Grief, creativity and transformation – talk for Nechama, Cape Town

My 14 year old son, John Peter (or JP as he preferred to be called), chose to
end his life on 31 March 2011. He hanged himself from a low-gate in a
storage area under the back stoep of our then family home in Greenside. It
was an afternoon much like any other. His little sister Ruby-Rose was taking
an afternoon nap, Annie his older sister was watching a video with a friend,
Laine his oldest sister had just left to go to work, Fikile, our helper, was ironing
in the house, David, his father had gone to have a haircut, I was at work. This
is not a talk about my son, suicide, the signs we missed and how we have
tried to piece together what happened in his short 14 years on this earth. It is
rather a talk about how I have navigated my way back to some semblance of
a life. The poet Edward Hirsch – wrote a book about his only son who died in
his early 20s - An Elegy to Gabriel it’s called – he wrote “When my son’s
suffering ended/My own began.” JP my least demanding child while he lived
became the most demanding child after he died. When my son chose to end
his life, I embarked on years of creative (often compulsive) activity because I
had to do something. Grief and creativity coalesced into to a path that led me
to a new way of being. I will share with how I have mapped my way into this
new landscape – learning that I can live wholeheartedly while grieving my son
– and how creative acts can help us stay in our hearts and not lose our minds.
One night – about 18 months ago – I was at sea with my grief – great waves
of loss breaking over me – so strong it felt they could break me. That night I
wrote this poem.

Tonight
Tonight I am a poet using words to express you
(as if I could find the rhyme or reason of you)
Tonight I am a painter making brushstrokes to capture the look of you
(as if I could bring the colour back to you)
Tonight I am a musician playing the heartbeat of you
(as if I could find the rhythm of you)
Tonight I am a sculptor carving the touch and hold of you
(as if I could breathe the blood back into you)

 

1  

Tonight I am a dancer flying through space the eagle part of you
(as if could fly off and be with you)
Tonight I am a perfume maker mixing up the smell of you
(as if I could capture the essence of you)
Tonight I am a witch wildly dancing under the moon for you
(as if I could invoke the very spirit of you)
Tonight I am a mother crying a mother’s tears for you
(as if I could ever fill the gaping chasm of you)
Tonight I feel so very small by the enormous loss of you
The poem forced the feelings into a container – the rhythm of the words
calmed me. Paying attention to the words, to what I wanted to express. I could
breath again. The storm subsided, instead of threatening me the sea held me
as I floated on its surface. I forgot about the poem but my sister, Nina, didn’t. I
have words to express my grief – Nina has clay. When she read my poem she
wanted to respond to it, to start a conversation with it, to create vessels to
hold and nurture the loss. She wanted to give the poem a home, somewhere
solid to settle. So she took my words and made 17 boxes from clay. Each box
contains a line from the poem. Each box is different as each line of my poem
is different. The boxes, a year in the making, have been glazed with natural
ash and decorated by the flames of a wood-firing. The clay, the ash, the
flames are all a reminder of our mortality, as was my son’s so very
unexpected death. The boxes were exhibited last month at McGregor’s
annual poetry festival. My daughter Laine wrote Mom, this poem is so
beautiful.. It captures all you have done and continue to do along your journey
and the new path that you face… I hadn’t viewed the poem that way – the
poem resonates with all the creative acts I undertook and continue to
undertake as a means to survive and to remain connected to that deeper part
of me that knows that not even death can sever my relationship with my son.
Alter it yes, but the creative acts keep us connected.
In the first half of this year I signed up for a ‘Creative Grief Coaching Course’
for people who want to work with the bereaved. The months of course work
helped to make cognisant that which I had done intuitively over the years with
my grief. It was a powerful and empowering insight – I had trusted my intuition
– dipped into the deep well of my inner being because there was nowhere
else to go. The core principle upon which the Creative Grief Coaching Course
is based is a belief that grieving is natural and that we are resilient. Creative
grieving isn’t about “seeking closure, moving on or getting over it”. It is about

 

