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The Stress Doc examines the semantic and psychological, imaginative and interpersonal connections between grief and creativity. Five dynamic steps illuminate the forces that trigger, rumble and quake as well as nurture these parallel and interdependent processes: destruction, suffering, letting go and wandering, illumination and transformation.

 

Building a Bridge Between Grief and Creativity

Five Strategic Steps for Expanding Your Horizons

Themes of death and rebirth have been ever-present in art and mythology, science and religion, that is, in the oral, visual and written history of the human species. Acknowledging this broad cultural perspective, still, such universal and seemingly mythic processes of "wandering in (and returning from) the desert" chastened or emerging enlightened from "the dark night of the soul" often seem beyond human reach. Can the process of renewal become more personal, tangible and applicable for our individual stories?  More specifically, can you transform life’s crises and daily battles, especially key losses and painful transitions, into a psychological and interpersonal battlefield of your own design?  And further, can this angst-driven arena call forth not just psychological growth but heroic risk-taking and imaginative problem solving?  (Nothing like an understated opening paragraph. ;-)

As this is truly a spiritual undertaking, let’s begin with "the word":  When you read "Grief," what words or images come to mind?  Death? Mourning? Crying? Shock? Depression? Dark Cloud? Confusion? Loneliness? Rage? Fear? Loss?  Clearly, all are familiar associations.  But what about these terms:  Relief? Release? Exploration? Mental Focus? Contemplation? Conflict? Future Possibilities? Silver Lining? Discovery? Passion? Rebirth? Wisdom?  The spectrum of responses reflects that grief may well be multifaceted.  Surely, poignant sadness may envelop one when a loved aged parent, a stroke victim these last few years, finally succumbs.  But so may relief.

Akin to the broad concept of "crisis" – when a person faces a critical challenge that defies his or her present capacity for coping or problem solving, grief is double-edged, fraught with "danger’ and "opportunity."  (Actually, these terms symbolize the two Chinese characters that depict the word crisis.)

Bridging the Emotional-Conceptual Gap

Toward this end, the following essay will open key semantic, psychological and behavioral windows shedding some light on the life-giving connection between human loss and individual and/or communal rejuvenation:  how to build a bridge from the exhaustions and eruptions of grief to the mental meanderings and concentrated convulsions of creativity.  Can the crisis and grief processes intersect forming a tangible and imaginative path – more circuitous than straightforward, for sure – to the promised mindscape of milk and honey?

How about envisioning this grief period of exhaustion – this time of seemingly lying fallow – as both underground psychic wellspring and richly stirred emotional soil?  And that grief’s ultimate purpose, over time, is regeneration and/or rejuvenation?  Can a courageous mix of pain and passion, persistence and patience nurture the flowering of a fertile mind, cultivate a sometimes racing yet peaceful heart that ebbs and flows while acknowledging the soul that dances in the wind with its own natural rhythm?  Can the process of mourning gradually give up a vibrantly alive, colorful and creative spirit and output?

As I once penned:

Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning.  The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time.  In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

A key point is that fruitful renewal through grieving not only occurs in response to literal death but from an array of life and loss experiences.  We can even forge a vital rebirth of community in response to the decay of organizational integrity or dysfunctional dis-ease.  Let me illustrate.   Years ago a department manager was lamenting how her staff seemed to be fighting the automation of record keeping.  The tip of the iceberg was group resistance to a new administrative form.  When this form would run out, employees would return to the old standard.  Verbal exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide.  And like a stormy tide, a tense undercurrent was gathering strength.

After a period of uneasy workplace assessment, in a brainstorming session with the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among those directly effected, had not been solicited.  Further discussion confirmed my suspicion that group resistance and worker slow down had as much to do with top-heavy implementation as with employee trepidation.  Folks were chafing under a loss of control and feeling like manipulated pawns, if not like children who should be seen (following orders) and not heard.

