News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

October 24, 2010

Stephanie Salter: Using the creative arts to open the way after a loss

TERRE HAUTE — Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.

— Shakespeare, Macbeth

U.S. society has a lot going for it, but the way we deal with loss is not one of our stronger suits. Mourning — our own or others’ — tends to make us uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s tied to our cultural inclination toward superproductivity and problem-solving. Americans reflexively want to fix things and situations, right away. We don’t like to see people or machines limp along at half- or quarter-speed.

Like many contemporary Western cultures, we’ve abbreviated the formal mourning process that a death sets off to little more than a handful of strung-together days. Even after a loved one dies unexpectedly, the cultural clock starts ticking. After a few weeks, You really need to get back to work. After a few months, You really need to move on with your life … get over this.

So fearful are we of publicly displaying our wounded hearts, we opt to take medication — eagerly offered by people who are worried about us — just so we can make it through a funeral without “breaking down.” (As if sobbing, even keening, isn’t the most normal, natural response to the death of someone we love.)

Other losses usually are given fairly short shrift, be they the loss of a pet, a home, a job, a dream of success, a marriage or romance, a sense of security or the physical and cognitive abilities that diminish as we age. The collective attitude toward such lesser loss: Suck it up. Everybody’s got problems.

But sucking it up, shoving it down, repressing and self-medicating with alcohol, food, mindless shopping or obsessive work often comes at a delayed but high price. Loss punches holes in us, some pencil-sized, some dangerously deep and wide. We may paper over the holes but, sooner or later, we discover that paper provides pitiful structural support.

On Nov. 6, the nonprofit Maple Center for Integrative Health is offering a daylong workshop downtown to help people properly tend to the holes.

The fourth annual such gathering, this year’s session is called “Creating a Path Through Loss: The Arts as Healing Tools.” It will take place at 686 Wabash Ave., beginning at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 3 p.m. The $10 fee includes a catered lunch from Market Bella Rosa. An art exhibit, “A Path Through Loss,” at the Gopalan Contemporary Art Gallery at 9 S. Seventh St. will accompany the workshop.

Registration and more information can be obtained by calling Cathie Laska at (812) 234-8122 or by visiting www.themaplecenter.org.

Participants will be guided through exercises in writing, music, drawing, collage making, movement and — if they choose — verbal sharing. Each exercise is aimed at allowing a person to channel his or her sense of loss and pain into creative expression.

Zann Carter, who will lead the writing portion of the workshop, is among the guides who know firsthand about the holes that loss can punch inside of us. Her son died of a drug overdose in 2006 at the age of 20. She, her husband and other children were, naturally, devastated, and each member of the family has worked to deal with the sadness.

“It’s a central part of my life,” Carter said of her son’s death. “I think I’ve done really productive things since then and I’m getting on with my life, but I have this core wound that may never heal.”

And that is OK. People can live and even thrive with wounds that never quite go away. But just as there is a difference between healthy venting and whining, there is a difference between tending to a wound and denying its existence.

For Carter, the tending worked best after she was inspired by a book of simple drawings from a South Bend hospice program, which were reproduced by Linda Jeffers and titled, “The Hole in Me Since the Day You Died.”

Carter’s longtime work with textiles had not attracted her in her grief, but a pen, a set of children’s watercolors and a drawing journal did.

“When I was feeling overwhelmed, I would spend 20 or 30 minutes making these crude drawings. I was astonished at the pressure it relieved in me,” she said.

For her husband, the way through the pain was music, which provides many people with an outlet for expression of their sadness. As part of the Nov. 6 workshop, the gifted music therapist Tracy Richardson will help participants work with melodies and lyrics and collectively create a song as a path through loss. Sharon Boyle will lead group drumming.

“If you are human, you know loss. If you are human, you are creative,” Carter said. To learn to creatively express the complex feelings of loss, “you don’t necessarily have to be creative with art and music. You could do it with gardening or cooking or any activity.”

The point of the workshop is to help people open a channel that might not be readily evident.

Carter stressed that the day’s exercises are not about classifying and ranking the severity of individual losses, and certainly not about judging who deserves to hurt and who doesn’t.

“As a person suffering a loss, you have a right to make a hierarchy [of its significance], but no one else does,” she said. “You should be allowed to acknowledge your loss, to name it and to honor it.”

Finding a way to do that through creative means gives the loss “an honored space,” Carter said, “and it takes some of that raw woundedness out of it.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com

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