2  

learning how to stay connected with our loved ones and developing a new
kind of relationship with them.
But let me go back to the beginning – the beginning of the end of life as I
knew it. I wrote in BOY (the book about my son and my grief) about the hours
after his death …
In one moment I have become an alien. I move like a stranger in a world
where the signposts have been removed… Is that someone saying that after
my son is photographed the hearse will come? The hearse? A hearse is
coming for my son? I am stuck in some dreadful nightmare. I will wake up.
This isn’t happening. What is happening? Everyone is being very careful with
me. Are they scared I will disintegrate? Dissolve? They keep reaching out to
me. As if by reaching out and keeping me conscious they will prevent my
dissolution. … I sit there with nothing to be done, because what is there to
do? But then it comes to me that I have to do something to mark this moment.
This is the moment that life has changed. Even before I’ve read any of the
books on death and grief and loss, I know that from now on there will be a
before and an after. But there is also a now. This moment stretches into an
eternal now. I have never been so present to the now – I cannot escape the
now. I am in it despite myself. This is now. This is the pain I am feeling now. I
am pain. I am loss. I am grief. I am trauma. It cloaks me and enfolds me. It
shoots through me. It shocks me. I feel my hand fluttering to my heart as if to
make sure it’s still beating. I cannot make this now be something else. There
are no distractions for this. No panacea. All I can do is sit and feel what I am
feeling. I know that on a deep level, in a fundamental way, I am forever
altered. I take my long black hair in my hand and hold it tightly to my head and
ask a friend to get the kitchen scissors and cut. I hear the metal blades slice
their way through my hair.
I don’t come from a culture that provides mourning rituals, nor am I religious.
When death swooped down so suddenly and grabbed me by its claws I had
no spiritual safety net – I was left disconnected, alone, isolated and bereft – I
knew I needed to create my own rituals - and that I was going to have to
make it up as I went along - trust my intuition and ability to conjur up my own
lifelines to the divine. It started with cutting my hair and lighting candles. I had
a strong urge to mark our house as a house of mourning. I found some black
fabric and made a huge black bow which we put on the front gate. I wished for
mourning clothes. Something to signify to the outside world that I am grieving.
That this big thing has happened to me. Be gentle with me the clothes would
have said.
I was also hungry for nature and the elements - Fire, water, earth, air – I
wanted to find a way to magically combine the elements to breathe my son
 

3  

back to life – and to find my way back to life. I pinched clay into primitive
vessels, lit fire after fire burning left over bits of clothes, submerged myself in
water at every opportunity as an act of symbolic cleansing, gathered stones
from all the places I visited to later place on JP’s cairn in McGregor… Rituals
– even if just for a moment – brought me a sense of continuity and
connection. Rituals and ceremonies are about finding a place to put the
incredible, all-consuming grief. As ancient cultures had their rituals, so to do
we need to rage and howl and to put our grief somewhere, to do something –
something symbolic and external.
I painted before my son died – but after his death I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.
My old self was dead. Instead during the first year after JP’s death I sewed an
eagle. I used my son’s duvet cover as the background and his old clothes to
form the image. I loved the idea of transforming his old grey school socks (he
didn’t like school much) into the wings of an eagle. As I stood stitching each
piece on by hand, I remembered him... it was time for me to be with my son,
to sew my memories with each piece of material that used to be a piece of his
clothing, re-making them into a soaring eagle. An educational psychologist
who assessed him many years ago remembered that when she had asked
him what animal he most wanted to be, he answered, ‘An eagle’. The reason
was simple: ‘It can fly, see things from a distance and is completely free,’ he
said.
I don’t cry when I sew, my heart doesn’t break or ache, I don’t feel like I’m
suffocating, I don’t panic, I don’t feel like I’m losing my mind. The creative act
of transforming one object (of such pain) into another (of joy and freedom)
eased the confined space I occupied most of the time. It provided a hiatus.
Sewing the eagle became my emotional alchemy … I cut up and transform
each garment into a wing, the sun shining on the tip of a wing, the leaves
dancing in the breeze, the water rippling below, the beak, the eyes, the claws.
Each garment was a part of him, something he wore, something he slept on,
something that used to sit close to his body. I cut and I pinned and I stitched
each leaf and feather by hand. I thread the needle, I sew, I knot, I cut the
thread. It is slow, it takes time. It’s repetitive. It has it’s own rhythm. I am
stitching in my memories of him. Weaving him into every stitch. Each thread a
different story of him, of me, as I create something new from what has been.
Some days I stitched down many leaves and feathers and some days it was
just one. Some days I could do nothing at all.
Over time the eagle has become our totem for JP – our magical and mythical
reminder of him. I attended an art therapy workshop. I painted his eagle on
large brown pieces of paper stuck together with masking tape, all the while
thinking that I want this eagle to fly and to soar and to glide. At the end of the
workshop the facilitator said “the eagle is now yours Kate.”
 