An idea popped in my head:  "While you may have missed the boat on the front end, there’s opportunity on the back side.  Why not plan a ‘forms funeral’?"  While perhaps absurd, we went ahead anyway.  The frustrated employees wrote serious and playful eulogies to the old form (and the former data processing system) while raising both negatives and positives (or, at least hoped for adaptations) regarding the new.  This communal catharsis significantly assuaged past hurts and strengthened group morale.  Our imaginative theater of the absurd also helped this department bury unilateral decision-making while resurrecting productivity levels and team cooperation. (I dare say we had a semantic, if not spiritual, awakening -- discovering that "esprit de corps" resurrecting, of course, an "esprit de corpse." ;-)

Using our narrative as a springboard, here are "Five Strategic Steps:  From Grieving and Believing to Creative Conceiving":

1.  "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." Pablo Picasso, the artistic giant, captures the fundamental truth of grief and creativity.  We no longer see life with the fresh eyes of a child. We often don’t notice problems or possibilities until something is broke or unless we’re in enough pain.  We are blind to our assumptions and habitual coping patterns (for example, management making unilateral decisions) until throttled by or shocked into a new reality.  And this anxious or frustrating development, such as protracted overt and covert defiance by employees, can no longer be ignored or tolerated.  Business as usual no longer works.

You must be willing to face the often-painful truth that, for whatever reasons, your niche of success has turned into a ditch of excess.  While management’s change agent tactics may have been misguided, the employees, too, were clinging to old familiar ways, fighting the uncertain and uncomfortable path of new learning, productivity and growth.  Remember the Stress Doc’s burnout axiom:  When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery!  So how can one resist premature burial or burnout and rise again or, at least, rekindle that creative spark?

2.  "For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes…"  While destruction or defeat ignites the process of necessary loss, eventually you must embrace lost dreams, forego dazzling illusions and confront the emptiness within and the arid or toxic ambiance about.  You must forsake the familiar and grapple with assembling past, present and future pieces of some mysterious puzzle unfolding before you.  What or who will sustain us through this confusion, fear or heart-wrenching pain?

You need to reach out to others and to find personal energy and space for raging, sobbing and fretting.  (Sometimes you may need to do consulting, for example, exploring antidepressant medication along with psychiatric counseling.) Songwriter/singer Carly Simon notwithstanding, you must have time for the pain for overcoming the loss of the old or for birthing the new.  For pure pain and suffering turns that destructive yet catalytic spark into a life-enhancing flame.  (By the way, did you know that the original meaning of "passion" is directly related to suffering, as in the Passion Play of Christ or, more generically, the passion of a martyr?  Of course, with a Jewish mother, I knew this long ago.)

Revitalized by red hot pain, smoldering emotions and images once muted by the dull gray ash of memory now regain shape – crackling sound and flickering movement in daydreams and nightmares.  Let’s call it the return of mind- and heart-thawing light and heat in the cold cavernous psychic darkness.  Yet, this glowing flame can as easily burn you as guide or warm you.

Profoundly acute or prolonged pain shatters or melts our defenses; a parent’s death also rekindles the adult child’s bygone traces of solitude and helplessness at the earlier loss of "Grandma," the family pillar.  (In times of dramatic change, employees may recall wistfully "the good old days.")  The hot, salty tears and anguished sobs of memory cultivate passion and possibility.  Clearly, the above images of fire and water reflect two vital elements for sustaining human life.  

Another critical component is allowing courage to win out over shame.  Remember, there’s a profound difference between feeling sorry for your self and feeling your sorrow.  When you are feeling sorry for your self you tend to blame others.  When you are feeling your sorrow you are having the courage to face your true pain.  And in times of loss we all need time to embrace our sorrows.

Finally, a well-deserved inspiring close:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

3.  Let go and take an "incubation vacation" to hatch a new perspective."  Another gift of dramatic pain is how it compels us to stop what we are doing.  Whether from a sense of helplessness, exhaustion or spent rage you must let go of the irreplaceable partner, the absolute or cherished belief or the financial or egotistical symbol of security and pride.  Despite all efforts, the present words on the page or images on the canvas won’t dance; the employees refuse to accept "the obvious" – technological change is here to stay.  Throwing a temper tantrum, openly or silently, rarely is sufficient.  Expressing anger passionately and purposefully enables us to move beyond blind rage.  (Initially, though, some rage may be necessary to undo the paralysis; just as experiencing sadness is often needed to temper the rage.) Focused anger says, "This is who I am; this is what I need.  I don’t like this immediate reality, but how do I make the best of it."  This focused aggression enables you to cut the rope tied to false hopes and illusions allowing you to envision and explore and, thereby, shape an unexpectedly pregnant future. 

