Grief, Pain, and Art

I’ve had on my mind for several months to start a thread on this topic, the reason being that my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness last November and I’ve been weaving my way through the emotions and logistical sequelae of that; he finally passed earlier this month. My intention in posting here was not necessarily to seek comfort (I’m blessed with a good family and strong friends), but rather to explore what impact loss has, especially the death of a significant other, on creativity.

For myself, I see two domains of answers: emotional and practical. As regards emotions, it’s been my experience that loss brings me closer to my emotions and, to the degree that emotions are an important part of making art, helps me make art that feels deeper, more meaningful. The practical aspects, however – at least in the case of losing a parent – seem to have the opposite effect: dealing with the deceased’s possessions, managing financial and legal consequences of their passing, etc., all create time demands and stresses that use up both hours and energy that would otherwise be put into creativity, seemingly pauperizing one’s art.

What have others’ experiences been here? In what ways do you think of this differently? How have you coped? How has loss affected the art you make, in terms of process, outcome, experience, satisfaction, any of that?

Thanks.

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here is my experience (text copied from album description)

in 2013, my brother in law’s mother passed away from a very rare brain disease. it was pretty sudden and awful. i had a hard time finding the right things to say for the longest time and one night i was just feeling really upset by the whole thing and started playing guitar—not really playing, but not really not playing. at some point i switched on my tape machine and recorded this thing, this reverie. it was sent to him as a way of offering my condolences, as it was the only thing i could think of to give.

this idea was revisited recently when he and his wife had their daughter not long after. we got to talking one night and i asked him what he thought about me doing something cyclical with the track for his mom, in producing an additional track for his daughter. he was really excited about it and liked the idea of a companion piece.

these works are meditations on this exchange in his life, the old and the new.

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First of all, I am so very sorry for your loss. I too lost my father after a (very long) battle with cancer, and it took me years to make sense of it.

My father’s death, if anything, drew my attention to the importance of living in the now, being honest with myself about my capabilities, and even more focused on making best use of my limited time here. But now these years later, the old zen koan seems more true than ever:

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

I do the same things now as I did then, but now, they are more meaningful.

I wish you peace, and whatever happiness you can find, and hope that your path to healing is a powerful one.

PS: If I can offer one piece of advice, it would be to seek professional counseling. The emotions you will experience, and the impact they will have on you, your loved ones and your work, will be intense. Having good advice and a safe space in which to discuss feelings was a huge benefit to me, and I learned things that have made my life better overall.

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Also very sorry to hear about your father. Grieving can be an important part of both your own life and a continuation of your relationship with your father. It sometimes can feel like we’re given half-tools for dealing with death or loss, and it can be frustrating to approach these without help. I second the recommendation of seeking out a therapist or other professional, hopefully you find one that can give you good tools.

A good friend of mine started a project with me a few years ago in this vein, centered on the grieving process and what it means to not know how to approach grieving and loss when suddenly confronted with these traumas. It’s primarily a somewhat improvisational dance and film piece, which I was grateful to be a part of having never performed in that way before. I also wrote a lot of the score for both the live performance and film.

What I found most difficult was coming to terms with having a finished product out of an unfinished process. I found that sticking to, again, somewhat improvisational methods helped me step away from trying to “do it right” and just open my inner grieving process onto the creative process, make it less hindered and let my messy emotions out on their own.

If you’d like to watch/listen, it’s here:

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my partner was diagnosed with cancer in february 2009. he passed away in september of 2009. we got married 4 days before he died, at the palliative care.

most time in between was spent in hospitals (his body couldn’t handle chemo well). i would go there after work and spend evenings with him. i remember buying and reading sound on sound, keyboard, all the tech music magazines i could get a hold of. in retrospect, that was my way of coping with it. and even though i would read while being there with him, holding his hand, i can’t help but think that it made me less present to be there with him, for him. i guess it kept me sane, and who’s to say what we must do. but i can’t help but feel guilty all the same.

i didn’t do much music at that time. you read about people being able to cope through creation, but it didn’t work that way for me. maybe i didn’t let go enough or just avoided dealing with emotions. but i was afraid too that i’d lose it. you really have no luxury of having the time to process things when you have to stay on top of tracking meds, talking to doctors, dealing with work, not going insane, and you deal with it hour by hour because thinking about it in any level above is unbearable.

first couple of years after i’d listen to something and feel either extremely sad or extremely happy. it changed. you know how when you are writing something and it’s feeling just right, it’s the best high there is, the absolute freedom. i haven’t felt that way in a long while. i think it’s quite likely that it’s because i learned to be emotionally numb, a survival mechanism. works well, but something is lost. i don’t know if it’s something that will come back, ever. but there are still some tracks, albums that i can’t listen to without crying, after all these years.

