up such a big space in my heart.

You might need to make art to process loss. The art might be about your loss, but it might be about something else entirely.

In an undergraduate painting class, I started a canvas about a scene that I wanted to remember with my older cousin. He had just been killed in a private plane crash.

The painting, in a word, sucked. Come critique time my wise professor said that it might be too soon. I was probably too close to what had happened.

Life Happens, But The Daffodils Will Still Be Here

Life happens while you are busy making other plans. – John Lennon

Life happens, and the world moves on. But, man!, it has changed. It’s a different world than it was before your loss.

©Robin Herst Rose, Fire Water. Photograph. Used with permission.

©Robin Herst Rose, Fire Water. Photograph. Used with permission.

It feels like a crueler world – until you accept the generosity of those around you. Posting a photo and small story of Dharma on Facebook helped with my healing. I was home alone while my husband was away with his sick father, so I soaked in the kindness of my friends and “friends.”

Knock social media all you want, but feeling this love was such a comfort.

It might also seem like a darker world. Until you open the door and walk onto your front porch immediately after your beloved furry friend  dies and – I can’t make this up, either – witness the first daffodil of spring open right before your eyes.

Your Turn

If you have a story about processing grief, tips for those who are grieving, or would just like a warm-and-fuzzy virtual hug, please leave a comment.

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186 comments to Processing Loss Through Your Art

  • Grief, is not linear. I believe it comes through us in waves. Sometimes, gentling ebbing, other times it slaps against the shores of our beings. You are never “done” and you are never “over it.” You somehow find your way and gather new touchstones. Be kind and easy with yourself.

  • Alyson, I recently went through a week where I had to process “layers of grief” along with just regular life. I wrote about it here http://dashboardhula.blogspot.com/ Your letter reminded me once again that we are never alone. That there are people who can sympathize with us, but there are also people who truly understand because they have had similar experiences.

    Congratulations on your writing anniversary. You are an inspiration!

  • Donna Sands

    Dear Allison,
    Grief is a process, not be rushed, allow yourself the time. Thank you for sharing, and all your posts. My energy goes out to you,

    Sincerely,
    Donna Sands

  • If you live long enough, you’re going to lose someone important to you. My sympathies go out to you and your family. Thanks for sharing your grief with us.

  • Alyson,
    I am so sorry for your loss…I too understand the pain of being there and it is still somewhat fresh in my memory. I lost my dear father last year and it was such a devastating loss. But through it all, I discovered that he had given me so many gifts that are now evident in my current work. I wrote about it in a blog post that helped me through the healing process: http://www.lisacunninghamfineart.com/blog/making-a-house-a-home

    Best to you and your husband,

    Lisa

  • jan

    Last week, dear ol’ FB reminded me of the 3rd anniversary of the death of my soul mate cat Olivia. This sent me crying again over her loss.
    I send you and your husband hugs and light to see your way through the grief process.

  • Alyson please accept my deepest sympathy and I need to tell you that all thru my own personal loss this past four weeks you have been the inspiration that kept me going so I could move forward.Your affirmations, your great classes, your sincere care for artists as people- that is letting us know we are human beings who will have life changes- this has been my rock. I am so grateful to you. My life balance has been my work with people and my art. My people connection was abruptly pulled away but because of you I was able to get an even better connection and have hope to regain that life work mix again. I am so sorry for your loss. You gave me strength and I am so grateful. Love, Mary

  • Alyson, thank you so much for sharing with us- thank you letting us respond- Reading these posts, I feel so privileged to be part of this community. Yes, Roz, let’s all remember the daffodil moments- What a gift that daffodil was to you, Alyson! I hope you plan to do something with it, make paper or use it some way as a remembrance of both Dharma and John. We lost our son, Zach, (by his own hand) a year and a half ago. I have collected all the flowers from his funeral, each blossom as it faded, and this summer I will make paper with them (and with the old yukky T-shirt he liked to wear). I think I should write letters on the paper to family members stating how important they are to me.
    My heart goes out to all of you who have written responses confessing that, after losing someone dear to you, you can’t seem to get back to making art. I know! Back in September of 2015 I had agreed to have a show in April of 2016 but after Zach left us a month later I felt like art died, too. I told the folks at the venue that I just couldn’t. They gently encouraged me to make just four pieces and if by February, for a show that was to open April 1st, no less, they would ask someone else to take my place. I am still overwhelmed by that kindness. There was no pressure to produce so I approached my art stuff with no intention of making anything for anyone else to see. I already had two finished for the show so all I really needed was two more. Maybe I could do two more pieces and if not, I was off the hook- but by show opening I had more art than they could fit on the walls. They even let me show my “Second Advent Angel”, a polymer clay sculpture I had poured my grief into during that first Christmas season. Making was more than cathartic for me- it helped me to articulate visually the confusion and turmoil I felt, to define it bit by bit. I called the show, “New Realities”. Nothing sold, which was a relief- I wanted to give them to family members. If you would like to see the most meaningful pieces with my comments I have posted them in my blog: http://www.donabarnett.com/blog Some people have written to me saying they felt a little comforted after their own losses. Maybe it will be a gentle hug for you, too.