Anguish and anger are necessary sources of energy for breaking out of your present box (that first destructive step).  However, breaking out of the box is not the same as thinking out of the box.  For this you need to hit the wall, let go and mentally meander.  When feeling stuck, take a walk in the woods or meditate in your garden, listen to Mozart or take a bubble bath.  Retreating is not giving up; quietly accepting anxiety and frustration while on an incubation vacation allows your subconscious mind to percolate past images and future symbols.  This enriched database allows for more complex shuffling and comparing along with the crystallizing or distilling of unexpected and meaningful combinations.  In fact, it is in the eerily quiet mindless eye of the psychic storm, for the moment buffeted from pressures of being torn between taking direct action and frustrating self-doubt, that you often sight the first light in the dark clouds.  And when your psychic rumblings finally intersect with the dawning possibilities, when emotional highs and lows are not seen only as signs of mental instability but as an intrinsic part of the regenerative ebb and flow, then you are ready for…

4.  Embracing the "Aha!" moment.  There was a frustrating back and forth period as well as reflective down time before the concept of an open air "forms funeral" lit up the organizational horizon.  The elegant simplicity of this idea was that it allowed for an organized and safe expression of anger.  This serious-humorous communal offering recognized the profound connection between the comic and the tragic. As pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed:  "The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it’s precisely the tragic which arouses the funny.  We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy."  And when such expression enables others to affirm their importance and to poke fun with a perceived antagonist – for example, by replacing ridicule with a touch of the ridiculous – conflicts now can be resolved and wounds can begin to heal.  The boundary lines between victor and victim fade.  Such a humanizing and integrative process is ultimately cohesive, not divisive.

This "aha" or "haha," in line with Chaplin’s observations, allows one to confront a sense of hopelessness: the inability to contemplate a meaningful, life-sustaining future.  Whether it’s noted Psychoanalyst, Viktor Frankl, suddenly imagining himself in a warm lecture hall bearing personal witness to the horrors of the concentration camps or, using a qualitatively different example, an organization finally being able to conceive and implement true collaboration between management and employees, this flashing epiphany forever changes our world view. Perhaps my "aha humor" inspiration made tangible a connection between abstraction (grief) and action (forms funeral). Suddenly, there was both a new horizon and a transitional bridge.


As the Nobel prize-winning French Algerian writer, Albert Camus observed:  "Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one (or loved procedure or system) obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain."

5. Crystallizing a new paradigm and new identity.  Now is the time of the poet warrior.  The person who does not just ‘walk the talk" but one who will "fight for the light."  The illuminating moment by nature is evanescent.  One must sustain courage and efforts for the final stage of transformation and consolidation.  Some will be skeptical; you will need to take risks, for example, finally submitting your poetry or short stories to a magazine or forming an ongoing consultation, if not decision-making, matrix group comprised of management and employees. The reins of control must be loosened; power must be shared.

But perhaps the biggest risk is fully embracing the change in your identity:  no longer being a couple; no longer running a hierarchical department; having to accept the role of writer with both hard-earned, pride-building rewards and its role responsibilities – to keep going back into the trenches for daily combat with ideas and images, sounds and rhythms.  And if determined to be reborn, if committed to expressing your genuine individuality and essence, then the always demanding yet ultimately fulfilling grief to creativity path less taken is yours forever more.

At this point, these strategic steps, "The "Six ‘F’s for Embracing Loss and Channeling Change" may well seem axiomatic:

1. Shaking or breaking up life's puzzle; letting go of a familiar past,

2. Confronting and channeling the anxiety of an unpredictable future,

3. Grappling with a loss of identity and integrity, with a loss of self-esteem and pride...with a loss of face,

4. Exploring and generating new resources -- environmental, informational and psychological -- for evolving a new focus,

5. Seeking and being open to feedback, both challenging and affirming, such as a variety of TLC -- "tough loving care" as well as "tender loving criticism" -- throughout the grief and rejuvenation process, and

6. Trusting in higher power faith, from a belief in a transcendental power to the synergy and confidence instilled by participating in a vital team process, support group or counseling/coaching relationship.


And a final encouraging passage:

Remember, errors of judgment or design rarely consigns one to incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness.  Our so-called failures can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that ultimately enrich – widen and deepen – the risk-taking passage.  If we can just immerse ourselves in these unpredictable yet, ultimately, regenerative waters.

Surely words to gain a "whole corner of the possible" and also to…Practice Safe Stress!