Grief and Art: A Survivor's Act of Love

Poet Priscilla Long grieves her sister's suicide through art.

Posted Sep 14, 2015

By Priscilla Long

"Your beauty stuns, but / it's static, photographic." So begins my poem "Sister Ghost," addressed to my late sister Susanne. What does art—in this case elegy—do for the grieving person, the survivor? A few lines down, the poem continues: "Your death—your gift / of stones to us. No blame. / Suicides are deranged / with despair…."

The elegy keeps the memory of Susanne in the world. She's more than a statistic, more than a newspaper story. She has not vanished without a trace. My Susanne poems and other writings make plain how she died, lost in the woods, a probable suicide (no shameful secret). She who was artistic and creative and funny and beautiful is dead, but the poems hold her memory, who she was, what her story was, her loves, her life, her mental illness, and how she died.

"It's the artists that do society's dreaming," said the Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim. But it's everyone who does society's grieving: for grief comes as close as you can get to a universal human experience: where there's love there will be loss—and grief. Grief, as Robert Berezin, M.D., reminds us in this Psychology Today post, is part of life.

Art beholds the beloved, remembers the beloved, makes the beloved visible. And art laments. Art keens. Art puts the private agony of grief out into the world where it reverberates with an elemental core of our human condition. Newspaper stories horrify because they are individual and personal and happen to somebody else (except the one that happens to you). But art comforts. It expresses something individual but also universal. Good art, great art, will never bring anyone back, but is a shield against silence and forgetting.

As an Armenian born in Turkish Armenia, the great American painter Arshile Gorky, along with his sisters and mother, witnessed and suffered the persecution and genocide that took place between 1915 and 1918. His traumatic late adolescent years included the siege and destruction of the Turkish Armenian city of Van, a death march to Russian Armenia, and years in which "hunger was the theme of their lives" (words from Hayden Herrera's superb biography of Gorky. In the famine year of 1919 his mother fell into his arms, dead of starvation. In 1920 he and his sister arrived in the United States. "As a grown man," writes Herrera, "Gorky worshipped the memory of his mother, and in the 1920s and 1930s he would immortalize her in paintings in which she looks like an icon of the Holy Mother." Gorky made numerous drawings, studies, and at least two paintings titled The Artist and His Mother. The picture, based on a photo but stripped of detail, is a powerful, understated, numinous mother/son portrait. The figures do not touch. They both stare ahead. The mother is ethereal looking, almost saint-like. Gorky, as someone said, saved his mother from oblivion. One supposes that the work and rework on this haunting material allowed him to spend slow time with the memory of his beloved mother, slow grieving time that stands in contradiction to the notion of getting over it and moving on.

But what does the painting do for us, for the viewer? Because it's art and not a newspaper story, it enables us to connect with something tender and fundamental across space and time. As Gorky said, "many emotions and experiences are timeless." Gazing at art, at this picture, likely causes our brain's mirror neurons to fire, and so we recognize something of ourselves in the other. It's comforting, I think, as an archetypal expression of love and grief and a primordial bond. It shows us, perhaps subliminally, across space and across time, that we are not alone.

Art opposes silence. Art refuses to forget the lost ones. Art recognizes the grief of survivors, holds it, expresses it. "He is dead. He is dead. He is dead." These lines from "Elegy for Jack Moodey: American Poet" by Jack Remick lament the passing of Remick's friend and mentor, the great and greatly under-recognized poet Jack Moodey. The poem continues, "I write of dreams gutted like his slaughtered eagles. I write of hope withered by the sun/ I write of mouths who ignored him to the bone/ I write of his voice that rose from Sanger dust to sing sunlight…" The poem, which appears in Remick's book Satori, brings the poet Jack Moodey into visibility, which is where he belongs. It brings Remick's grief into visibility, not by way of confession or handwringing but by way of art. The poem is requiem, mantra, music. It ends: "And what is the world with all its poets dead?" What, indeed?

"Artistic expression," writes artist and art therapist Shaun McNiff in his book "Art Heals," "has a unique and timeless ability to touch every person in times of personal crisis and collective distress." McNiff also writes that the "core process of healing through art involves the cultivation and release of the creative spirit. If we can liberate the creative process in our lives, it will always find the way to whatever needs attention and transformation."  

The process of making art opens the door to spending time, a lifetime if need be, remembering the lost and attending to grief. Dr. Claire Barnett, a Seattle-based physician, lost her children, Coriander, 8, and Blake, 6, in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which occurred on January 31, 2000. Two years after the crash she began making mosaics (stepping stones for her garden) as a way to mark her daughters' birthdays. Every birthday, friends came to share wine and make mosaics to honor the girls. The process involves breaking glass with a tool (yes, the loss is shattering). In the next step, broken glass is reassembled by placing pieces on sticky paper (yes, you can put the pieces back together, but as the novelist Alice Walker put it in the title of one of her books, the way forward is with a broken heart).

Later Barnett opened a studio, Seattle Mosaic Arts, where grieving people can spend time making mosaics. "You can create very slowly," she told a reporter 10 years after the crash, "and quietly and painterly. It's nonverbal." And she adds, "There are very few safe places to be sad. What we do here is help people do what I did. Start a garden. A steppingstone."

Following the crash, the Barnett family's work of mourning took as many forms as there were family members, including a book of poems, "Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced," by the poet Catherine Barnett, Claire's sister, and including a group of paintings and prints titled Impact and exhibited at the Bradford Campbell Gallery in San Francisco, by the painter Jacqueline Barnett, Claire's mother.

The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) of the American Psychiatric Association diagnoses "persistent complex bereavement disorder." Proposed criteria for this disorder include experiencing the following symptoms on the majority of days at least 12 months after the death: intense longing for the deceased; intense sorrow and emotional pain in response to the death; preoccupation with the deceased. And so on. This 12-month period of grace was extended from the two months offered by the previous edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

My sister Susanne left us long ago. We who loved her will likely grieve for her for as long as we live, each in our own way. As I write in the elegy "Visitations," "Her death at forty/ is thirty years old./ Still, she loves my poems./ Still, she'll walk the China Wall./ The dead have nothing new to say."

The dead have nothing new to say, but we the living may have something new to say, another elegy to write, another mosaic to piece together, another painting to paint. We'll stay with our grief as long as our grief stays with us. Making art is a challenge, a process, a joy, a way to live in community, a way to pass something on. It is also a way to keep on living.

Tony Ober
Source: Tony Ober

Priscilla Long is author of Crossing Over: Poems; The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Life, and the Writing Life; Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry, and many short works of creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and science.