My poetry therapy supervisor, Jill Teague introduced me to this term and I think it’s the most fitting description for how I spent the second part of 2018.
I had cleared my work diary of commitments for the six months after the Flourish Project knowing I would need time to myself to deal with the aftermath of my mum’s death – both practical and emotional. I also knew that engaging in therapeutic work when I was in the most intense period of my grief would not be good for me or my group members. This is an essential part of the work I do – taking care of others means taking care of myself too.
The months between Easter and summer I spent in my own garden, tidying, pruning and reworking planting schemes. It was the easiest place to be because the garden didn’t ask anything of me and I could cry whenever I wanted. Not that I mind crying in public. I believe that tears are a source of strength so I’m never ashamed to find myself crying at the theatre or the cinema when something touches me profoundly. But crying over the loss of my mum was something I didn’t need to do in public, and in those first months I stayed close to home because the tears came frequently, with force.
During the summer I was able to spend more time with my family. Gratitude for those I still had around me became more accentuated. I needed to soak up as much as I could get. Still I cried frequently. Whilst sitting in a restaurant in Turkey, having dinner with my husband and kids, a song came over the sound system that turned on a river of yearning that took my breath away. Several people at nearby tables looked on, knowingly. And even though no words passed between us, I was grateful for their acknowledgement that this is what life is like for the bereaved. Memories burst in at any time, and they knocked me over in the early days.
I took part in NEOS (North East Open Studios) in September at the Phoenix Hall, Newton Dee in Aberdeen. Although this was my third time exhibiting as a solo artist, I was nervous. As an open studio event, the whole point is that you meet the public to talk about what you do and share your work. And previously I had loved it. Although I knew I wasn’t ready to facilitate workshops yet, I thought I would find simply talking to the public do-able. But this was for six hours a day, nine days in a row. Thankfully, I was exhibiting amongst friends, some of whom are very close to me and that was the main thing that got me through. My confidence, or perhaps my interest in talking about myself and my work, had waned. I wasn’t feeling connected to it in the same way as I had before. I had also lost my ability to concentrate on anything for any prolonged period of time. Some days were ok, some days were an absolute struggle. On a couple of occasions I had to leave my table and just be outdoors on my own. This is where good friends are gold – covering my spot and coming to get me if a visitor wanted to buy something or speak to me specifically. As a conscientious person, this ‘not being there 100%’ was hard for me. But my gut instinct told me that taking a break was far better than breaking down in front of the general public.
After that I decided not to return to therapeutic work until after the New Year. Meanwhile I had a commitment to fulfil for an exhibition at The Inverarity Gallery in Banff called Wild With Words. It was perfect for my type of artwork and although the idea for a piece came easily, the execution of the work was a different matter. I had decided to incorporate a poem into a nature-inspired papercut design. Normally I find papercutting a very therapeutic practice in its own right but my reduced concentration saw me redraw the initial design several times and restart the actual cut itself twice. Determination got me through to the end, but I’ve never had to spend so long on a piece, ever.
I had times when I worried that maybe my love for what I do, wouldn’t come back. But my mum’s advice for whenever I went to her with worries about my kids rang out, “It’s just a phase, Elaine.”
Patience has never been my strong suit. I’m instinctive, sometimes impulsive and I follow my heart. But that’s what I have been learning during this sorrowing time – that I just have to be patient with my grief. That I have to attend to it in the same way I attend to everything else in my life – with as much understanding and loving kindness as possible. That even when I desperately want something not to be the way it is, if I give it enough time, I will find a way to accept it and adjust my life and my expectations around it.
The run up to Christmas was tinged with fear and anticipation of what it was going to be like without her for the first time in 47 years; sharing the day, enjoying the feast and laughing with the rest of us. The day came and it went, and we had a nice time – but it was a relief when it was over. And yes, I cried. Copious tears. Good tears that were healing.
And then the New Year came and I was able to exhale that fear and anticipation fully. And this has brought a readiness to interact with the world again. I’m paying attention to the way the low winter sun casts patterns across my grass. I’m watching the sky paint itself spectacularly at sunset. I’m smiling at the memories instead of going straight to tears.
I have taken time to let sorrow work its way into me. And I have no doubt I am the richer for it. I’m looking forward to facilitating writing workshops again after Easter and a labyrinth walking and writing workshop at The Barn in May. After I finish this blog, I’m headed out to my studio to start on ideas for a new body of work for a solo exhibition I’ve been invited to do.
I will never stop missing my mum. I will never not feel the ache of her absence on family occasions. And I’m still going to cry often – I’m an emotional person and the depth of this loss is unfathomable still. However, writing the first part of this blog yesterday reminded me how much my work on the Flourish Project actually helped me cope with the final days of my mum’s life. And now I’m ready to take what I’ve learned about myself and the ‘sorrowing time’ out into the world of my own work again.