"Creativity has the power to alter darkness in our lives, whether we paint with it, draw with it, write with it, sing with it, work or play with it, or even just think with it." —George Cohen in "The Creative Age"
I spent many hours in my mother’s empty house the winter after she died. Several times a week my husband David would offer to watch the children for the afternoon, hand me a travel mug of hot tea, and wave me out the door. Ten minutes later, I’d be walking through the rooms somewhat aimlessly, poking into boxes of her possessions and immersing myself in the enigma of a woman who’d spent her life creating beauty through her paintings, woodcarvings, quilts and wall hangings.
I grieved openly in the unaccustomed silence, my shoulders shaking with sobs, tears freely flowing down my cheeks. Catharsis complete, I’d wipe my eyes, sit down at her table, and begin to write.
There in my private writing retreat, a creative mother my muse, my own creativity soared. Grief the impetus, I began taking seriously the writing I’d done mostly as a hobby up until then. I wrote essays, completed a book manuscript, designed my first power point presentation, and planned what would be my first public speaking presentation since high school. David accompanied me to that first workshop.
“You come alive in front of an audience,” he remarked on the way home. “I loved seeing you that way, following your passion.”
My husband became my biggest supporter, seeing something in me I didn’t see in myself. When I was hired to do a weekly newspaper column, he purchased half a dozen copies of the inaugural edition. When my book was repeatedly rejected, he expressed no doubt it would eventually be accepted. He encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone, and I did, certain I couldn’t do it without him.
Then one day, I had to. Seventeen months after my mother’s death, three days after he came home from the hospital following a heart stent surgery, my husband unexpectedly died. Four of our eight children still lived at home.
I’d been David’s wife since I was nineteen, given birth to our first child a year later. I didn’t even know who I was outside of a wife and mother. Writing was the single craft I’d honed as an adult. In the face of extreme loss, it would have been easy to give up the workshops, power points and public speaking. Instead, remembering how my husband had reveled in my successes, I was determined to continue the creative endeavors.
Forty-eight hours after my husband’s death, instinctively turning to a form of writing I’d never done before, I opened a journal and began chronicling the widowhood experience. My writing took on a frantic pace, born of pain. I continued journaling, wrote essays and articles, and completed the book I’d worked on in my mother’s house, signing a contract for it seven months after David’s death.
I filled one journal and began another. A corner of my couch turned into a paper nest, where I’d sit for hours, surrounded by piles of papers and books. I traveled all over Iowa with my youngest daughter in tow, conducting workshops, discovering that when I spoke or conducted workshops, I could forget for a moment that I was a widow.
Initially, I assumed the reason I turned to journaling as I mourned my husband was because I was a writer. Weeks into my grief journey, however, I wondered how anyone could survive the experience without writing or losing themselves in some other creative activity.
That’s when I began studying the science of bereavement, researching the topic of grief as though studying for a final exam, reading dozens of books and articles about the grieving process. In doing so, I stumbled upon repeated references to creativity as a tool for healing.
A year after my husband died, I lost my young grandson to the cancer he’d battled for almost three years. Wanting to honor the loved ones I’d lost by helping other people, I began speaking on finding hope in grief, discovering the authenticity that comes from personal experience. In 2016, I founded what would become an annual grief in Dubuque Iowa.
The following year I took online classes to become a certified grief counselor. I continued studying the connection between art, healing, and health, analyzing studies that have demonstrated the positive impact all forms of art have on health. Whether it was writing, playing music, photography, painting, drawing, pottery, or dancing, practicing creativity was proven to boost immune health and reduce depression, stress and anxiety. I incorporated creativity exercises into the annual retreat, along with inspirational messages and healing circle support groups. We created vision boards, made collages, decorated journals, painted rocks, and even incorporated music into our event.
I discovered something else; companioning people through their grief experience was facilitating my own healing from the cumulative losses of mother, husband, and grandson. I signed six contracts in the space of seven years for books on the topics of caregiving, finding hope in grief, expressive writing, and creativity. Working as a program coordinator at a spirituality center, I took training to become a Therapeutic Art Coach and planned programs related to art as a healing and contemplative practice.
I was intrigued to discover that even practicing mediocre art had therapeutic benefits. I didn’t have to become an artist like my mother to benefit. I formed a creativity group whose sole purpose was to have fun trying new things. We played ukuleles, painted, and made jewelry. I was increasingly drawn to the idea of creating a mixed media project that would incorporate some of the memorabilia I’d collected from my mother’s things, memories hidden away in a trunk and cabinet drawers.
I spent many contemplative hours moving the little bits and pieces around: Mom’s broken rosary, newspaper clippings about her artwork, a pillowcase with her careful embroidered stitching, sections of poetry about mothers, and a thin advertising pencil I’d discovered in her workroom that she must have used for drawing. Satisfied, I glued them to a canvas I’d painted blue.
I was so pleased with my first project; I created a second one honoring David. Both hang on my wall where I see them daily. I smile every time I look at them, visible reminders of two people I’ve loved and lost.
During a recent presentation, I displayed one of the mixed media pieces I’d done, illustrating a point about the connection between creativity and grief. It struck me then the art form had more meaning than I’d realized.
“You see all these bits and pieces of memorabilia I’ve added to this mixed media project?” I asked the audience of grievers. “Our life after loss is a lot like a mixed media collage. The pieces represent everything we went through and experienced up until that moment our beloved took their last breath. There are beautiful moments and precious memories. There is a pattern to the memories that has made us who we are. Whatever we add to our life’s collage from this point forward is up to us. We can keep moving the pieces and the broken parts around. We can stay in our comfort zone by adding similar pieces. Or we can include new pieces in the form of novel experiences, maybe discovering a talent or passion we didn’t know was in us.”
I had three months of creative time in my mother’s home before it sold. Most grievers don’t have the luxury of an empty house as a space for healing. I certainly didn’t when my husband died. I had children to care for, including an eight-year-old who crawled into my bed every night. I had no choice but to find work within a year.
Grief naturally gives us an empty space, a period when life slows, time has little meaning, and we feel as though we are walking through a fog. We don’t have any control over the loss. There is nothing we can do to bring the loved one back. But within that liminal space, we do have an opportunity to control how we are going to react to the loss and what we will do with the pain.
Creating, in whatever form, is a way of taking back control. In practicing creative endeavors for our own healing, we might not produce a museum-quality painting to hang on a wall.
What we can create is just as beautiful: a life after loss that becomes the true masterpiece.
About the Author
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa. A certified grief counselor and Therapeutic Art Coach, Mary works as Program Coordinator for the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Mary is the author of seven books, including the award-winning Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, Expressive Writing for Healing: Journal Your Way from Grief to Hope, and Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity. She founded the Hope & Healing annual grief conference and does Expressive Writing for Healing workshops for grief support groups and churches. Learn more about Mary at www.marypotterkenyon.com