Tending to the Pain of Loss Through Collage
Open & Closed Questions by M.Devine
Create a grief collage to help you move forward.
On a beautiful, ordinary summer day in 2009, I watched my partner drown. Matt was strong, fit, and healthy. He was just three months away from his fortieth birthday. With his abilities and experience, there was no reason he should have drowned. It was random, unexpected, and it tore my world apart.
Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady: a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. As a result, we have outdated beliefs around how long grief should last and what it should look like. We see it as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support.
There’s also a deep cultural presumption that creating something out of grief somehow makes it all even out in the end: That your deepest call is to transform your grief into a work of art that touches others. Creativity is a way to transform pain. It all works out. At the very least, art and writing will make you feel better, and you can get to “acceptance” of this loss faster.
That presumption does such a disservice, both to the creative practice, and to you.
However, if we don’t use creative practices to make grief better, why do them at all? We engage in creative practices because our minds (and our hearts) run on them.
The truth is, pain, like love, needs expression. The human mind naturally goes to creative expression: it’s the way we’re built. We are story-telling creatures. We look to art, and to story, to help us make sense of the world, especially when what’s happened makes no sense. We need images to live into, stories to guide us in the new life that has come. We need the creative process to bear witness to our own reality—to reflect our own pain back to us. When we separate the creative process from a need to solve or fix things, it becomes an ally. It becomes a way to withstand grief, a way to reduce suffering, even as it can’t change the pain.
Creative practices can also help you deepen your connection with that which is lost. Death doesn’t end a relationship; it changes it. Writing, painting, and other creative processes allow the conversation that began in life Before to continue in life After. The stories we create are a continuation of love. And sometimes, creation allows us to connect and relate to the world again, in our own new ways, in this whole new life.
In my early grief days, there were times I stabbed through my journals, frustrated with the constraint of words. Frustrated that words were what I had left of our life. As an antidote to my word-heavy mind, I often went back to my old practice of making collages. There was something really satisfying about tearing apart magazines, destroying words and images and making them into something new, something mine. Using other people’s images to create a new narrative is deeply satisfying. I still do this. When I’m really into it, I do a collage a day, keeping them in a small art-paper sketchbook. Doing it as a daily practice helps me understand where I am, how I’m feeling, and lets me put things on the page that I simply do not care to write. And because I’m borrowing other people’s images, I don’t have to start from scratch.
As a daily check-in, making a collage is a fantastic practice: no words, no thought. You can use your collage practice as a way to check in with yourself, a way to center yourself inside the swirl of grief. It’s a way to acknowledge what is real, what is true in this moment, no matter what this moment holds.
Try this: Collage.
Gather a bunch of magazines and newspapers, decent scissors, glue sticks or other adhesive, and heavy sketch paper. I prefer shiny-paper magazines, the ones with more photos than text. There’s no reason to buy them: look on Craigslist for someone giving away magazines rather than throwing them out, or check recycling boxes during an early morning walk around your neighborhood. There’s never a shortage of magazines. I prefer small sewing-type scissors for this, as the cut-work can get pretty tiny. Use heavy paper rather than thin, printer-type paper; that stuff will buckle and get wavy with the weight of glue and paper. You might even get a sketchbook specifically for this purpose.
Flip through your magazines, pulling out any image that calls you. Let your mind wander through the pages. It’s normal to get caught up in an article from time to time, but do your best to drag yourself out of the narrative and focus on the photos.
You might look for larger images that can serve as a background, and several smaller images that you just like. Or find images you feel repelled by, but cut out anyway. None of this has to make “sense.” None of this has to be “art.” Tear or cut out whatever you’d like. Once you’ve got a good assortment, start arranging and rearranging them on the paper. When you have the basic background and larger images where you’d like them, start gluing.
Remember, this isn’t about making sense of anything, or making something pretty. The images themselves will often dictate what the final form will be. If you find yourself getting too fiddly and perfectionistic, try setting a timer; knowing you need to finish soon can help you make decisions in a looser, more impulsive way. In collage work, impulsive = good.
Does creating an image change or shift something in you? Do you have even the tiniest breathing room as you do this? Does it soothe your rabid mind, if only for a time? Some people simply feel softer, or less tense, after these practices.
Your life, and your grief, are a work in progress. There is no need to be finished. There is no need to be perfect. There is only you, and the story of the love—and the loss—that brought you here. Find ways to tell your story.
Adapted from It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (Sounds True, October 2017) by Megan Devine. Copyright © 2017 by Megan Devine.