When it comes to thinking about and understanding creativity, there are many doors into examining how it affects and influences us. One comparatively icky and complex door to open is grief. Can we grieve and be creative at the same time?
Let’s face it, we don’t really want to experience the grief of other humans. Especially if we ourselves have never grieved, we wonder why people put so much energy into it, why keep going over and over stuff that makes us sad? The person is gone, for god’s sake, and your prolonged grieving won’t bring them back. Let’s go out for pizza (after an appropriate amount of time…) and MOVE ON! Isn’t that what your loved one would want?
As onlookers, we can’t tolerate the constant weepiness; it makes us feel uncomfortable and helpless, and like whatever we say or do is wrong or ineffective. With someone close to us, our urge to fix the situation is on steroids, but we feel we can’t go in with brilliant platitudes blazing because our grieving person has already let us know that nothing coming from us will help.
I have never experienced profound, personal, ongoing grief. When my parents passed, they were both quite elderly, and my mom had endured years of decline with dementia. My sister lost her husband of almost thirty years to a heart attack, so I observed her going through many years of soul wrenching sadness, and she is still affected in debilitating ways by the loss, ten years later.
So what happens to us when we experience this kind of deeply melancholic event that takes us down to the depths of despair, making us wonder if we even want to continue, or are capable of continuing, our own lives?
With fairly recent brain mapping, there’s a lot we now know about what’s happening in the brain when we enter a grieving period. For one thing, our right prefrontal cortex, the one responsible for negative and inhibiting feelings (which can be a good thing when it comes to making decisions that could be wrong for us) takes over. This domineering move all but silences the left prefrontal part of the brain that balances the right side with positivity and good feelings. So, our brain has now predisposed us to feel bad during grieving. How we dig ourselves out of that hole is very personal to each individual.
But what happens to our creative selves? It is no surprise that our creativity can be pretty much hi-jacked during these periods. Who feels like making stuff when we’re in a lousy mood? However, history has shown us to be profoundly creative, even during periods of grieving, and also that creativity is a powerful tool to help us move forward with our lives. With the loss of someone dear to us, a message eventually gets through to our grieving psyche that time is precious, and we’d better use it wisely. We don’t have forever.
The pyramids at Giza (burial mounds), Homer’s tragic “Iliad” about the Trojan War, the loss right at the get go of the Bible of the Garden of Eden - these are a small sampling of a creative outpouring brought on by grieving and loss that are essential parts of our human experience.
When composer Olivier Messiaen was sent to a German prison camp during World War II, he found a way to compose “Quartet for the End of Time” in 1941, which over time has become standard repertoire for chamber music groups and symphony orchestras alike. The circumstances under which he wrote the piece were horrific: it was freezing cold, there wasn’t enough food, the camp was crowded, the rehearsal hall was a bathroom, he had to beg for paper and pencil to compose, the musical instruments were sub par, etc.
And yet, during what can only be described as a horrific, grief-filled time in his life, he produced an exquisite work of wonder and hope. He worked with musicians he had at hand, a somewhat awkward and unprecedented combination of piano, violin, cello and clarinet, showing that he could make these instruments work together to powerfully illustrate the story taken from the Book of Revelation.
Another example of hair-raising artistic creativity born of grief is from Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto (watch a time lapse of his work here) who lost both his sister and wife to cancer. He chose salt as the medium for his breathtaking, massive works for several reasons: salt is essential to human life, its crystalline, transparent composition has a softness and clarity essential to his works of art, it is part of the oceans that sustain life on our planet, it is fragile, breaking apart in high humidity, etc. When the exhibit is over, his astonishing works are returned to the sea after being disassembled, in recognition of all of us returning to mother earth at some point.
Artist Candy Chang hit upon an idea to help people reflect on their mortality without becoming morbid. Her “Before I Die” installations invite anyone who wants to, to pick up a piece of chalk and write down their feelings about what needs to be done in their lives before reaching the end. Things like:
I want to… see my daughter graduate — sing for millions — abandon all insecurities — get my wife back — be someone’s cavalry — tell my mother I love her — make a livable wage — follow my childhood dream — have a student come back and tell me it mattered — hold her one more time — be completely myself
were the result, a rather astonishing compilation of inner realizations and admissions from complete strangers.
So why not pursue these truths in our lives? We all know that we have a one hundred percent chance of dying, but for some (probably evolutionary) reason, we choose to mostly ignore this fact, shoving it back into the far recesses of our awareness. This is a positive proclivity, since to focus on it could simply paralyze anything we attempt to do while we’re around. But it doesn’t prepare us for the fact that we’re actually going to lose people around us.
I believe that grieving and creativity do go together, and in fact strengthen each other by giving both experiences more meaning. If we can’t express our deepest emotions, positive or negative, we trap something inside of ourselves, and that is unnatural, perhaps even harmful. If we look at the Before I Die expressions of want, we see a clear sense of regret. Unleashing our creative mind and spirit could do a lot to alleviate that regret, and channel it into something memorable and beautiful.