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I believe the context of a work’s creation imbues it with an aura composed of an infinite number of incidental fragments tied to material or psychic realities. These fragments, individually, often evade explanation, or even detection. They are, nonetheless, present in all works of art, and conspire to create that sense of It which we all strive for in our individual processes.

Grief is certainly one hell of a context. However, we cannot decide when we are creating from a place of grief versus creating from a romanticized notion of what grief is; if you dramatize your own feelings or overly-consciously create a work from what you imagine a feeling to be, you are not channelling that feeling so much as channelling the mere notion of that feeling. Your grief-stricken creative phase may come well after the grief itself; you may need to process things before artistic catharsis comes for you, or you may process through creation (this is my mode – usually).

Not only is it different for every person, but it’s different for every episode.

One of the two people most immediately responsible for helping me rebuild my mind after a psychotic break and homelessness took his own life a year later. I made this for him. It is not public.

https://soundcloud.com/user-887444751/untimely-s-botany/s-ux3Ac

Also lordie the conversations had in this community are inspiring. I was just looking for help planning my Euro :stuck_out_tongue:

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I just had the service for my mother last night who died from ovarian cancer (diagnosed last spring). Over the last couple days, nothing has felt better than diving deep into being creative after a draining stretch in the hospital that totally sucked away some positive momentum.

Anyway, this is a timely post, but not one I’m sure how to wrap my head around just yet and maybe I never will. I know art is therapy and escape for me and it means everything to just get lost in it.

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Thanks, @bobbcorr.

I laughed when I saw your Zen quote; it’s something I remind myself of frequenty, too. Delightful and validating to hear others speak a shared meaning.

And, yes, definitely, psychotherapy is a big part of my life: as psychologist, I’m a fan! The support I’ve received from my therapist has been indispensable for exactly the reasons you say. It’s also very generous of you to share your positive experience on this forum.

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i just want to say gently that this thread has brought me to tears and im grateful for honesty among strangers and friends with such openness around that which is not so easily discussed.

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Hear hear! I am moved to tears at the generosity and vulnerability of the posts in this thread. Thank you all so much.

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What can I say, Jung Is Good For You.

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I was in a passenger in a vehicle involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a friend that I had just recently started to reconnect with after dumb high school drama ended our friendship a year prior. Within about a week or so of this traumatic incident, my parents decided to tell my siblings and I that they were getting divorced, which made me feel even more hopeless. These two incidents combined no doubt contributed to the suicidal depression I spent the next decade failing to address with professional help, to an almost fatal conclusion a few years ago. I’ve had numerous other friends and a few distant relatives pass away since then, but I’ve still never felt quite as affected as I was by this first encounter with death.

I had always wanted to record some sort of musical tribute/memorial piece for that friend, and it took me fifteen years to finally feel comfortable and confident enough to do so.

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@dnealelo - thanks for opening this topic with such honesty and sensitivity,

and to everyone else for your openness in sharing.

my family and I held a funeral for my wife yesterday - the end of a 3+ year battle with cancer.

like @yams, I’m stunned by this community - i’ve been connecting more actively here recently because I know I’ll need a few things to focus on creatively in the coming weeks/months/years, but wasn’t looking beyond technical and some process discussion, yet today I find this!

I’m not rushing to fill the spaces left by my loss - I have lots of family and friends around and feel well supported.

Part of what I find important here among this group of people is that the appreciation of, and in fact probably the commitment to, minimalism as an aesthetic and a philosophy leaves room (at least for me) to be open, have space, let feelings arise, in the midst of being creative in what is often a very technical “left brain” context.

I was just reading some Jung (I guess as people do at times like this).

“Joy at the smallest things comes to you only when you have accepted death. But if you look out greedily for all that you could still live, then nothing is great enough for your pleasure, and the smallest things that continue to surround you are no longer a joy. Therefore I behold death, since it teaches me how to live.”

When I read that, weirdly I actually thought of how that is a parallel for creative constraints often being very productive - accepting limitation as a way of movinging deeper / moving forward - instead of seeking to “have it all”.

Then I stumbled onto this thread!

For me, I don’t know where my creative process will lead me or how things will unfold - I’m not rushing and I know it may take years to process what has just occured.

