Curating Grief: Tenderly Tending the Unbearable Void

MournersLoss lends itself to building — to creating — to making something manifest where what used to be is no more.

At first it might not seem so.

But we humans have an impulse to fill vacuums, voids, and holes, and even in the depths of grief we want — we need — to grasp for something in a space that now holds nothing — or, at any rate, not the very thing we want: the arms or the face of the lost one, the chance to feel that solid warmth again, just one more time, the palpability of love as it existed when the physical being of the beloved was present.

As your heart, your cells, and your fibers begin to grasp what the mind resists but already knows — that the loved one is gone, that the so-adored physical form will never again lay its tangible, touchable experience of love at your feet — then we perceive, maybe vaguely at first, then more and more urgently, that something else must come to be grasped.

Something touchable, because the thought of going without the loved touch is almost unbearable.

Something beautiful, because the thought of being without the loved beauty is just not possible.

Something specific, because the idea of the loved one generalizing out into a vague, cloudy, formless, ungraspable memory of what-once-was is absolutely unacceptable.

But what? What could possibly help, except the return of the beloved?

It’s true that grief saps our energy, sometimes absolutely. It’s all we can do — most days — to lift ourselves upright in the morning — to bend our minds toward dressing, toward eating, toward opening and closing the door. Forget even thinking about generating creative energy in the midst of our emptiness, the midst of feeling depleted. And you know very well that, even if you created the Sistine Chapel from scratch, it could not remotely replace what you are now missing.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Andrea Bayer found a sort-of answer: a tangible thing to do with her grief — to curate it through images.

Many of us put together photo collages of a lost love, especially for a funeral or memorial service. But after losing both her parents in the space of a year, Bayer pored through the art images that surrounded her at her job — images other people, people unknown to her, had already created — and found images in which she saw her own experience of grief: images that had been created by people long past, people she would never know — people who had felt grief, or understood it, in a way that spoke to her. She put together a slide show, narrated in her own voice, with her own thoughts and musings on her parents, on grief and loss, on grief in art throughout the ages: the deaths of Christ, of Socrates, of Adonis, of Isfandiyar, of an woman known only to Rembrandt, of others.

Island of the Dead

Bayer’s is a personal and tender memorial that connects her own grief with the grieving of innumerable others throughout human history: a support group, of sorts, through paintings and sculpture and collage, a group of figures offering universal gestures and expressions of grief, a way to feel less alone in her loss, to feel connected and supported by humans throughout the ages.

Other people’s images can be a thoughtful, accessible place to start with bearing your own grief (not only images of your loved one, though by all means you should include those in your collection if you wish) — a perhaps-soothing exercise in pulling toward you some form of remembrance that edges you out beyond the blanket around your shoulders, that brings other people’s observations and images into your sphere, a reminder that — though the pain of loss still bites you hard — there are others out there who can ken your experience, who can put images to it, if not words. The images need not be ones of grief, though those can be soothing in the face of the unbearable void. They might also be images that remind you of your lost love: images that evoke memories or feelings or the details of the life that meant so much to you: a picture of her favorite hiking spot, a picture of his favorite food, an image that evokes a secret moment you once shared, anything that reminds and connects you to the person you’ve lost.

Images go beyond what we can say in words. While we might lack the energy to create our own images, we are fortunate to have a vast library of images at our disposal in the form of the Internet. And the image curating website Pinterest is a tool that makes it fairly easy to find and curate images of grief that speak to you. You can check out my own Pinterest board, Embodied Grief, for another example of this type of process. Once you’ve collected your images, you might then find comfort in writing snippets of memories to accompany them, or in transferring the images to PowerPoint or a similar slideshow program and then arranging and rearranging them in such a way that they dance to a special piece of music, or tell a story only we ourselves can understand, or connect things in ways that had not linked up before, even fleetingly.

So in the absence of the energy to create, but needing something to do with our grief, we might, instead, find just enough energy to find — to search out images that bear on our own experience of loss, that speak to the specific things we long for in our missing beloved, that explore the previously-unknown places we’ve tapped within ourselves since saying goodbye.

This entry was posted in Art, Collage, Curating, Death, Grief, Image, Loss, Painting, Photography, Sculpture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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