The catacombs of my thoughts, as I grieved the loss of my husband, were painful and all-encompassing…if I didn’t distract myself. A comment, picture, motorcycle, or even a happy memory could throw me into a spiral that consumed my world for hours.
One day, I got a package in the mail from my friend Jessica. Inside, I pulled out three envelopes, each one thicker than the last. I was quite puzzled as I found the first one held half a dozen colorful squares of construction paper. Each was a different size, but approximately a three-inch square. The next envelope held the same types of paper, yet they had words and phrases on them and were connected to each other by ribbon. The final envelope held a letter explaining why.
My friend’s note urged me to try an activity. She wanted me to add more construction squares to the string she’d already created, then find a place to hang it in my home. The next time I felt triggered/scared/depressed/isolated/angry/etc., I would pick one of the squares and do the activity it mentioned until the difficult feeling passed. Her activities ranged from making a cup of tea to going for a walk. Adding to the list she created, I would make a “tool belt” of coping mechanisms.
And I did. The following were my favorites:
1. Journal or sketch something beautiful in nature. When the world feels ugly and senseless, talk doesn’t always help. So I found that going for a walk, finding a bench where I could be just one dot in the landscape, made me feel less upset. More calm. I sketched weeds growing through cement, a long purple flower in a field of dandelions, a dead tree amidst new oaks. Even though I still saw loss, I began to see resilience, too.
2. Break plates. The first ones I broke weren’t on purpose. But the activity felt so good as an anger release that, the second time, I was more strategic. I bought old ones from a rummage sale and broke them in my garage, where I could contain the flying pieces. Many people are afraid of anger in our hide-your-emotions society, but everything I’ve learned about dealing effectively with emotions includes being honest and letting yourself fully experience what you need to. It’s the best way to naturally go from one step to the next: ready.
3. Create something out of broken pieces. This is largely symbolic, and follows nicely from #2. When we pick up the shattered fragments (or the plates) of our lives, and then stay open to seeing them fit together in new patterns, we are saying yes to hope. I decided to create mosaics out of my broken pieces. My first wall art simply said: HOPE. Then I got into making frames, and giving those away. These objects that were birthed from angry/despair/sadness/frustration and transformed to beauty was hopeful and inspiring, indeed.
4. Make cards. I like making cards for three reasons: (1) there is something healing about creation, (2) they help me maintain relationships when I send them, and (3) I practice gratitude. Even though being close to people can be dangerous, as we’re all mortal, being a friend is one of the most important things we can do. Really. According to neuroscientists, happiness is cultivated by strong friendships and focus on what/whom we are grateful for. Friends give us purpose by being needed, sharing our lives, and learning together. When I had a hard time celebrating birthdays (as it just brought me back to my loss), I would write for someone: “I’m glad you’re here and that you’re in my life.”
5. Learn from other artistic people. Going to art fairs or stores of true craft (a painter’s store, for example; not Michael’s) is another way to step outside yourself for a few minutes and see into a new world. Often, highly creative people have pretty dark pasts with more than their share of suffering. Art is their escape, and the emotions put into their pieces make them all the more spectacular. Even if you don’t think you have the talent, try to emulate their style. What can you lose?
6. Transform eggs. As art became my escape, too, I learned from Luba Perchyshyn the process of turning ordinary chicken eggs into Ukrainian Easter eggs. They are so fragile; one can break in the beginning when emptying the yoke, the middle if you press down too hard with the wax pen, the end when you melt the wax off, or anytime if you drop it! Designs with a wax pen (I used an electric one called a kistka) are extremely difficult, as traditional Ukrainian eggs are all about symmetrical shapes and straight lines. The craft requires all of the concentration you can give, and this is why it’s so effective for people struggling with depression or grief. Not only do you see transformation, but you cannot drift away in painful thoughts or memories because you must be entirely focused. (By the way, the picture near this article’s title is my basket from 2010!)
7. Scrapbook your memories. Even when thinking about my memories was hurtful (cause let’s be honest, “may your memories give you peace” is not a helpful sentiment when someone dies suddenly), I knew I wanted to preserve them. I felt good and loyal as I worked on the important task of capturing as many adventures as possible. Since we didn’t have more than 30 photographs from our 13 months together, I wrote up stories and printed them out for their own pages in my scrapbook. I found post-it notes, cards and emailed poetry. Then I cut out pictures of food he liked from magazines. I went to Michael’s and bought stickers to accompany the memories for which I only had words – like an aquarium for the oscar fish that led to a shop-vac and new carpet one day. I thought my memories would be burned into my consciousness forever, but it turns out that after seven years, some details slip. Now I have my book to not only solidify the details, but share my beautiful life with someone else. We don’t honor people by hiding our grief and never wanting to talk about it!
8. Check off another home repair project. I was not a Do-It-Yourself project enthusiast prior to becoming a widow. In fact, I was not an artist beyond stick people either (and see #6!). What propelled me to learn new skills and buy a house that needed work by myself was the desire to leave the house and community where I saw James constantly in my mind. I needed to stop driving those streets and visualizing him dying. Since he and I were already planning a move, I decided to fulfill it and feel closer to him by engaging in one of his interests: home remodeling. I took classes at Home Depot, learned how to tile (a bathroom and kitchen backsplash), and update electricals. What boosted my confidence the most, though, was installing a ceiling fan and unclogging the kitchen drain, as I really didn’t know where to start. Problem solving 101!
9. Write. The art of writing has many benefits, including clarifying how you’re thinking, unpacking emotions, reflecting on your daily journey toward healing, expressing yourself in privacy, and fueling your imagination. Long before I began writing the notes that came together for my book, I vacillated between journaling and sending many emails to James. Writing offered me the opportunity to tell him my regrets, share my broken dreams for our future, relay how much I missed him, and brainstorm how I could honor him. Somehow, even though I knew he wasn’t going to respond, I didn’t feel quite so far away when I was writing to him.
10. Plant a garden. This one is biblical for me. It’s advice from a prophet, Jeremiah, to people who were in deep grief: displaced from their homes, living in the land of their enemies. God is telling them to accept their new home, their new normal, by planting a garden and having kids. Jeremiah says that God will not leave them in this time of exile, and that in this place, they will be a conduit of His love. They will reach restoration and wholeness by sharing their brokenness with one another – connecting with people they didn’t know.
Surely, this is a most accurate description of my grief journey. And I materialize it every year with my flower garden, marveling at the life that is reborn out of the frozen winter.