Creative Grief Work: Re-Lighting Our Fires

Why Creative Grief Work?

Grief work is the term that Will and I (Joanne) use at Inviting Abundance to emphasize the sheer amount of physical, emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual work that grief demands of us. While the degree and kind of work shifts over time, grieving very often requires a surprising amount of effort in the months and years that follow a particular loss, trauma, diagnosis, etc.

Highlighting the work of grief also helps us to convey that grieving and healing are inextricably linked. Just as our bodies do the important work of recuperation and repair after, say, an illness or a broken bone, so too must we find ways of mending, restoring, and regenerating ourselves in and through the grieving process. Approaching this work creatively enables us to move through these ever-shifting emotional waters as we actively make choices about how to carry or integrate our grief(s) each day.

Grief and Creativity
While some people might believe that creativity lies only in the purview of artists, writers, performers, and artisans, it’s important to note the etymological roots of Create: “‘to bring into being,’ early 15c., from Latin creatus, past participle of creare ‘to make, bring forth, produce, procreate, beget, cause’”. The word Creative arrives a bit later in the 1670s, "having the quality or function of creating”. While it might seem obvious, I think it’s work emphasizing that within “create” lies a process of “making.” And it is this making that so many grief workers find fruitful when processing their own grief or when helping others along their grieving journeys.

A collection of lovingly painted stones to remember children who have died. Faith’s Lodge, Danbury, WI.

A collection of lovingly painted stones to remember children who have died. Faith’s Lodge, Danbury, WI.

Here are some examples of individuals putting grief and creativity together. Sara Watson’s article “How grief and creativity work together” cites clinical psychologist Henry Seiden’s belief that “Creativity is the essential response to grief.” Watson also includes the voice of clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Susan Kavaler-Adler: “When you open up mourning from the deep core of the self, not only is it extremely healing but also people can become more authentic and express themselves in a deeper way.”

And it this mode of expression that invites in a creative practice. The Center for Creative Grief in Tucson, AZ encourages and facilitates creative expression through workshops designed to help grievers express themselves through various artistic media. Vashon Island, WA-based Kara L. C. Jones of GriefandCreativity.com and the Creative Grief Studio (and our featured guest on Episode 5 of our To Grieve Podcast) works with grievers and healing professionals to move away from pathologizing grief and towards meaningful, inspiring, and heARTtful engagements with grief.

Here is a vase that I made for my son Finlay during my first pottery classes in winter 2018.

Here is a vase that I made for my son Finlay during my first pottery classes in winter 2018.

The creative work of grief can look like any number of projects, processes, or objects: tending a home altar, memory box, or garden designed to remember a loved one; engaging in a daily meditation or prayer practice; making sculptures, drawings, or paintings that capture moments from your life before and following a grief event; volunteering your energy and skills to support worthwhile causes; writing poems, songs, or prose to express the complicated emotions and thoughts that accompany your grief journey; creating an organization, foundation, or business that supports others; pursuing a new course of study or vocation that sets your life in a more meaningful direction; learning or refining a hobby or craft that inspires you to keep going; etc. etc. Work that is intentionally made or done in response to grieving and healing is creative grief work, whether or not it looks creative or artistic to anyone else. This work may provide a temporary stepping stone to move you from one moment to the next or it could become the foundation for a new life path.

Illustrated Herbiary book.jpg

Herbs, Rituals, Fire

As I have been carving out my own creative grief practice that began in the wake of my son Finlay’s inexplicable death during childbirth in 2014, I have turned to herbal medicine. I recently purchased Maia Toll’s lovely little book The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals (Storey Publishing, 2018). Toll’s volume includes a set of Botanical Oracle Cards that can be used in tandem with the text. She includes suggestions for working with the Herbiary Cards, including a One-Card Draw in which you focus on a particular topic, issue, or question and then choose a card. Ideally, your reading about and reflection on the card provides some insight or idea for the topic upon which you were musing. On the first day that I performed the One-Card Draw, I selected Burdock (Arctium lappa).

