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The New Grief: Is Creativity the Way out of Mourning?

10/22/2010 08:49 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Art is a form of therapy"
--Graham Greene

In her intriguing and extremely helpful book, Your Creative Brain, psychologist Shelley Carson points out that strong emotions--joy, fear, etc.--are something that we are almost always consciously aware of, and that these emotions directly affect our experience and our behavior. When we feel joy we want to celebrate; when we feel fear we want to run and hide. And so on.

So it is with grief. When we mourn the death of a loved one we experience an intense emotion -- grief -- that we are clearly aware of. We also experience grief in our behavior: we lose interest in things, find ourselves unable to smile or laugh, have trouble sleeping, and don't have much of an appetite.

Grief is an unavoidable human experience. Probably the only way to avoid grief is to avoid loving anyone or forming attachments to others.

In the film, The Pawnbroker, the late actor Rod Steiger played just such a man. Made emotionally numb as a consequence of his experiences, in the end the only way he could make himself feel something was to pierce his hand with a metal spike.

For all the rest of us who are not like Steiger's character, grief is the emotional component of mourning that we must expect to experience. Is it unpleasant? Most definitely! Is it necessary? Again, most definitely.

Dr. Carson, whose work includes counseling returning veterans says, "From my work with returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan I know that the grieving process is crucial to future happiness and mental health. Many returnees refuse to grieve, thinking it's a sign of weakness. But it is part of the human experience and is a journey through darkness that has to happen. The pain subsides and the soul is stronger when you allow grieving to take its course however painful."

So it is in our long-term interest that we allow ourselves to experience this journey into darkness, having faith that doing so will in the long run lead us back into the light. To achieve that result -- as opposed to getting stuck in the darkness -- we must be careful to give mourning the respect it is due, and to avoid seeking refuge in quick fixes, such as medication. I, too, have worked with returning veterans, and I have seen how such quick fixes can backfire, leading not to light at the end of the tunnel but to continued darkness in the form of unrelenting depression and anxiety.

Dr. Carson also points out that emotions, such as grief, can affect us not only in their most potent forms (when we are most aware of them) but also at less intense levels. In effect, they can operate not only in the foreground but in the background of our consciousness. At that level these emotions continue to influence the way we see the world, as well as our behavior. In this case, however, we may not be consciously aware (or only minimally aware) of this background emotion, or how it is affecting us. That is the case with what Dr. Barbara Okun and I have called "the new grief."

This new grief is the product of medical advances that have been brought to bear on terminal illnesses. As a result, what was once a, more or less, time-limited process of diagnosis leading to death has evolved into a drawn out process of diagnosis, treatment, remission (or arrest), relapse, more treatment, and so on. Not only the patient, but the entire family gets caught up in this process. Initially we may be very much aware of the emotions we experience.

For example, when we first learn of a terminal diagnosis we may experience intense anxiety. As time wears on, however, and we attempt to get on with our lives at the same time that we try to help our ill loved one, acute feelings may subside. Subside -- but not disappear. Instead, as we learn to live with death, grief and anxiety can become ongoing background emotions.

Dr. Carson explains that one effect of an ongoing negative background emotion such as grief (or anxiety) is that it makes us less open to novelty, less willing to explore or experiment. These, being the keys to creativity, mean that as we get entangled in the new grief we may also experience a disturbing loss of creativity. One woman, a community college professor, described that experience this way:

I remember when I was going through a period of new grief I talked to a colleague about my complete lack of creativity. I told him that I thought I'd never be able to write again, never have another creative idea. He said he'd had a similar experience. I think it's pretty common for creative people to feel really empty during a period of grieving. It sort of intensified my own grief in some ways. That feeling of being stuck -- empty in a way -- definitely made me anxious. What happened to both my colleague and me is that after a few months we had a burst of creative energy and actually sort of "made up" for the long period of inactivity.

The "new grief" that this woman was referring to was a case of Stage 2 breast cancer that a close friend had been diagnosed with and whose prognosis was guarded until she underwent aggressive treatment and appeared to be responding.

One pathway out of the effects that you might call "background grief" is through exercising your creativity. As Dr. Carson correctly points out, creativity is not limited to artists or writers. She argues "We are all creative. Creativity is the hallmark human capacity that has allowed us to survive thus far." Viewed in that way, exercising our creativity in response to mourning makes sense. Your Creative Brain offers much in the way of guidance for doing just that. Here's a simple example for beginning to tap into your creativity that every one of us can follow:

The Wallet:
Empty the contents of your wallet, then pick three items that you think are representative of your qualities, personality, or character. Now, write a short paragraph about each of these three items and how they relate to your personality. When you are done, look over what you have written. Did you learn anything about yourself? Did what you wrote reflect positively on you, and if so, how?

Your Creative Brain is filled with exercises, beginning with ones as simple as the above. These exercises can help those who find themselves feeling stuck or empty as a consequence of living with death, which is what life can be like when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. These exercises can help you tap into your creative side. Doing so can be a means to surviving grief and potentially emerging as an even more resilient individual.

To learn more pay a visit to her website.