When In Doubt, Dance It Out, Or How I Have Come To View Grief As A Creative Energy Source

The community that I live in experienced a great loss yesterday. My knowledge of this blithe spirit's passing came in the midst of a beautiful day, an amazing day; the sky was a brilliant blue, the breezes were strong and cleansing, the temperatures were crisp but not chilling, the clouds few and high. Yesterday morning was the sort of morning I had been pining for for ages, it seemed. And, then the message came that my friend, who had been living with illness for some time now, had died.

It is incredible to me how my experience of a day or a moment can change so rapidly: one minute I'm looking up and thinking forward, the next I'm brought to a complete stand-still and pulling inward. Grief has this power that other emotions like anger, happiness, love, jealousy, fear, don't seem to have; it works instantly, or at least it does in me. Grief changes everything around me, becomes all an encompassing lens through which I see the world. Upon hearing of my friend's passing, the day was no longer blue for me, no longer holding promise of productivity towards my goals; the day belonged to them, my energy belonged to them, my thoughts belonged to them. 

This is the power of grief.

Grief demands us to believe the impossible, or to believe that which we desperately hoped was impossible. Grief demands our attention.

Grief has been a constant companion of mine. From a very young age, grief began visiting me every few years or so. One would think that after having a lifetime of practice with losing people that I cared about that I would somehow have found peace with the process, that I would recognize the human experience when I saw it in front of me once again, the inevitable beginnings and endings of life, and just be.

But, that is not how grief works, does it? Practice doesn't make perfect.

Each time we go through the experience of losing someone we care about, grief feels brand new, sometimes even shockingly so. When I was younger, I used to believe that I had been shaped by grief, that the person who I had become was molded not by her achievements or lessons, but instead by her losses, that I had come to understand the value and preciousness of life not by living it fully, but by having it taken away from me so early, frequently, and unexpectedly. Grief made me a serious sort of child and young person, the sort that was told she should smile more. But, as I was never given any lessons in how to process my grief and I didn't grow up in a culture that engaged in open discussion about loss and how it can affect us, I did what I think is natural for any human being: I let grief sit silently and heavily inside me. Grief became the bedrock upon which the person I was becoming was formed, and through my 20s, I believed my relationship with grief kept me safe, kept me making good decisions for my health and my relationships.

As I lived through my 30s and now a smidgen of my 40s, I can see now that the lessons that I thought grief had taught me were not benevolent, were not sustainable. Holding grief inside of me, allowing each new and unique loss to become a part of me, wasn't helping to keep me safe or helping me to cherish the people around me. As I allowed grief to shape my worldview, I unknowingly also allowed anger, fear, and anxiety to sneak silently into my day to day understanding of life as well.

I didn't wake up one morning and realize that this build-up had happened to me, though. No, the process of coming to the conclusion that I had created a toxic worldview for myself was slow, painful and difficult. Loss keeps on coming, doesn't it? And, society has gotten no better at giving us a blueprint for how to handle it, nor has the openness to discuss grief and its depths become the standard for our workplaces, our schools, and even our homes.

I am only getting older, and if there is one thing that stands true for every human being is that with gift of aging comes the absolute certainty of loss, and the older we get, the more frequently it seems the losses come.

How, then, to endure the build-up of grief? At about age 38 or 39, my stack of grief, view it as a collection of solid and polished rocks if you will, became too tall and unstable for me to keep standing; there was no more room to build, the structure that I had created with them wasn't sturdy at all, and there was the constant threat of it overtaking me. Loss kept coming.

We never have time for loss, do we? "Life goes on," it is said, and while the evidence of that truth is all around, our hearts are still screaming, "No sh*t, Sherlock, but Death keeps knocking, too, and I'm f*cking tired of it!"

In my late 30s something inside pushed me to view my grief not as an object to hold or a feeling that dwelled in me, but rather an energy that overtook me and demanded that I put to use. I'd like to be able to say exactly why this switch in metaphor came for me, but I believe the answer is simply necessity: I had no more room inside of me to hold grief and its stowaways anger, fear and anxiety. 

But, grief doesn't (and shouldn't) go away simply because you don't have room for it anymore. That isn't how life works. Allowing grief to be an energy, a resource, though, and being aware of using it as such, has helped me. I imagine experiencing grief in this way is similar to that energy that motivates folks to participate in fundraising athletic events running, walking in honor of someone they love. Grief and loss create questions that we desperately want answers to, and what is the pursuit of answers but intellectual energy? 

I lost someone yesterday, the community I have called home lost someone yesterday. Their spirit was unlike any I have ever known: full, vibrant, generous, energetic, kind. I know without a doubt that I am the better for having had the opportunity to know them, that my family is better for having had our paths intersect. This person made a huge, positive impact on their community, a lasting impact, even through illness. Their death is a devastating loss.

What was I to do with this grief, with this unexpected and overwhelming surge of painful energy? I used it: I drew, I danced, I wrote. As I struggled to draw the letters of the next coloring page for my feminist coloring book just right, I thought of the tireless way my friend came at every obstacle life presented them with. I erased and erased and erased in their honor until I found a solution where every letter looked fun and inviting to color. As I entered my evening tap dance class full of exhausted teenagers, I smiled to myself and shuffle-hopped away thinking of my friend's boundless energy, how in their healthier times they were able to dance circles around folks half their age. I know losing their physical strength and endurance was very challenging for them, so as I danced with my students last night I tried to feel and take note of how amazing it is to be able to ask your body to jump and its only response is "how high?" And, when I got up this morning and saw that it was another beautiful day, a day that they would have loved to go for a jog in, I began to feel the energy of grief moving me to write, to think more deeply and publicly about loss and how its role in my life has evolved. 

It may not look like much, especially with the bright sunshine on it,
 but that collection of 5 faintly drawn letters in the upper left corner of this picture
took me over an hour to get right and is the final solution of over 15 attempts
 to get the word WOMAN spelled out across my 10X7 page. Typically I would
 give upon a design after 3 failed passes, but it was the visualization of drawing
 in honor of my friend, of wanting to not give up when presented with difficulty,
 that gave me the creative energy to keep at my original design. I am really
excited to finish this page, and it now holds deep significance for me.

Everything that I did yesterday and today was fueled by this loss, was in this person's honor, was given up for them as a sort of prayer or liturgy. And while this is by no means a solution to the pain and grief of the loss of those I love, perceiving grief as creative energy creates an inhospitable environment for the growth of fear, anger and anxiety in my mind. So, for now this is my knee-jerk reaction to loss and grief: create, connect, teach, build, all in that loved one's honor. It is what I hope that those who love me will do to the best of their ability in the inevitable event of my death, and I'm fairly certain that grief-induced-creativity is something that those that I have loved and lost would smile to themselves about.


  1. I must admit, I only skimmed this post. I am still grieving and I have to pick and choose what I read right now. One minute I'm cracking jokes and the next I am remembering his smile and his laughter. My coloring right now is where I've turned and watching movies that take me out of my reality. I am relieved to know your outlet has helped you grieve.

    1. Nicole, I am so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for giving even the briefest attention to this post of mine. I hope that if you feel moved to read it in total, it will help not hurt with your grief. Coloring can be a hugely beneficial outlet for all sorts of emotions, especially if you are able to allow yourself to...break the rules a bit, perhaps add to the drawing something that keeps running through your head, a phrase, an image, a lyric, a shape. When I let my grief be a part of my creativity, let my creativity be an expression of my grief rather than a distraction from it, I find that moving forward, breathing, experiencing the memories, living this new life a smidgen easier. You know where to find me if you need to chat more deeply and directly - healing thoughts headed towards you, they are yellow and many:)


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