Grief and Creativity

Below is a talk I gave at the launch of Cathy Sosnowsky’s book, “Snapshots – A Story of Loss, Loss and Life,” on Sunday, October 24, 2010.

Cathy Sosnowsky’s Snapshots inspires, supports, exemplifies, sustains, and celebrates the mysterious relationship between grief and creativity.

As she describes so beautifully, we’re helpless in the face of our grief. She writes about Ian, their minister, arriving the night of her son Alex’s sudden death falling from the roof of a tennis court at age 17: “He sat between Woldy and me on Alex’s bed, holding us each by a hand. ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,’ he kept repeating, expressing what each of us felt, but were now too numb to utter.” In its simple humanity and in its expression of our utter defenselessness before death, especially the sudden death of a child, this scene says it all. As the shock wears off, Cathy describe feeling such profound grief that she didn’t want to survive it. She didn’t want to live.

Excruciating though it must have been, in acknowledging these feelings, Cathy did herself a favor. Sorrow may hurt like hell, but disregarding it annihilates us. We may be able to function and appear to be getting on with our lives – but a large part of us is absent. I often quote Stephen Levine who, in Unattended Sorrow says that ignoring our grief, “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.”

Cathy didn’t allow herself to be dumbed down by grief and, because of her courage, which I can only describe as breathtaking, creativity came calling. It showed up as a kind of wise, nonjudgmental, reliable companion through those dark early days: “Writing out my grief gave me some sense of owning it. I felt less the helpless victim. Even when I was writing about my darkest thoughts (I wrote suicidal poems–I wanted to be with Alex in death), the expression of them gave some relief.”

The psychotherapist, Alexander Kennedy, who wrote The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss, a book about sustaining a relationship with a loved one who has died, says, “People who are grieving find that they have little energy or enthusiasm for external reality: their energy is drawn inward. And as grief dampens their outer senses, it can open inner senses, giving them new acuity in seeing, hearing, and feeling what is inaccessible to our senses during normal times.”

Cathy tells us about this mystery: “All of a sudden, everything had significance and demanded that it be shaped into a poem.” Grief revealed itself to be more than an eternally patient shoulder to cry on — it was her Muse. Here’s an excerpt from her poem, “Lament”

“One dark night in December,
death and poetry
entered our house,
shaping my lips forever
in a song of lament.

I could not cry alone,
had to shout my sorrow
hear it right through the aisles
of canned tomatoes, boxes of rice
frozen burritos–Alex’s favourite.”

As Cathy says in the book, she wrote 140 poems in her first year of grieving – and continued writing poetry daily for most of the second…and much of the third, fourth, and fifth years… “If a day went by without producing a poem, I would slump into an even deeper depression.”

I heard about an essay, Life Begins Today by Jacques Lusseyran, who had been in the Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, during World War II. One of the things he did was organize poetry readings for fellow inmates. Picture a group of starving, freezing, uprooted, terrified human beings on the edge of death huddling in a washroom reciting poetry to one another. It diminished their suffering. It helped them remember what was worth living for. As Lusseyran said, “To nourish the desire to live, to make it burn; only that counted… You couldn’t let yourself forget that it is always the soul that dies first–even its departure isn’t perceived–and that the soul brings the body down with its fall. It was the soul that had to be nourished, first.”

Instinctively Cathy knew that, and she describes how, at Poet Olga Broumas‘ Hollyhock workshop, “Poetry: Transcribing the Soul,” which she attended when he started to get serious about her poetry, she not only deepened her artistry but also discovered how much she had to live for. This is the last verse of a poem she wrote about love and about Woldy:

“love carries on
bearing our dead son within and between us
listening for his song
seeing the chip in his front tooth
scar over his right eye
callous on thumb

love doesn’t let go”

The subtext of Cathy’s trials through grief was her conception and ultimate delivery as an artist. Her final words in Snapshots are powerful: “My dead child gave birth to a new mother.” Cathy the artist, the poet, the writer was one dimension of this new mother. With the publication of Holding On – Poems for Alex, Cathy’s private grief became a public benediction. Through the crucible of her suffering, Cathy was able to forge an authentic path for other bereaved people, especially bereaved parents. She was able to articulate their grief in a way that made them feel less alone, but she did more than that, she gave it grace, dignity, and a kind of terrible beauty. I found this short poem, “Grief and Dreams,” in her Holding On collection:

“let me tell you about grief:

a bathtub full of stinging nettle
a deep dark hole
a chasm

but the hole is full of rats
no sweet oblivion

only regret    rage

oh let us bathe in stinging nettle!
the pain will be distracting

those surface itches
better than the hole

where despair waits
a ravenous rat

to feed upon
our sweetest dreams”

I asked Cathy recently if it had ever been her dream as a child to be a published author but she said no. In fact, in Snapshots, she says” “Since Holding On was published, I’ve read from it at many poetry readings. Early on, I often felt that I was somehow betraying my grief, betraying my love for my son. Maybe my Scottish mother’s unspoken criticism (“Who do you think you are?”) was still operative, on some level, in my brain. Was I showing off? Only the heartfelt thanks I received from many bereaved parents kept me going”… and as she says a bit later, “Everywhere I went, I took Alex with me. I couldn’t write, or teach, without him.”

Alex is here with us today – I have no doubt about it – and he would be so proud of his gifted “new mother” and of what she has created in this courageous, honest, beautifully written page-turner of a book.

Share with your friends

10 thoughts on “Grief and Creativity

  1. Margaret Evans

    What a wonderful tribute to your friend. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Cathy but I hope to do so soon. You did an eloquent job of highlight the transformation that is possible on the other side of terrible grief and suffering. I can’t imagine there is anything worse than the lost of a child and your tribute to Cathy pays tribute, also, to the love between mother and son. I can just see Alex smiling down on her and, indeed, being so very proud of her resilience and her abiltiy to find creativity in the midst of and despite her pain.


  2. Don Grayston

    Beautiful, Donaleen, as expected. And I am still getting a lot of mileage out of one of your earlier statements: ” … the hard inner work of thinking and feeling for ourselves ….”


    1. Donaleen Post author

      Thanks, Don…thinking and feeling for ourselves is most definitely a core spiritual challenge – particularly with so many overt and covert messages to do the opposite.

  3. Kajsa Futrell

    So beautiful what you have written about Cathy’s journey. We receive so many gifts by feeling our pain. It can be so excruciating (Ioved the poem and the line about the stinging nettle bath) but it is ultimately the only relief and there truly is support out there for those of us courageous enough to dare to FEEL and to be REAL!
    I thank Cathy for her courage and you Donaleen.
    I believe this is a powerful way to heal the planet. Being in denial only hurts with no healing possible. The result is always violence within and without. The time has come for the shame to go that keeps us from feeling.
    Thank you Donaleen for being a beautiful voice for us!
    Love Kajsa

    1. Donaleen Post author

      Thank you, Kajsa…I agree with you that healing ourselves goes far beyond our own lives…love to you…Donaleen

  4. Cyncie Winter

    Gorgeous. True. This is the kind of writing that I don’t see in many published works on grief. As a therapist, I regularly encounter people who are eclipsed by loss. I will never forget the woman in a hospice bereavement group that I was facilitating. She had lost her young son and talked about how she felt as though she were bleeding upon the face of life. Through your eloquent tribute to Cathy, Donaleen, you offer us a portrait of a woman who has found a resource for healing through the power of word–and a comfort for parents who will undoubtedly be touched by her courage to transform grief alchemically, into an act of creation. Thank you.
    With love, Cyncie

  5. Helen Slemons

    Donaleen, your blog on grief and creativity was very interesting. Usually we think that grief shuts a person down so much that all creativity disappears, but you showed that expressing grief can be done through various creative and healing activities. Your own book on your brother’s death certainly is a good example.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings in this blog.

    Peace and joy,

  6. somae murray

    Dear Donaleen,
    This is a beautiful tribute/testament to Cathy’s loss, courage and creativity. Through your words and Cathy’s poems and your reference to Lusseyran’s essay, my faith grows stronger.

  7. Clelia

    Donaleen, thank you for so eloquently and respectfully introducing me to Cathy – what a strong soul.

Comments are closed.