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Moving forward into the life you create in the wake of loss

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The Things I Have No Words For

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for. Georgia O’Keeffe

Loss is too often shrouded in silence, posing questions for which there are no answers.

How can a child die before a parent? Who will help her navigate the rest of her life now that her brother is dead? Poor man .. how will he raise those young children now that his wife has died?

Life is unfair, and death doesn’t discriminate. The death of one of your most important people will bring you to your knees, and there are no guarantees you’ll get a hall pass to protect you against more tragedies in the future. I’ve met parents who have lost more than one child, children who lost both parents before they turned 30 and people who’ve lost a parent, a sibling and a best friend. And then had their marriages fall apart.

For as much loss as I’ve experienced and as much time I spend thinking about how to support other grievers, grief can take me to the edge of the unimaginable and unthinkable. A place where there are no words to describe the magnitude of the loss or the depth of sadness being experienced by the other person. I am a writer, a lover of words and beautiful turns of phrase but I have learned that sometimes words fail me.

Although I often struggle with the blank page and need to set a timer or spend time with my beloved writing group to produce a piece for Salt Water, nothing scares me like a blank canvas or an invitation to “make art”. My mother and my cousin (and second mother) Barbara were artists. My daughter is an artist. I am not artistic. At all. Not even a little bit. Seriously.

One summer, my mother talked me into taking a beginning sketching class at the local community college. We learned the basics — perspective, contour, form, light. I tried. I really did, but my sketches were awful. I couldn’t get out of my head or out of my own way. There was a standard, or so I felt, looking around the room at the professor’s example and what my fellow students were creating, one that I wasn’t anywhere close to achieving.

When my friend, Pia, invited me to her “Collage For The Soul” birthday party at Bread of Life Center, I almost said ‘no’. But the party was being facilitated by my friend and writing group facilitator, Carol (The Creative Edge), who, like Pia, has taught me so much about taking chances with my writing. I have trusted both Pia and Carol with my tears and some of my deepest pain, and I knew Carol would be both kind and encouraging. Plus I knew they’d both know I was chickening out if I didn’t go …

Carol began the gathering with a meditation. Then, as we sat with our eyes closed, she read a poem by U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo, called “Remember“.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath. You are evidence of her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life also.

What I didn’t know about Carol’s art classes is that the artists work in silence, gathering images that call to them, that attract and repel them. Without the distraction of conversing with other people, most of whom I didn’t know, I found that I was free to go wherever my spirit took me. Images of home, family and animals that symbolize the people I love most were what called to me. Along with a snake rising up from the ground representing the cancer that appeared out of nowhere and ultimately stole my son. Tempered in some small way by a dancing penguin, Jimmy’s favorite animal, reminding me to keep opening my arms to the world and to keep looking for joy.

Margo's Collage For the Soul Card. The backdrop image is a Cezanne painting of house with rocks below it. In the top left, there are two hummingbirds. In the top middle, there are two penguins (a parent & a chick). In the top right, there's a blue footed booby. There's a tropical fish below the hummingbirds and the words 'Christchurch' below the blue footed booby. In the middle on the left, there's a bluebird feeding a chick. There's a giraffe in the middle with a dancing penguin on the right. In the bottom left, there are two labrador puppies, and there's a snake on the lower right.

Carol’s class was the first time since Jimmy died that I have been able to be with my thoughts of him and feel only the warmth of the love that passed between us and the sweetness of his spirit. I could feel a broken part of me begin to ease as I realized that the healing was in the not thinking. That the silence provided a way to access my loss, my memories, my grief in a way that felt left me feeling safe and protected. That I felt deeply connected to the life that has come before me and hopeful about what is yet to come. That home is inside me as I continue to hold tightly to the people I love most. That there is more than one way to give voice to my grief and shape to my loss. And that life is a dance, and it’s never late or too early to join in.

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