Grief, fully acknowledged and expressed, can inspire and infuse our work and our life with greater vitality and renewed purpose. Losses that remain unrecognized or incompletely mourned can block or stunt our creativity. Unresolved grief can also express itself in chronic physical disorders, depression, irritability, anxiety, addictions and insomnia.
Grieving and creating are both cyclical processes that involve the challenge of change. The artist embarking on a creative journey invites this transformative process. With grief, the change is unwelcome and often unexpected. In her book “On Death and Dying,” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of mourning: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These phases are not always experienced in a clear progression and it is possible to find yourself stuck in one or another aspect of the cycle.
With some losses, such as the death of a loved one, socially sanctioned rituals exist and emotional support is often available, providing us with a container and a context for our grief. With more ambiguous losses – such as job loss, divorce, children leaving home, chronic illness and aging – the path through grief to growth is barely paved, full of potholes and without road signs.
Of special concern to creative people are the unmourned losses incurred in the struggle to survive as artists. In “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron summarizes these as “loss of hope, loss of face, loss of money and loss of self-belief.” She ranks unconstructive criticism as potentially the most damaging. In the recently released film, The Piano Teacher, the woman protagonist criticizes her teenage students relentlessly. She shames and dismisses one student entirely after catching him in a local shop looking at porn magazines. If this was a real-life incident, I would shudder to think how likely it would be, unless he has the opportunity to consciously process the experience, that this young man will, from that day forward, associate his piano playing with humiliation regarding his sexuality and may struggle with full expressiveness in one or both areas.
Using this imaginary boy as an example, let’s look at the phases of grief in which he may find himself stuck and how this may be mirrored in his creative process.
The initial reaction to a loss is to deny it, to feel numb and/or confused. He may try to put the incident out of his mind. Perhaps he won’t tell anyone about it and, without consciously understanding why, will avoid practicing, delay finding a new instructor, or lose enthusiasm for his music. Cameron calls this phase an artistic drought, “a tearless time of grief” when we can’t access our feelings. Cultivating self-awareness and creating a support network are the means necessary to move out of a drought phase. Keeping a journal, meditating, listening to evocative music, watching emotion-stirring films and talking to trusted friends or colleagues are drought-busting activities.
The first emotion to break through may be anger. Getting stuck in this stage may involve holding on tightly to feelings of victimization and outrage – or, conversely, internalizing the anger in the form of crippling self-doubt. Anger over a loss is best used to propel our creative life forward – to ask, as Cameron suggests, “what next?” rather than “why me?” Our young pianist may find himself acting on his anger by avoiding performance situations, suffering from stage fright, or finding it difficult to compose new work. Or he may constructively direct his aggression toward finding a competent and inspiring new teacher.
In “From Crisis to Creativity,” author Gail Feldman renames the bargaining stage of grief as the stage of obsession, which she defines as “a cognitive strategy to attempt to control the future.” It is when you realize how deeply you’ve been hurt and want to make sure that it can’t ever happen again. In this fear-based stage, the pianist may find himself practicing obsessively but never feel ready to perform, or may avoid playing entirely and medicate his anxiety through addictive activities such as overeating, compulsive sex, spending or substance abuse.
A PERIOD OF INCUBATION
If one is able to tolerate the anxiety without reacting to it with compulsive activity, this uncertain time can become a fruitful period of “incubation” leading to a creative breakthrough. Instead of overworking or self-medicating, the task is to find ways to self-nurture and play. It is when your conscious mind is off-duty that your subconscious mind is able to achieve creative insight and synthesis.
Our pianist may navigate through denial, anger and obsession and find that his grief has yielded gain. Perhaps he is able to play with greater range, nuance and depth, or to successfully compose for the first time. He may be momentarily elated about his accomplishment and then plunge inexplicably into despair or lethargy. The depression stage of grief, which is the darkness just before the dawn, represents a final attempt to hang onto the familiarity of the past and to our familiar sense of self. In this stage we may resist completing or marketing our creative work.
To move into the final stage, acceptance, characterized by a renewed investment in life and/or in the actualization of a creative project, faith and courage are necessary. Operating on faith means surrendering the illusion of outcome control and risking full commitment to our creative goals. Courage does not have to consist of one huge leap but can be a series of small, persistent steps toward manifesting our dreams. Since loss is an unavoidable part of life, the goal is not to minimize our experience of it, but to learn how to move more fluidly through its cycles and mine its depths for all that it’s worth.
Mary Herzog is an exhibiting artist and psychotherapist in private practice. She has a master’s degree in Art Therapy and Creativity Development from Pratt Institute (MPS), and is a nationally board-certified art therapist (ATR-BC). She has extensive experience counseling visual artists, writers, actors, musicians and other creative professionals. With over 20 years of professional experience in the fields of mental health and substance abuse, her areas of specialty include creativity development, treatment of addictive behaviors, grief and loss, and art therapy. For more information regarding her practice, see her web site at www.mdherzog.com.
Her sources for this article:
- “On Death and Dying” by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross;
- “From Crisis to Creativity” by Gail Feldman;
- “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron;
- “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst;
- “The Link between Grief and Creativity” by Kizziah Burton in www.indigosun.com/sept1998/burton.htm;
- “Grief to Creativity” in www.stressdoc.com/grief_creativity.htm.