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The Role of Creativity in Grief and Recovery

Healing the broken wing.

Key points

  • Creativity and art serve as vital tools in expressing grief and keeping enduring bonds with our ancestors.
  • We already engage in shrine making for our departed. It becomes more powerful when it is intentional.
  • Changing how we grieve means maintaining connections with those who have passed from our lives.

Freud got one important thing wrong about grief. I discovered this when my experiences as a mourner did not always jive with what I had been taught as a social worker and practiced as a therapist. During the time of my university education and study of great books, theories of grief were based on Freud, who, in his classic volume Mourning and Melancholy, recommended detachment from deceased loved ones to move on with one’s own life. Current research supports the opposite, suggesting that mourners find ways to continue a relationship with deceased loved ones, now called “establishing and maintaining continuing bonds.”

Making Shrines

Memories are what’s left after the loss of a loved one, and our creativity and various art forms serve to create a place or an object on which to focus those memories. But what if you aren’t an artist and don’t think of yourself as creative? My colleague and friend Cynthia Winton-Henry—in addition to being co-founder of InterPlay, an art-based system to unlock the wisdom of the body; a dancer; and author of The Art of Ensoulment: A Playbook on How to Create From Body and Soul—has a great way to accomplish this continuing connection through visual art: She’s a shrine-maker. Cynthia suggests you may be one, too.

“If you’ve ever put flowers on a grave, placed a photo of a deceased family member in a prominent place in your home, made an altar with found objects, or displayed your loved one’s memorabilia in a box, you are a shrine-maker already,” she says. I learned the power these found-object art pieces can provide when one’s loss is not a death but an injury or disability. Cynthia gifted me one several years ago after I’d broken my shoulder.

“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture means little to me since I’m not clear on what the shoulder bones should look like. During my dance class, I moved sideways on a sticky floor and couldn’t get my feet under me in time. I landed directly on my left shoulder and broke it in a couple of places. After the doctor directs me to push against his hands and reach overhead, he declares, “You are at eighty percent.” I tell him I’m not an eighty percent kind of gal, so he gives me a script for more physical therapy (PT). The PT sessions direct the incredible work I must do to get back to my “old self” and my mission in life, which seems to be to become the world’s oldest known person still dancing.

Our Broken Wings

Cynthia had had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine (her right shoulder, my left), and she was nearly back to a complete range of motion by this time, which encouraged me to believe such a thing was possible. Her recovery program included all of what I was doing and her spiritual practice of making art out of what happens in her life. We commiserated about our “broken wings,” and when I saw her at a national conference, she gifted me a framed art piece made of found objects titled “Our Lady of the Broken Wings.” It still hangs beside my bed, sending memories of the challenges Cynthia and I have both overcome and reminding me of the loving encouragement the piece provided to the one who created it and the one who received it, and all the love it contained.

More from Sheila K. Collins Ph.D.
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