  • We are sorry for your losses, Alyson. We all approach our lives in a way that works for us. Like you, I’ve used work as a way through – after all, the only way out IS through.

    Our hearts are with you.

  • On my dad’s birthday, March 29th, I woke from a dream where I saw him clearly out a window, but when I went to greet him, he wasn’t there. I curled into a ball in the grass and cried in my dream! He died of Alzheimer’s last September, after 5 years or more of struggle. The dream felt like the first time I’d really grieved, as it was such a long downhill battle and relief when he passed. Thanks for sharing your grieving processes and daffodil moments!

  • Judith Barath

    Alyson, dealing with loss is a hard, long process. I hope you feel the compassion of the many artists who responded.
    I really like the way how you communicate a positive message even at this time.
    Thank you very much for your 15 years of continuous commitment and encouragement. Your newsletters are valued in my mailbox since the beginning! I wish you the best!

  • Bob Webster

    Alyson. I was referred to your blog by Rob Domaschuk simply as a resource to begin thinking about selling some of my paintings. I read this post as my first contact with you and I am undone. Partly by your post and partly by others response. On Christmas Eve day 2015, my sone died of complications from Cancer. It has been an inordinately difficult process and my reaction now assures me that it is far from over. I am not a prolific painter and have a very controlled style, so the free form expressiveness which I love in others people’s work isn’t available to me. However, your blog and Dona Barnett’s response in particular, I looked again at my paintings since Mark’s death…. a couple of sunsets, (not unusual at such times) one of which he requested, a bleeding lily (perhaps a little trite), a wave about to obliterate the ‘sun’, (I just “corrected” that from son) a series of shells, (which I only later remembered are symbols of birth and rebirth, death and Resurection) and recently, two whales as spirit beings, one a watcher and one a power, as I look at them now, I realize that Watcher has a somehow shocked look and Power, it was pointed out to me, looks very angry. So consciously or not art surfaces our feelings and helps us heal. I did not expect this when I clicked on your blog this morning. Gifts come from the most unexpected sources.

  • Liz

    First, Alyson, your commitment and follow-through is so inspirational to me. As someone who is working on getting better at follow through, I thank you.
    As for your kitty, I lost my best friend/Golden Retriever my senior year in high school and I still remember that day as one of the saddest for me. And every once in a while, I look at my dog and imagine him old and on his way out and cry. I don’t think it’s so bad to have a reminder that life is short and we need to be present for and find something beautiful in each day.

  • Marcia Scurfield

    Alyson, I am sorry to hear about your triple loss in one week. Any one of the three would be hard to bear, but all three at once? And I very much appreciate your blog article and the power of art to work through pain.

  • Lani Whitley

    Hi Alyson,

    I read your emails regularly, and am currently working as an art teacher, but really want to be a full time working artist when life circumstances will permit me to try! I appreciate all the thoughtful wisdom and practical ideas you share with those interested in using their creative passions in life as a job. My husband, Kevin, has been battling Dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s for about 10 years, and is only 64, but I have had to place him into long term care as of last December. I have been grieving all along the way in this journey, and still face losing him in the final season of this disease. I look forward to being able to focus better on painting simply for the enjoyment, comfort, and stress relief I know it holds for me, but I simply can’t go there yet because I have too many other responsibilities at this time. I’m sorry you have had to deal with so much loss all at once, and hope you will grieve well as life continues on. Thanks for your work, and I hope I can actually do a class of yours one of these days! Lani

  • Alyson, you’ve been there for me when I’ve hit the wall (literally, as you know). My boyfriend was injured that night too. We both just went to a yoga class today and it was not as impossible and painful as it would have been 5 months ago….and I wish I’d known that so much would heal…even as so much remains to heal. Things will get easier, especially for those of us who love daffodils. I painted a few this very week, and I felt unimaginable joy at doing so. Wow, life can be so intense. But it’s the sharing of and appreciation of the gifts that makes it bearable. And you do that so well.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss Alyson. You are in my heart. ❤

  • Linda

    Grief- comes in waves and can swallow you. I read your weekly newsletter. Be kind to yourself and thank you for sharing all that you have over these years. 700+ new letters is an accomplishment and I find them a weekly arrow pointing me forward in what is now starting to look like a plan. I am attempting to find my art path again after 30+ yrs working and raising a family. My condolences to you family and the loss of you cat.

