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The Art of Grieving in Service to Love

How did Valentine's Day go?

Key points

  • Valentine's Day does not always live up to our expectations.
  • Loss and grief are inevitable in relationships, but we can learn to navigate them successfully.
  • We can use the arts, from handwritten notes to dancing to "our song," to bring meaning beyond material gifts.
Source: Sheila K. Collins
Source: Sheila K. Collins

Perhaps Valentine’s Day didn’t go as well for you as the commercials and love songs promised. Your loved one may have spent too much money on flowers that will die rather than a plant you would prefer to plant and sustain. Maybe the chocolates aren’t on your eating program. Or you might be the one who was too busy to know what day it even was. In general, our culture significantly invests in helping us communicate our love to one another. According to the National Retail Federation, 53 percent of consumers in the United States will spend $25.8 billion around Valentine’s Day, on flowers, dinners, chocolate candy, and cards.

If you’ve been in a relationship for many years, you’ve been through some “rough patches.” Maybe you’re still in one of them. Perhaps your relationship ended recently, or your partner does not know what day it is. Perhaps you are grieving these losses and the secondary losses connected to them. Or you feel the loss of the dream of where you had expected to be in this phase of your life. Perhaps future losses loom large, so you are grieving something that hasn’t happened yet.

As I have been researching and writing about grief for almost 10 years, I now ask several “what if” questions. What if we assume, in the art of living a life, that loss is a frequent, episodic occurrence expected to happen throughout our years and that grieving needs to be an art we practice and eventually get good at? What if we call on the arts to help us navigate the comings and goings in the love relationships in our lives?

In my family, greeting cards have been a way to honor the relationships we have with one another and to communicate our love. Our daughter Corinne, when she had lost her hair to chemo treatments, sent a Father’s Day card to her stepdad, which he still has on his desk after nearly two decades. Under the header of “Top Dad Hairstyles,” the artwork features cartoon images of men with various patterned baldness hairstyles to honor what she called “we hair-challenged individuals!”

It can take quite an investment of time to select just the right card for a specific occasion or to create one that becomes a gift of art to the receiver and the giver alike. The image is the message and, hopefully, just the right few words. This year, I re-gifted the card I gave my husband last year. Like an artist who makes her art out of found objects, when I came across the card in my desk drawer, I knew it carried an image and handwritten message worth repeating. My husband’s card to me this year was a piece of artwork I will be saving, especially since, after his recent participation in a calligraphy class, I can decipher his handwriting.

To let loved ones know of our love, we don’t have to spend money in response to the advertisers’ hype on Valentine’s Day or any other cultural holiday that ignites the business engines of our economy. The hand-painted watercolor image of a butterfly on a get-well card sent to me by a young friend after I had surgery still broadcasts its loving message from the counter in my kitchen, where it’s been living for years.

In preparation for next Valentine’s Day, can you picture yourself finding or creating a card to send to yourself as reassurance that you are lovable and loved? Don’t be shy about re-gifting a card that holds a special memory. Imagine playing the song that was always known to you as “our song” and dancing to the music, either with your partner together in your kitchen or dancing alone, with a celebratory stemmed glass lifted in honor of the love that began your relationship, and appreciation for your no-longer-present-to-you loved one and the love you shared. Perhaps it’s true that love is the only thing that never dies.

More from Sheila K. Collins Ph.D.
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