Creativity in the Mourning

Yesterday began well. I had a big to-do list – and felt inspired when I created it. I had planned to glean through my old journals, work on articles for my creativity coaching business, make strides in some of my projects-for-hire. But instead I spent the day making soup, watering plants, contacting family and friends… I don’t usually accomplish everything on my to-do list but I rarely completely ignore it. What the heck was wrong with me?

Then I remembered that Abdul died. Taken away without warning by a heart attack at age 64. Abdul, the patron saint of used car owners as I used to call him, had kept each of my ancient cars on the road for the past 20 years – Harriet the Honda, Tallulah the Toyota, Tina the Toyota… “Only two cars,” Abdul would often say, “Honda or Toyota.” The only two makes worth having. He was barely five feet tall and his motor was always running. He never overcharged me, he never made me feel stupid for being mechanically dyslexic, and he never let me down. He was savvy, efficient, and sharp as a tack. A shy, humble man of few words who ended conversations before they had barely begun, his good heart resounded like a temple bell and still does. His heart tolled his love and pride for his family, his gratitude for and pride in his home, his caring for me and his other clients. His heart tolled so loudly that his bereaved family has been besieged by visitors and well-wishers, and my mother who’d never met him, upon hearing of his death, felt as though she’d lost him too.

Such losses must be honoured. Luckily, my instincts to do the simple, life-giving things like make chicken soup, fertilize my orchid, light a candle and call Abdul’s son, Shahreem, and speak about the gift of his father’s life, spoke loudest yesterday. When we take the time to mourn, we pay homage to the living as well as to the dead.

My favourite spiritual teacher, Stephen Levine, says that grief is “an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent. We don’t know what to do with our pain, and we never have. We have been told to bury our feelings, to keep a stiff upper lip, to ‘get over it and get on with our lives’ as though loss were not an inevitable part of life.”

According to Levine, disregarding our sorrow “inhibits intuition. We come to trust ourselves less. We cannot ‘feel’ the world around us as we once did, so we experience ourselves as ‘a bit unplugged.’…This quality of grief can slow our creativity and ‘dumb us down’ a bit.”

Our creativity demands that we pay tribute to our grief. It is no accident that great loss often gives birth – or new life – to the artist within. In my book, Did You Know I Would Miss You?, written after my brother, Steve, died by suicide in 2004, I speak of how acknowledging our unattended sorrows can free up our life force and our capacity to create. If you sense unattended sorrows clouding your heart and blocking your creativity, you might want to try this exercise:

Reflect on your own unmourned losses, using some or all of the following:

I have never acknowledged the loss of…

I had forgotten the loss of…

I can begin to heal the loss of…

And in the meantime, may you be inspired by the Abduls of this world. May the temple bell of your heart and of your creativity toll loud and long.

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13 thoughts on “Creativity in the Mourning

  1. Cyncie Winter

    Dear Friend,
    I am so sorry to hear of the loss of this bell-keeper, your keeper of cars. Truly, such people live within us forever and are ever re-membered by people such as yourself, who bring to life those whom the rest of us might not have known, but do now because of your grace.
    With love,

  2. Don Grayston

    Donaleen, thank you. Your tribute is a moving one, clearly deeply felt. I rejoice with you in Abdul’s life, and grieve his death with you. Peace be with him, peace be with you.

  3. Ranger

    When I was a youngster in my late teens, impatient for something or other, perhaps the weekend, my Father would occasionally say “Wait until you’re my age, son. My weeks are made up of Wednesdays and Saturdays.”
    I had no real idea what he meant at the time, of course, but now — amazingly often, it seems, on a Wednesday or a Saturday — I can almost hear the tone of his voice as he intones his Wednesday/Saturday litany. I try to allow the memory to me back to other ways he was, other lessons long ago taught and too often forgotten.
    Some day quite far from this one, I hope to be as fortunate as Dad was in his passing, as well; in mid-sentence, at the punchline of a true life joke he was telling on himself.

    At 60 this year myself, ’tis the time of seeing close, sometimes almost lifelong, peers passing early back into the ether that’s awaiting us all. I heard once that if we’re really lucky we get to bury all our friends. Now there’s a conundrum…
    Thank you for the reminder. May your car long run without mechanical attention.

  4. Marlyn Ferguson

    Thank you Donnaleen for sharing with us your grief in the death of Abdul and for challanging us to write about our forgotten losses.
    I too will light a candle for those losses and for Abdul.

    Love Marlyn

  5. eleanor lazare

    Hello Donaleen,

    I have just read your beautiful tribute to your friend Abdul. I just wanted to say
    thank you.

  6. Valarie Gabel

    Thank you for sharing your emotions/thoughts/words. It does indeed give each of us a chance to reflect on those who have passed, whether it be from this life or just our lives.

  7. peg campbell

    thank you Donaleen,

    for your inspiring and moving words, I’ve been reflecting lately on those close to
    me who have passed on and reading what you have wrote makes me realize how important it is to remember and honour them.

    I just lit a candle, such a good thing to do as the nights grow darker earlier.


  8. Kajsa Futrell

    Dear Donaleen

    I didn’t realize you are a fan of Stephen Levine. I first read his books 25 or so years ago. I had always been terrified of loss and death. Through his writings I began to realize how one could learn to be with pain, suffering, loss and death. At the time I was in my mid 20’s. I am still learning how to “pay tribute” to my grief. Some days I try to “stuff” it away. I am actually now finding comfort in early Christianity- the gospels that are not in the New Testament- and in the Jesus that is not in the bible.

    You write so well Donaleen. Thank you for your service to all of us who live with loss.
    Love Kajsa

  9. marke


    Abdul had a heart as big as they come. Your life was obviously enriched by your relationship with him. I’m sure his was by knowing you as well.

    A good man, efficient & humble, sharp & savvy, and an honest mechanic to boot. I wish I had met him and can see why your Mom felt a loss, as she is connected to you, and your loss is large. Big loss, all the way around. But he added so much to the world around him.

    In my daily meditation today this gem resonated with me, so I thought I’d share it:

    If I had to live my life over again,
    I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death.
    I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death.
    There is no other practice which so intensifies life.
    Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise.
    It should be part of the full expectancy of life.
    Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.
    You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

    Muriel Spark

  10. Claudia

    Thanks for inspiring us to go deeper into acknowledging our losses. Abdul the mechanic was not only a patron saint of used cars, but–through your writing–his spirit lives on as a symbol for a path toward atonement with grief, and ultimately death.

    The healing nature of these exercises helps me connect with the joy I feel by being fully present on this earth.

    Thank you!

  11. Cathy Sosnowsky

    I loved the way Abdul’s passing made way for you to forget your to-do list and simply do acts of nourishing: making soup, feeding your orchid.
    You illuminate how important our seemilngly casual relationships can be. I remember when my favourite German baker died. How sad it made me to learn that he took his own life. He made playful martzipan figures. I bought them for my child. I guess I still mourn him, the sad, playful baker.

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