Grief and Your Art

This week I received the following email from Ellen in Oakland, Calif.:

“Last month I lost my husband of 20 years, and I am awash in grief and business details. I was wondering if you could do an article addressing the impact of grief on creative work. I am aware of a loss of focus and concentration, an inability to persist as much as I need to in order to get it right. I assume this gradually gets better, though it could take a while. Also, I am curious about what my work will become as a result of being scoured by the grief. Can you speak to these issues?”

I’d like to focus on one aspect of this large subject: how our work may change as we grieve and in the aftermath of crisis and loss. What often happens is a kind of repudiation of the work we’ve been doing: often our current work no longer seems right, relevant or important. Something so large, life-changing and existentially deep has happened that our usual art may seem just too ordinary and simply not up to the occasion. How can we paint another pleasant little landscape or commissioned portrait when we have seen the abyss?

What often happens is that we think about all of the work we never attempted, work that we perhaps skipped because it seemed too dark, difficult or hard to sell, and we have a new pull to do that work. We may actually begin that work, and then come up against the reality that it is dark, difficult and hard to sell. This puts us in a new, hard place: grieving, in crisis, we now find ourselves doing dark work that may be deepening our darkness and taxing our artistic skills.

A natural counter-reaction then often occurs, and now we want to do bright, lively, happy, life-affirming things! I think you can see what sort of roller coaster an artist may find herself on in the wake of grief. The grief and its aftermath are one thing, and so are all the practical details associated with the — perhaps ongoing — crisis. In addition, now your art life is on a new roller coaster ride, touched by issues of meaning and life and death that may not have been there before.

There isn’t an answer to this, only the ongoing awareness that our art life is likely to be thrown for a loop by crisis and grief. We may suddenly have no idea what we’re doing and no idea what to do next. It isn’t fair that at this time of crisis and grief we should experience these added difficulties. The only silver lining is that, by enduring this new roller coaster ride, we may in fact land on new work that, arising out of the ashes, is full of new feeling, new moments, and our updated sense of what it means to be human.


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