In Toll’s index, Burdock reminds us to “Tap Your Resources”. Toll describes, “She’s a tireless companion […] Burdock’s a nurturer, building you up with gentle sweetness” (53). Toll’s supplemental Reflection on Burdock encourages us to “Find Your Hearth Fire.” The author notes the vital role of a hearth fire as a heat, light, and cooking source. And she adds another dimension to this brief overview when she notes, “Once a year the ancient Celts would extinguish their individual hearth fires and relight them from a communal flame. Does your hearth fire need to be tended or relit?” (55).

I found this ancient practice intriguing and wanted to learn more. After doing some research, I discovered the following. First, it seems that in the Ancient Celtic world (and elsewhere across the European continent), communities came together to light a fire (named a Force Fire, Neid Fire, Tein'-éigin, etc.) at specific times of the year to mark seasonal transitions. Examples here include Beltane (or May Day, located about halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice) and Samhuin/Samhain (or Celtic New Year, taking place on October 31/November 1, halfway between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice). People would extinguish their individual hearth fires and, after participating in a ritual to light a new fire for the community, they would re-light their home fires from the communal flames.

A drawing of the Force Fire (or Need Fire) method. Russian origin, date unknown. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Need-fire]

A drawing of the Force Fire (or Need Fire) method. Russian origin, date unknown. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Need-fire]

Second, these fires were also lit at times of distress. If, for example, a cattle disease ran rampant, then a Force or Neid Fire would be lit. Villagers would walk their cattle through a heavily smoking fire in the hopes that the fire would cure the animals of disease. Sometimes the villagers themselves would follow their livestock through the smoke and fire. Once all animals (and people) had walked through the fire, it was extinguished and a new fire was lit. From this new communal fire, villagers would re-light their hearths. (For more on Hearth and Need Fires, see the following: Beltane Fire Society, Need Fires: The Last Celtic Tradition, Sacred Hearth Friction Fire, The Celtic Hearth: The Heart of the Household)

This practice reveals the critical role of communal activity during both auspicious and distressing times. It wasn’t enough for one villager (even a particularly wise or gifted healer) to attempt to cure sick sheep; instead an entire group of people worked together to ensure safety, prosperity, and communal wellbeing. This practice of reigniting a fire speaks to the ways in which creative grief work can manifest holistic health and wellbeing on both the individual and communal levels. This premise works if we consider grief work as something we do for ourselves and then, by extending our own healing outwards, for our families, neighbors, and larger communities. This perspective raises the stakes for grieving. By diving into “the deep core of the self” and learning how to “tap our resources,” we can begin our creative grief work by strengthening our intuition, following our healing impulses, and developing a unique practice to sustain us.

Grief and a Communal Heart(h)

My husband Will recently wrote about grief, social connection, and healing after 9/11 and in the wake of the death of our son Finlay for Still Standing Magazine. In this short piece he suggests, “Every time we look out and seek the eye contact of others who (will) have experienced grief’s sting, we forge a stronger connection with our fellow humans and lay the groundwork for a lived experience that acknowledges death and loss as necessary parts of our finite condition. I believe that this connection, or ‘re-membering’ as I call it, points the way to a more just and ethical world.”

Both Will and I have known the intimate sociality of grief as we have met fellow grievers on their own paths. By forging connections with these individuals–many of whom were heretofore strangers–we have felt the wider waves of grief affecting so many people. By opening up conversations about grief in our own lives and in the lives of those whom we do not know, we help to facilitate the creative grief work and healing of others. Through this process of both turning inwards to attend to our needs (our hearts and hearths) and turning outwards to make connections, we invite in the possibility of reigniting our communal fires to help sustain us. These fires (“need” fires indeed) will, I hope, provide relief and healing for our hearts, inspire further connectivity and creativity, and help us to collaborate in creating a “more just and ethical world” for all. What a powerful catalyst grief could be.

**I would love to hear from readers about Creative Grief Practices that you have cultivated! Please Share in the Comments Section Below.

Related Blog Posts: Written By Will: Death Literacy/Death Faire, Practicing Hope and Dead Reckoning; Written by Joanne: Celebrating (with) Our Dead and Holding Space & Sitting with Grief