If I listened carefully I could hear the rain falling just beyond the panes of glass that separated inside from outside. The steady sound of moving water mixed in equal parts with the sound of paper being torn from its binding. These were the sounds of healing that permeated the stilled room during The Art of Healing....loss, grief and grace / Collage Workshop at The Compassionate Friends National Conference in Minneapolis.
In the beginning I watched each round table fill to capacity with the newly bereaved and seasoned veterans. We had come together to explore the edges of our grief in a creative way through the medium of collage. There had been the usual flurry of conversation and movement around the room as participants selected a magazine, scissors, and a colorful piece of construction paper to contain their glued words and images. Some nervously indicated their total lack of creativity and fear of stepping into an unknown process. I reassured them. They had trusted their inner guidance which led them to this workshop. No talent was required, only the willingness to be with what was in their hearts. Besides, we all knew how to open a magazine, and so we began.
I welcomed everyone and invited them into my world as a bereaved mother and Art Therapist. I had spent the last nine years creating collages in response to the suicide of my seventeen year old daughter Kristin, on October 11, 2001. She was a beautiful and talented art student at Parsons School of Design in New York City when she ended her own life, losing her battle with a sudden and severe onset of a Bi-polar illness. My personal exploration of grief turned into a template for work with others and before I knew it I was a workshop presenter for The Compassionate Friends, locally and nationally. This was my eighth national conference and I could not have been more pleased to share my path through grief with the sixty participants who had gathered for the workshop.
I had come upon collage one cold and bitter evening the first Christmas after Kristin's death. During that first year I participated in bereavement groups and individual and couples counseling. I was aware of moving in circles around my grief, talking about and sharing the same stories. I was also aware of what I kept inside, the unspeakable, too tender, too intense, too horrific. My body ached, my heart was broken, I felt flayed open, exposed and vulnerable. In that place I cried out for help and heard a little voice whisper, "why don't you make a collage." And so my journey began as I stood at my kitchen counter and opened the magazines that had rested on the ottoman by my desk. Within a short period of time I created a visual representation of my experience of loss. I used images and words and created an 12 by 15 inch collage titled "Caution." It conveyed more than I could have expressed during two hours of conversation. I entered the eye of the storm and felt a balm of peace wash over me. I slept well that night and the next day began creating my second collage. I created one collage after another and found the courage to feel into and explore my sadness, fear, shame, guilt, anger, spirituality, forgiveness, Kristin's mental illness, and my evolving self. A few of my own collages were propped up on the tables that lined the walls of the workshop. I noticed how they drew participants close, guiding the way by example and giving others permission to go into the darkness and into the light.
I watched the bereaved as they created. Bodies that had arrived anticipatory and tense had softened and relaxed. The room was pregnant with creative, healing energy. The silence was broken only by the rain and the sound of paper. I watched the tears falling, some were wiped away and some fell onto the page and mingled with the color, texture and shape of each personal story. I listened to breadth, released deep within the belly. Each participant, no matter where they were in their journey was letting go into the moment, authentically and without judgment. I wished we could have created together all afternoon. I understood how compelling the process of creating into ones grief could be. It was a process that offered me back my life, a different life than the one I had before Kristin's death, but life none the less.
It was time to clean up and within moments the tables were cleared so that one by one, collage creations could be shared. I will never forget the woman who stood and held up her piece, pasted on two sheets of construction paper, one black and one yellow. She said, "It's been five years and I intended to celebrate my child who I loved. I pasted those images of her on the yellow paper. The black paper holds my anger, angry words, a jagged red scribble and a huge black and white clenched fist. I am shocked at my expression. It was not what I intended, it just seemed to create itself. It feels good to get in touch with my anger over her accident, to acknowledge it and begin to let go of it."
I looked over at "Rage: Code Red," a 30 by 20 inch collage I created in 2003, which was on display just a few feet from where I was standing. I had worked on it for months, during a time when I was filled with rage. Instead of acting out my rage, I tore it up and glued it down. I moved into it on a daily basis and slowly allowed its energy to move through me. I understood how pleased this woman was, to release an emotion that was buried deep inside. Another woman, in the early stages of grief, stood and shares her collage, made up of words, pieced together, line by line. She said, "I was not drawn to images but drawn to words. I have kept these words inside and to myself." With that, she began to read them through her tears and cracking voice. She said, "This is the most powerful healing experience I've had. This is something I will continue at home on my own. Thank you."
The Art of Healing...loss, grief and grace came to a close. Each participant proudly left with her collage creation in hand. I noticed collages being shared with others who had not attended the workshop. I smiled, witnessing grace as it flowed out of open hearts, supported by a creative process that only required, willingness.