On October 11, 2001, I received a phone call from the New York City police telling me that my 17 year old daughter, Kristin Rita Strouse had "fallen" from the roof of her college dormitory. She had ended her own life. She had succumbed to a severe and sudden onset of a mis-diagnosed bi-polar illness. Shattered and numb, I was determined to heal. I spent time with close friends, participated in grief and bereavement groups and saught out individual and couples therapy. However, as the first year drew to a close I found no comfort in traditional therapy, and no solice in spoken or written words. I discovered the edges of the unspeakable, the places where there were no words. There was a silent place that summoned me, one that I recognized as the place I must walk alone if I were to truly heal. Shortly after the one year anniversary of Kristin's death, I began to make collages, an assemblage of images torn out of magazines. Over a nine year period, I created a collection of over a hundred collages, which serve a my visual diary through grief. I returned to life through them. I was reborn.
I came upon this silent place by chance that first Christmas without Kristin, when I stood in my kitchen and listened to an inner voice say, "why don't you make a collage." Looking back on it now, I consider it divine guidance.
In Falling into Grace: A Mother's Journey Through Death and Rebirth, I write, "I grab a handful of the million or more fragments of myself and throw them onto an 11 x 14 inch piece of black construction paper. Making this piece of artwork about your death beings me a measure of peace. I like looking at the collage. I am transfixed by the images and can't take my eyes off them. For a few hours everything stops, all the confusion and chaos and all the chatter inside my head. I am quiet and there is relief . I feel like I can breathe more deeply. I feel some space around your death as I stand in my kitchen and look at my creation. I sleep more soundly.
In the collage, you are perched atop the building, spreading your wings and wanting to fly away. What could you have possibly been thinking? What happened to you? You sat there on the ledge for a long time and that is all we know. I long for answers and there are none and so I fall with you into the darkness, I tumble with you into the deep.
I place death's angel sounding her trumpet into the field of my story. She arrives with her horse. I remember a family vacation when you were only eight years old. Dad and I stood at the split rail fence and enjoyed every moment of watching you during your horseback riding lesson. You, Kim and Kevin were the only three making your way around the corral. The ranch hand began to dismount each of you when suddenly your horse took off running at full gallop. We all started screaming as we helplessly watched you hanging on the side of the horse. We screamed for you to hold on tight. I do not know how you held on, but you did. The ranch hands subdued your hore and reached for you. They brought you back to us. I began to shake as I unfolded you in my arms. You were safe. You held on.
There were caution signs all along the way. I see them but do not understand. You are on a collision course with death. My eyes are blinded by ignorance, confusion, denial and fear. Do not leave unattended! I should not have left you in New York City. I trusted you. I spported you. You were so determined to realize your dreams, and yet you seemed to hide. My creation is black and blue, like a huge wound, pierced by the red blood of a flower.
Wings, you wore a set of angel wings to your Graduation White Dance. We found them at a costume store. You placed a crown of gold beads on your head. You and your best friend Kelly drove to the dance together. You were so happy that night. Five months later you are dead. Angel wings, butterfly wings, wings of transformation. None of us are the same.
In the midst of your ungluing, you said, "I just want to rest in the arms of the crescent moon." What did you mean? Were you warning me that spring? did you want to leave this world? I thought you were being poetic. You said, " I feel like jumping," during our conversationon on the phone the night you died. I could not hear what you meant. I did not translate those words into a thought that you wanted to actually die. It is such a casual, common and unnoticed part of our everyday language to flippently say, "I'll kill myself." We condone such innappropriate exclaminationa and in so doing conspire with those who are deadly serious. Did you fix your eyes on the diamond moon that night as you x'ed yourself out amidst the stars?
There is a gentle remembering as I return to your body, especially your bruised left hand. The undertaker wanted to cover it. They wanted to put make up on it. I wouldn't let them. Covering your hand would not make it better; it would not undo the fact that you were dead. There was nothing to hide. I loved your slender fingers. I loved watching the movement of your hands. They were so expressive and beautiful. Kimberly loved your hands too. She wanted to have a portrait of our hands taken. We never got around to it. Your hands were folded over your stilled body. We placed a small bouquet of flowers in them, along with your favorite pencil and paintbrush. Your hands will never fashion your dreams of being a designer in New York. What a complete and total waste. What a tragedy. I place a dragonfly over your heart and ask forgiveness. I have found a way for the unspeakable to speak."
In the quiet space of my kitchen and then my studio, I created. I looked through magazines and began to find images that tugged at my heart. I cut them out and pasted them down. These were symbols that embodied my experience of loss. I captured Kristin's death like a Polaroid snapshot. On a black 11 x 14 inch piece of mat board, there was Kristin's broken body, blood, flowers, falling, secrets, mental illness and the destruction of her creative potential in the fashion world. I discovered a way into my grief, I discovered myself in the bits and pieces of paper I tore out of magazines. I glued myself down.
The imagery of my first collage, represented more than my spoken words could express and allowed me the comfort of meeting what was in my heart. Over the months, I opened to everything and explored endlessly. The collages I created in response to Kristin's death were sacred containers for my feelings, they were visual lamentations. While creating, my mind became still, the chaos stopped and there was peace. I noticed this shift in conscioousness during the hours I spent birthing one collage after the other. I felt released, renewed and restored. I felt seen and heard. I embraced this powerful experience and stepped into a process that continues to serve me. Over time the horror and shock gave way to something softer, there was transformation.
Collage #40, my heart is held, clenched inside my chest. I am in shadow and look the other way. In Collage #42, I face my life in revery. I give way as my heart expands in love, surrounded by the gifts of life as well as the crusifixions. On the fifth anniversary of Kristin's death, Collage #47, I write, "The seed of this colllage are planted in the last days of August, during my birthday as the light begins to change. Since you died I find myself asking, "Who am I?" I find a yellow hued woman with tattoos on her body. I love the tribal markings that set her apart. Your death permanently marks me and places me as other. a mother of a child who ended her own life. Instead of tattooing the word suicide on my forehead, I tattoo my art on my body. I am my art. I am my own creation.
The "V" shaped space between the brushes calls for something special. In my box of little images, I find a Madonna and Child, set against a yellow background. Before I glue the Madonna and Child down, I mull over which is the top of the collage and which is the bottom of the collage. It can go either way. I orient the paint brushes and tattooed woman, upside down. When I look at my collage I have the sensation that she is being born out of her own art work. When others look at this piece, they ask me, why I placed the Madonna and Child upside down. I say, "I haven't, you have." I sense in that a natural discomfort in having the main figure upside down and falling. I understand that primal fear.
I place a bouquet of red roses underneath the Madonna's feet and along the bodice of the tattooed woman. I touch the blood again and there are roses. I cover the woman's open chest and offer a blessing to her lungs, as they release grief. I imagine you and me together again, mother and child."
Initially I explored my grief on creations that were 20 by 30 inches. As time went by and healing took place, the size of the collages became smaller. Now 5 by 8 inch black mat boards carry the symbols of my healing journey. I am transformed and I see it in the images I create. I have the opportunity to discover who I am each day, in the face of my child's death. I have retrieved the pieces of my life. I offer you the same opportunity for healing...Collage, a path through loss to love.