What Gives Hope: Interview with Nancy Gershman, Memory Artist

For Open To Hope Foundation’s “What Gives Hope?” video, artist Nancy Gershman tells founder Gloria Horsley that her prescriptive photomontages give three reasons to hope.  From what she’s learned from her end of life clients and their bereaved families, these portraits are:

  • Tangible objects that are wearable, mail-able, and displayable., but you can also talk to them;
  • A natural way to “campaign” for the deceased and everything they stand for;
  • Talismans that encourage grieving people to re-integrate themselves into the land of the living, every time they share one.

Nancy Gershman is a memory artist – part oral historian, part digital artist. She creates pictures of memories – ones you have, or wish you had – to turn around a negative frame of mind as the result of grief and loss, but also acceptance and reconciliation issues.

Nancy co-creates these preferred stories (or prescriptive photomontages) with her clients, resourcing their personal photos, memories and epiphanies gleaned from therapy or a support group.  As the product is digital, the piece is also modifiable to fit change of hearts (or direction). Finally, by being digital, the deliverable is also infinitely adaptable (think frame-able prints; photo purses; photo blankets, etc.).

Grief therapist Courtney Armstrong devotes a chapter on prescriptive photomontage in “Transforming Traumatic Grief: Six Steps to Move from Grief To Peace.” A chapter on prescriptive photomontage appears in Robert Neimeyer’s compilation, “Techniques of Grief Therapy:  Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved.”   Published work on her Healing Dreamscape process has appeared in Annals of American Psychotherapy, Advance for Nurses, Journal of Palliative Care, and Hektoen International: Journal of Medical Humanities.  Her prescriptive photomontages have been shown at The Loyola University Museum of Art, NYU Langone Medical Center, The University of Chicago Medicine, and The University of Rochester Medical Center.

Gershman received her Bachelor of Arts in Design and Communications from Hampshire College, and is a member of the Association for Death Education & Counseling, Global Alliance for Arts and Health, and The Association of Personal Historians.

We asked Nancy Gershman how she got into the field of death and dying?

“I was creating fantasy photomontages at the time, and a friend saw the potential of using digital photo manipulation to shift perspective. To un-complicate the complicated relationship her siblings had with their deceased father, she and I worked together to depict him as a husband and father with character flaws. Repurposing family photos, we were able to reframe the past so that her siblings could stop demonizing him from a child’s perspective. She accompanied my “Dreamscape” with a letter that was sent to every sibling.

From that point on she started to call me her “Private Mythologist.”

“I’ve discovered that healing doesn’t stop with the viewing of the artwork. For example, in hospice a bereaved family member who has worked with me and their family member to create a preferred story will still smile months after their death as they recall the happiness they ‘saw’ in that end-of-life patient as they listened to all the wonderful stories being told about them. Or they will realize that feelings of regret or remorse just drop away when I spotlight how the historical record is really only a series of choices taken, good or bad as they might be.” 

We asked Nancy: What would you like others to know about finding hope after loss? It can include, tips, rituals or any other ideas you may have.

Nancy responded: Find an outsider (a friend or mental health professional) who is particularly good at finding humor and irony in a tragic situation. Our inner circle and closest loved ones are not always willing to press you for the fine details from good memories. But this often leads to the healing distance you need to move forward.

For example, by playfully pressing an adult son to remember what he liked to do with his mother, he remembered he loved watching episodes of “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV with mom. A second later, he chuckled as he admitted how much he thought his mom resembled the genie, Barbara Eden.

In her book “The 5 Rules of Thought,” the psychic Mary T. Brown suggests visualization: “Take the direct route to your desire. Focus your mind on the completed goal, not on the individual steps leading you toward it.”  In another passage, she urges vigilance: “The more we elevate our soul the better we are able to attract good things into our lives…The soul seeks freedom from the prison of negative thinking. Any thought that is not positive, constructive, and kind is negative.”


Gloria Horsley

More Articles Written by Gloria

Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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