  • So sorry for your losses and truamas, Alyson. May you heal at the pace that is most appropriate for you. You are definitely loved!

  • Grief is definitely a deeply personal process. No one handles it the same way. Some don’t handle it at all, until much later, it bursts out of them unintentionally. I too, had 3 losses in 2014. Six months apart, I lost my Father, then my Mother, then my beloved dog….shock after shock after shock is what it felt like. I was in so much emotional pain, I didn’t know what to do with it all. After my Father died, I didn’t paint for about a month (previously almost every day). Then gradually I started again. After my Mother died, it was only a few weeks after we got home from dealing with the estate (took about a month!) I started to paint and felt so much comfort from her, I thought. When cleaning out her belongings, I found 2 paintings she had started many years before. I took them out and finished them for her. I felt so much love around me while doing that! I was still somewhat in shock, very disoriented and could not concentrate except while painting. I never knew what this much pain felt like. Until, that is, my beloved dog Simon passed away unexpectedly, six months after my Mom died. Again, the shock and pain I felt was UN bearable….took me about 3 months to paint again. I painted his portrait. I still grieve, still cry, still get a pain in my heart when I see his grave in the yard. But he visits me in my dreams, and loves me as much in my sleep as he did in life. My parents also visit in my dreams from time to time. Puzzling dreams, just still trying to figure it out, figure them out. So, re-reading this post, I am starting to cry. I guess I’ve said all I can say. Thank you for this blog post. Peace.

  • Suzanne

    5 major in 7 months…I didn’t do art except color preprinted mandelas. Since my mother (event 1) was an artist, I spent alot of time looking at her sketchbooks, finished/unfinished art, supplies, and art journals. I Learned more about her as an artist and person than I knew before.
    As many have said, grief is not linear. I handled all that I was responsible for, and assisted others. I thought I was finished- not so.
    Sharing your thoughts through writing an article ,is a wonderful way as it reaches out to others and releases at the same time.
    Please take time whenever,
    Over the coming years to be compassionate with yourself, allowing to create art, or just enjoy that of others. Seek nature as healing and creative source.

  • Barbara

    Warm thoughts to you. Life can be so tough, rough, and raw…and then there is a daffodil, hope for what can be.

  • Cheryl

    My cats are my furry children, so I greatly sympathize with your loss of your Dharma. I can tell you that when my husband left me, I was so flattened by it that it took about four years for me to come out of the shadow. Yoga helped me, even though I sometimes wept on the mat in yoga class. Loyal friends and family helped me. I am a lettering artist, and I had to keep a roof over my and my cats’ heads, so I had to keep working even when all I wanted to do was curl up in a fetal position and cry, so I would do my lettering, interrupting periodically to wipe away tears that threatened to ruin the work, and then keep on working. It was terribly hard, especially because I always felt that depression short-circuited my creativity, but I had to keep going regardless, and eventually I started to look around and realize that there was still true joy to be found in the world, whatever else might happen.

    I think the key is to recognize that we are all different, and our grieving processes will be different, but if it helps us and doesn’t hurt anyone else, whatever form that takes (and however long it takes) is legitimate.

    Best wishes to you as you find your way through the process to a place where you have more light.

  • Sacred Pets Contracts Go on Well Beyond This Lifetime …
    Our beloved pets are so much more than just furry little friends. The bond we share with them is deep and profound. Their unconditional love and lack of ego, enables our relationship with them to often run deeper than that of our human loved ones and friends. While we spend countless time caring for their physical needs, they are continually soothing our souls and transmuting the stress of our daily lives.
    The “sacred contracts” we have with our beloved pet companions, are some of the most significant relationships we experience in our lives. When we take a closer look at these contracts we can see that in many ways we are each other’s spiritual caretakers. It is said that our pet’s soul has been drawn to us in order to benefit from our level of consciousness. Yet, in truth, we have much to learn from our animal friends. These pets are at times referred to as “familiars”… representing a deep soul connection beyond measure.

    Unfortunately through the normal course of life, most of us at some point will experience the loss of our beloved fur babies. And it has been said that the loss of a pet is as significant to the pet owner as … http://wisdomoftheangels.com/2017/03/sacred-pet-contracts-the-connections-go-on-well-beyond-this-lifetime/

  • Deb

    Last year I co-curated an exhibit titled, “Images of Grief and Healing” in Cambridge, MA. It was a very successful show and enabled people to discuss how art enables the healing process during a loss. There is a catalog that was created to go with the exhibit and we had a series of workshops and speaker series that went along with the run of the exhibit. If you want to know more about it please email me at artforachange@mac.com