I made one audio visual piece 6 months ago after the passing of a friend’s wife who was also going through the same treatment process. I’m happy to share the link here:

The piano part was free improvisation. The extended sample from The Great Learning was something that randomly emerged from Radio Music (i only worked out later what the sample was). Other bits and pieces came from other parts of modular. Video was added after the audio was finished,

About a year ago I made another a/v piece with a group of friends with whom I’d been studying butoh. It was loosely based on one members process of grieving for the sudden death of a close friend. She’d made the large piece of material that is used as a prop in this piece as part of her grieving process, and shared that story with us before we started. Everything else was improvised and filmed with very little planning and no retakes. I edited the footage later, but the form of the piece really just emerged naturally from the material. The sound is mostly a modular improv done in one take (again Radio Music helped a lot).

I’ve not shared these pieces widely, apart from screenings at a regular a/v event I co-host, but I’m happy to share them here.

I’ve found these pieces to be really important creative processes - and in the case of the piece for my friend’s wife - important personally too.

I’m not sure what comes next in my own journey, creatively and otherwise, but that’s ok. This post is already much more that 20 characters so it is time to stop :slight_smile:

Thanks for collectively creating a safe place where this kind of sharing and discussion can happen.

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i’m really sorry to hear about everybody’s loss, and i’m trying to think of something useful to say. when my brother in law passed away earlier this year i struggled to do the same for my sister, and all i came up with was: be gentle to yourself. there is no easy way forward (nor there should be), but make sure to surround yourself with good people who can support you.

and one thing that helped me was being incredibly grateful to be given a chance to be there for my loved one. there is really nothing higher in life than being able to help the person you love when they need you most.

and one thing i didn’t expect, i was going through old photographs a few days after, first reluctantly, but strangely enough, it had the opposite effect and made me laugh a few times.

and after some time, when you can, write it down. i haven’t re-read yet what i wrote back then, but knowing it’s there helps me to not be afraid to forget.

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this thread is bravery
for real :slight_smile: peace

margarita alvarez Presente!
ysidro alvarez Presente!
duane hartzell Presente!

we’re in grief counseling right now
for my mom who’s still alive (hospice)

it’s been years (alzheimer’s)
we’ve tried to remain creative art-wise
looking back, this track seems like a part of it


probably why there’s no video

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Loss and the grief/grieving that follows is such a powerful thing. I spent years dealing with the loss of my father (and later my grandfather) and had to fight hard to get through it. I know I still have a lot of personal work to do on myself but working on finishing and releasing an album that attempts to deal with the powerful concepts and emotions behind loss did wonders for me and my ablity to move beyond it while still keeping those feelings and memories in my heart.
Sorry for the terrible run on sentence.

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Really it’s an excellent run on sentence. Thank you for it.

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Rick was my best and oldest friend. We met when we were ten. He died when we were 40. Although we were never more than “friends” my relationship with him was closer to a marriage than a friendship. He and I were coworkers for more than ten years and sat back to back in our office at the time of his passing. We started writing poetry when we were kids and wrote just for each other. Musically, he was my artistic collaborator for more than twenty years. Previous to his death I had never made any music on my own and 95% of everything I’d ever made was with Rick. We had our own way of making music. Everything was live and improvised, straight to disk. I have thousands of hours of our sessions from which we culled hundreds of tracks.

On June 14 he will have been dead four years. I don’t remember the first year very well, but I moved to LA, got married and had a son a little more than a year after I found him dead in his apartment on a Saturday morning.

On the first anniversary of his death I bought a 88 key weighted controller and started to teach myself how to play piano. Piano was Rick’s instrument but he had taught himself to play. I started to record improvisations on the piano made with loopers, straight to disk, just like Rick and I always played. This was the first music I’d ever made on my own.

Last year on the anniversary of his death I released a record I had made for him. Something that I think he would have liked. I made it for him with love. I miss you every day, Rick.

Losing someone so close is a death of the self, too. I lost a huge chunk of myself and my memories when his brain went dark and I am left with so many of his memories and a big piece of his person in my brain. And he was the only person that liked my jokes.

The music has done more for my healing than anything else. That said, I practice Jungian therapy and it is profound and amazing and essential, too.

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Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven may have been (he himself is ambiguous about this) the death of his four year old son. Regardless of what he meant, it touched a lot of people. Grief doesn’t just suck, but it sucks in a pretty universal way; if you do get musical ideas from it, there’s a chance it will express something that lots of people need.

I had heart surgery once and nearly died myself, and was weak for years afterward, and depressed, although I didn’t realize it. I wrote a lot, not in an attempt to make art, but in an attempt to understand the world and my experience of it. I believe that writing process was transformational; I’m a very different person now.

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I love these tracks. Thanks for sharing.

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