How does an artist deal with transition during loss? I.D.I Manager Michele Ponniah shares her account, of how to overcome and rebuild.
“After all, perhaps the greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain…” ~Albert Camus
It is often said that life imitates art, likely because as artists we draw from our own experiences to connect with others. In an attempt to create something evocative and significant, we try to be inspired, and find inspiration from our own lives, and our own experiences both positive and negative.
But the truth is, that it is easier to draw from pain, because pain has raw emotion. We connect more with pain than we do the happy, sweet thoughts, because pain has a profound impact on us. It may not be a pleasant impact, but it’s one that we remember and we feel.
But when pain becomes too much to bear, and our thoughts are riddled in grief, the artistic process suffers and is lost in the transition somewhere in-between.
Several years ago, in the early hours of a cold October morning, I suddenly became an orphan as my loving mother tragically passed away. I was 27, and was blind-sided by her death. She was my best friend – not a term I use loosely – because she really was, and I wasn’t ready to live a life without her. We did everything together, and through every temporary job I had, every 2 month contract at some obscure theatre group, every short-lived job opportunity that even remotely resembled the idea of 'working in the arts', she was my biggest supporter. She believed in me when I had stopped believing in myself, and I continued to build my career as an artist because of her strength and determination.
Losing her suddenly, and not being able to say goodbye to her, was a pain I cannot even begin to describe. I was in awe. Once the funeral was over, and reality started to set in, I can honestly say that I had lost myself for a very, very long time. I was going through the motions, and not really knowing which way was up, putting a smile on my face because that was the only way I knew how to cope. But deep down, I felt numb. I felt no desire to connect to my love of music or any kind of art for that matter. I thought that I needed to find a way to let the world know that I would be okay, and my solution was to just keep going. Little did I know that eventually, grief would catch up with me.
Grief is a complicated little monster. As time passes, you begin to form a love-hate relationship with it. However, it’s not because you love to feel isolated and alone, but because grief and the emptiness you feel becomes the new normal. You almost embrace it because it allows you to feel something...anything, regardless if it makes you feel better or not.
Over the years, I have developed my own haphazard way of dealing with my grief and the trauma from my Mom’s death. It might not be ideal, and it might not work for everyone, but so far, it’s kept me going.
Let yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling
One of the most important lessons that I have learned through my grieving process, is that no one can tell you how you should feel after you have experienced the loss of a loved one. People honestly and truly mean well, but when they say things to you like “You’re going to be just fine” or “Stop crying. She wouldn’t want to see you sad”, it really doesn’t help you in any way, shape or form. If you feel sad, feel sad! If it makes you feel better to have a good cry, and you have some sense of relief, then by all means, cry. If you are angry, and hurt, that’s okay too. There is no “right way to feel”. It’s natural to feel all kinds of emotions, sometimes even all at once. You may think it’s reasonable to bottle up your feelings, but it really doesn’t help in the end. It’s important to allow yourself to experience those emotions, as it will help you find a bit of solace.
Surround yourself with people you love
Although at times it might feel unbearable to be around other people, and you feel as if you don’t want to bring them down with your sorrow, being around the people you love will help you immensely. These people love you, and want you to feel better. Despite what you think, they will want you to seek comfort in them, and cry, laugh or scream – whatever makes you feel better and more at ease. Being around loved ones will also help you to feel less isolated and might help you slowly get back into a routine.
Surround yourself with people who loved the person you lost
I was recently at a party of a friend of mine, who was actually one of my Mom’s best friends. As she started to introduce me to some of her friends, she said “This is Gail’s daughter, Michele." For some reason, this statement really took me by surprise, as I had almost separated myself from being a daughter. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with joy because I thought to myself, “Yes, I am Gail’s daughter, and I always will be." It was a wonderful feeling. I spent the rest of the evening speaking to others who knew my Mom and they shared with me the most heart-warming stories about her. We laughed as we reminisced over some of the silly things my Mom would say, and it really made me feel blessed. Being around people who loved the person you lost will help you feel connected to each other, as they too are grieving.
Don’t rush yourself. Grief is a journey
It is not a race and there may not be a finish-line up ahead. You don’t need to tell yourself that you should be at a certain point in your grief by now, or that any amount of time that passes should indicate moving on. There may be a destination that you might reach, although it might not always look the same, and it will certainly be different for each person experiencing grief. Do not try to muster all of your strength to cross whatever finish-line you have imagined, because you will run out of steam. Instead, take each day at a time. If that means starting to read a book that your loved one enjoyed; or listening to their favourite song; or even connecting with your own creative process and taking a photo that reminds you of them; these are all ways to slowly find peace and balance through your grief. Slow steps are the key to making progress.
Learn to re-build yourself
When you lose someone you love, especially someone very close to you who has been a part of your life on a daily basis, you begin to lose a part of yourself. You start to feel disconnected from the rest of the world, and your own well-being starts to suffer.
It’s important, especially as artists, to start to re-connect to whatever form of art has brought you joy in the past. If you are an actor, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should audition for the role of Hamlet at your local theatre’s next production, but you may want to look at short monologues about loss, that might help you along the way. It’s important to find that spark again, and to re-build the part of yourself that you may have lost. Art allows us to connect with one another, and being able to tap into your own creativity will enable you to find yourself.
In the end, everyone’s journey will look different, but it’s how you travel along the way that will make the biggest impact. I consider myself very lucky because I have an extremely loving support system of family and friends, who have helped me along the way. Yet, I still struggle.
It has been almost 4 years since I lost my Mom, and some days it’s still a battle. Some days are harder than others. Some days I want to write a musical, and other days I don’t want to get out of bed. However, that doesn’t mean that the journey is not still worth travelling. I usually turn to music when I feel down, because creatively, that is how I know how to express myself the best. Art has so many functions, and it’s imperative to use that to your advantage and express yourself however you feel comfortable.
Whatever your outlet is, and wherever your journey leads you to, it’s essential to remember that you are a work in progress, and your masterpiece is just beginning.
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness."
Michele Ponniah is the Administrative Manager of Inica Dance Industries, and a Toronto-based arts administrator, stage manager and musical theatre performer.