The Starriest Night: van Gogh’s Grief Illuminates Ours

As a psychology professor, I am fascinated by the works of great artists. These creative individuals can be those in visual arts, music, or literature. I believe that anxiety and depression, maybe all forms of human suffering, can be expressed through creative pursuits. Sigmund Freud used terms such as catharsis and sublimation to describe the emotional release we can sometimes experience by expressing our thoughts and feelings.  How awesome to do this in a way that creates beauty for the world, in a manner that might bring joy and peace to those who experience the work?

One of my favorite painters is Vincent van Gogh.  Imagine how hard it must have been for young Vincent, who was born exactly one year after an infant brother died. The parents, in their grief and attempt to regain what was lost, named Vincent after this brother. What did this mother and father expect from him? Did they assume that he would replace the dead sibling? Did Vincent believe that himself?

Alfred Adler, a psychologist known for his study of siblings and birth order, described the unique situation of the “ghost sibling,” born after the death of a brother or sister. This condition, in his opinion, led to feelings of ostracism and inferiority. The lost child often becomes idealized in the family. The survivors cannot live up to the fantasy, and they may think the family would have preferred the sibling. The realization that one’s own life may not have existed if the brother or sister was still alive adds to the survivor guilt that most bereaved siblings experience.  I may be making some assumptions that can never be verified long after Vincent’s death, but I would think that grief and loss, as well as the auxiliary emotions, may be contributing factors to his later mental illness as well as fuel for his marvelous paintings.

Just like for many observers, Starry Night holds a special place in my heart. I have had the privilege of viewing this beautiful painting up close, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The display allows one to get fairly close, near enough to see the brush strokes that create the magnificent swirls that light up the night sky he portrayed. From reading, I learned that van Gogh painted what he saw: This painting depicted his view from the “asylum” in which he was living at the time. Tortured by feelings of anxiety and depression, entrenched in periods of mania and delusional thinking, van Gogh’s suffering is palpable in this picture.

In my mind’s eye, I can see him staring woefully out his window, staring at the stars in the night sky. Although mentally and physically “imprisoned,” van Gogh could still focus on that image just beyond his reach. One can sense his feelings of confinement and pain, while there is still a glowing sensation of hope within the piece. The night is dark, yes, but it is illuminated by bright stars and lights, giving the darkness a beauty all its own.  Light exists, and van Gogh was able to find it and translate it into his painting for us to see. Through this work, pain and peace combine into a thing of beauty.

Can that be true of our own grief and suffering as well? One of the challenges of grief is to find the proper outlet for its expression. For van Gogh, this outlet was painting. For each of us, it might be something different: a poem, a song, a charity event, time spent with our children. The trick is to find what works for us, what allows us to bring some beauty into the world out of our personal darkness. Van Gogh’s Starry Night reminds me of the fact that great suffering can produce great reactions. We just need to look for the light that can be found even in the darkest night.

Sue Lawrence

Sue Lawrence

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Sue Lawrence is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology who began teaching at Ursinus in 2011. An alumna of Ursinus who graduated with a B.S. in psychology in 1983, she earned her M.Ed. and certification in School Counseling at West Chester University. At the present time she is working toward a graduate certificate in neuropsychology from Ball State University. While a student at Ursinus, she served as the teaching assistant for Experimental Psychology and earned Departmental Honors for her research on learned helplessness. In addition, her original sociology research was published in Pennsylvania Folklife. In addition to teaching psychology at UC and other colleges, Sue has worked as a counselor and educational consultant, along with holding teaching and administrative positions in early childhood programs. She is a certified PQAS trainer for the state of Pennsylvania and provides professional development trainings for early childhood and school age staff in her position as Assistant Childcare Director for the Pottstown Branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. Sue has written and self-published a book of poems and short-stories in collaboration with her late brother entitled Sob Stories. Currently, Sue has been conducting original research with UC students on the topics of childhood loss, grief, and trauma. She is currently working on a children’s book on sibling loss and has published a handbook for adults entitled Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling. Her future research interests lie in further exploring how early childhood traumatic grief experiences influence children into adulthood.

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  • Anthony Sarrecchia says:

    I am a Hospice Volunteer, Co Facilitating bereavement groups. I find your articles interesting and educational. Thank You