  • Maggie Hunter-Brown

    Dear Alyson,
    Sending you love, energy, and light for your journey, as we remain behind.. and for John and Dharma, as they travel into their new spirit journeys. Sending an Irish blessing to warm welcomes as they arrived Home..
    I believe it is hardest on those of us, still incarnated here on the Earth’s plane, as our senses are somewhat more limited, and we live in cultures that do not encourage us to be open to all that is still “undiscovered” and not yet fully understood in our times..
    Having experienced loss of cherished ones (as so many people have) my contribution would be to invite people to be open to the isolated goosebumps sensations, and to the unexpected sparks and embers of light that you may see in your periphery, or even directly in front of you.. it may even have color, and movement. In the case of my late grandfather, some 30 yrs ago, we could all smell his Old Spice, as he passed us in the room to stand by his beloved, my grandmother. Unlike perfume, it only lingered in the air for the moment that he was passing us (we being his daughter and grand daughter). It is one way for them to say that they are only an arm’s length distance away from you.. when you are thinking of them.. it is their way to say, I “hear” you, and I’m right here with you!! They are able to affect so many of our senses, if we are open to the connections, I guess!!
    I agree with others.. missing them never goes away; it lessens its sensation over time.. I miss the human touch that we had as one human to another, before they passed.. but find some serenity in finding their energy visible in some of my photography, as round energy spheres! (The best time is at dusk, using natural lighting on the camera.)
    So big hugs go out to you Alyson, and to your family, in this time.. you are supported emotionally in making your needs for you and your family first!
    Best to you,
    Maggie

  • I know I’m a week late, Alyson, and you wouldn’t be. Deep condolences to you for your loss. Thank you for the work you have done and for generously (and regularly) sharing your knowledge with us. I know many of us could not be where we are today without you. Much gratitude and gentle healing.

  • Sending warm thoughts of how vulnerablility draws us closer, even with virtual friends. I am sorry for the loss of your father-in-law and of your furry friend.
    Love, Kristen

  • Hi Alyson,

    I suppose I didn’t read this last week because I was in the hospital with a relative having cancer surgery. I am so sorry for your losses. I have written a guest blog on your blog about dealing with loss as a creative person. I feel I was lucky this fall because I painted my mother-in-law’s portrait last spring, and captured her tenderness towards her great, great granddaughter. She died the day
    before my husband and I left for Paris for an exhibition I was in in the Louvre in October.

    There is no way to sidestep grief, and the loss of your father-in-law and your lovely Dharma must create a daily feeling of loss. I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of voices here sending you love and sympathy. I’m sure it is love that keeps us going, and knowing you were both a loving daughter-in-law and loving cat nurturer can give you comfort, because the love lasts. I believe that.

    XOXOXOXOXO Barbara

  • Leslie Kruzicki

    I’m suspecting that there would be a few people (and among your “listeners” probably very few) that if you were just talking about your kitty Dharma, would be less sympathetic. Yet, it might easily have been the greater loss (though obviously not for you). I lost my best girlfriend Jane cat 4 years ago and I am still grieving.

  • I’m so sorry, Alyson,
    I have had many losses, and it’s never easy. It helps me to surround myself with caring friends and to immerse myself in my painting. It’s too soon right now, but about a year after my husband and I lost our little Pomeranian, Sugar, we adopted a precious new one from an animal rescue here in Tucson. I think the poor thing had been used in a puppy mill. She has never played with toys.
    She has adapted well, and is the most loving little dog!!! It’s something to think about for later.
    Hugs…….

  • I need to leave a GREAT BIG VIRTUAL HUG to everyone who wrote such kind comments. I read every one of them.

    It’s never easy, but so lovely to feel the love of community. I am so blessed.

    #wearenotalone

  • a friend of mine writes about grief…………

    http://www.elainemansfield.com

  • Hello, Alyson,

    I just read your article and I am so sorry for your loss. I too am no stranger to loss. I lost my entire family starting in 1996 with my mom who died of liver cancer. From there it just kept happening, My grandmother of heart failure, my husband who suffered so many losses well before his death due to his disease multiple sclerosis, my dad and his wife in a tragic car accident (while in school), and then my mother and father in-law of cancer and a broken heart (also, while in school). I even lost an aid that used to come in to help with my late husband. Lastly, I lost was my dog Kipper in 2014 (while finishing up school). I think I got so used to loss at one point that it did not phase me anymore, but I can say I was tired of grieving. I remember one day thinking that just about everyone that came to my house died with the exception of myself and a couple of other people. It certainly taught me how short of a time we all have here and to never take life for granted. Grief has knocked on my door many times and still to this day comes to greet me at the most unexpected times and places. All one can do is cry, let it out, dust oneself off and go on at one’s own pace, and yes, don’t let anyone tell you how to mourn, or not to mourn.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. So many things at one time can indeed stress your system. I hope you are able to take some time to breathe and relax and restore yourself. You are very much appreciated by so many. Sending best energies your way.

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