Week 23 was a shockingly sad week…
On June 5, 2018, Kate Spade, a famous American fashion designer known for her colourful prints and iconic purses, died by suicide. Unbeknownst to most, she struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for much of her life. On June 8, Anthony Bourdain, the culinary explorer of ‘Parts Unknown,’ who was also a talented writer, chef, and storyteller, took his own life. Unlike Kate Spade, the demons that Anthony Bourdain battled were well documented, including addictions and depression.
I have had both direct and indirect experiences with mental illness and grieving the loss of loved ones. In my role as a high school counsellor and art therapist, I have worked alongside many as they journey through the grieving process. Helping them navigate through these uncharted, and often terrifying, waters in order to receive support from complex health care and educational systems has allowed me to bear witness to the good, bad and ugly parts of life. I watched helplessly as some families fell apart, and celebrated as others forged stronger bonds than ever due to a loss, illness, or death. Sadly, I have been a teacher or counsellor for students who have died; some by suicide, some in accidents, and others due to illness.
Throughout my own childhood and youth, I had more than my fair share of losses. I was six years old when I was removed from my family and placed into a 'Children's Home'. I was nine when my father died. My aunt and uncle adopted me when I was twelve, despite the fact that my aunt had a brain tumour; she died when I was fifteen. A year later, my mother died in a car accident. Personally, I have experienced depression, anxiety, and suffered through crippling panic attacks. As awful as these experiences were, I am thankful for them. Their positive influence is evidenced in how I'm able to understand and relate to others who have struggled with mental illness.
In all its forms, grief has crashed over me like waves of an ocean pounding the beach. Immediately after a loss, or in the depths of depression, the waves are overwhelming and relentless, pulling me under again and again. As time passes, grief is still palpable, but the waves might decrease in intensity. The sun may even peek out from behind clouds, and the waves may slow to a gentle lapping on the shore. But the next day a tsunami rises from afar. I can run as hard and fast as I can to find high ground, but I'm swept over again into the undertow and cast back into the sea of tears. This cycle repeats itself continuously. At times the pain is unbearable. At other times the sting subsides enough to almost let me forget. Almost.
In reflecting about the deaths of these two highly successful artists, I came to realize some things:
Grief is a type of portal. It's not as clearly marked as, say, a window or doorway. It's more akin to a labyrinth, a complex passageway with many maze-like diversions and secret chambers along the way.
Although we have come a long way in speaking about and addressing mental health issues, certain illnesses still carry enough of a stigma to prevent people from admitting to their struggles or reaching out for help. This is as sad as it is unacceptable. We need to find ways to make progress, to open up the dialogue and increase accessibility to those who want or need help.
Some people DO show outward signs of mental illness or suicidal ideation, and some people show NO signs at all. Regardless, guilt is felt by all who are left behind after someone dies by suicide. Questions, about what could’ve/should’ve/might’ve/would’ve been, hang in the air. The survivors need to be heard, accepted without judgement, and have readily accessible therapies to help them heal.
Mental illness does not discriminate against any measure of human status. It can hit at any age and cross all socio-economic levels, regardless of gender, career, degree of success, cultural background, upbringing, or the influence of families or friends.
Grief is a universal experience of life, but that doesn't mean there are always words to communicate all that is being felt. Art therapy has the capacity to help people tap into what is buried deep. It can communicate when there are simply no words in our human language to adequately express what is happening inside.
Creating art is therapeutic for me. It is my salvation. Art heals. Art saves lives! I’ve been told by clients that it has been instrumental in helping them through traumatic times. It has allowed them space to heal, diverting their plans for suicide. It has also saved my own life, and its power continues to heal me in ways I didn't even know needed healing.
Grief is a portal that I have managed to stumble, crawl, or walk through on many occasions. I'm thankful for each experience of crossing the threshold. Even though I’ve compared grief to waves crashing over me, I still love going to the beach. I appreciate the benefits that salt water brings to me, the healing that comes with shedding tears.
Creating this particular piece allowed me to release and process much of the sadness that the news brought this week. It is healthy to grieve in this way – it is 'good' grief.