4  

To mark JP’s first anniversary I created a memorial space under the house
where he died and I draped my eagle over the security gate where he hanged
himself. And my mother picked greenery and flowers from the garden and
made beautiful displays and all the artwork the girls had created was stuck on
the walls - and Ruby made a small table with her ceramic JP angel sculpture and we displayed photographs and there were candles and we invited friends
and family to join us. The morning of the event I found a quiet spot and with
great trepidation (because what if I couldn’t) I wrote about my son. And I was
surprised – the words flowed. In the first year I sewed the eagle because I
didn’t have words. In the second year I found words. When all our friends and
family had gathered I spoke my words that I hadn’t been able to do at his
funeral. A few weeks later my friend and publisher, Melinda Fergusson, asked
me if I wanted to write a book. I said yes without hesitation. Everyone was
supportive of the idea. I think we all knew I had to find a place to put my grief.
Writing after grief, loss or trauma is one way to get the story out of the mind
and into a safe container. In BOY I wrote out all ‘my would haves, could
haves, should haves’ – so they were no longer “whirling dervishes, spinning
round and round” my head. I took them out my head and put them on the
page to stop them repeating themselves over and over. I needed to own them
by expressing them and exploring them – and then I could let them go. I told
his story as best I could. I told my story as best I could. It’s as though my mind
and body no longer have to carry the story. BOY, the book, became a vessel
to contain my grief, loss, longing, questioning, recrimination, remembering. It
was an expression of my love. Writing the story down was not healing in and
of itself – but it meant I had found a place to put it. I was liberated in a way
from the noise in my head. I wrote, as many bereaved parents do, in an
attempt to create order from the chaos. To apply my rational mind to that
which is inexplicable and emotional calmed me.
Writing BOY didn’t give me my son back, it didn’t take my grief away, but it did
help, it helped me face the shame of his suicide. Sharing my story instead of
hiding it - sharing my experiences of less than perfect mothering – my shame
that I could not keep my son alive – that I did not know the depth of his
suffering – that my son would rather be dead than alive in his large, bumbling,
crazy, eccentric, creative family – has opened up a space where people out
out and connec. It was okay to be hopelessly and perfectly inadequately
human. It has kept the conversation alive – I get to speak about my son and
about suicide. I get to speak about teenage suicide and grief. I have the
opportunity to structure my thoughts and put down new narratives and
insights to share with others.

 

5  

I was in Mozambique in February of this year to swim with a pod of wild
dolphins. It was five days with no cellphone or internet. I set aside this time to
complete a creative grief tool for my course – it was called Wholehearted
Stones. The point of the exercise was to see life as a glass jar and grief as the
water filling the jar to the top. Grief feels all-consuming and everywhere. The
exercise was to focus on what I want to add to my life, now that I have
experienced this loss – and to use stones to represent this – each stone an
aspect of what it means to live wholeheartedly after loss. So instead of
emptying the jar of water (which is our grief), the water gets displaced by the
addition of the stones (which is our wholehearted living) but continues to flow
between the stones. So gradually grief becomes less the foreground of our
lives and more a part of the connective tissue. I didn’t have a glass jar or
access to stones. Instead this is what I did.
The beach was long and sandy and I spent my days collecting shells and an
interior monologue developed. At first I could only find bits of shells washed
smooth and white and paper thin – delicate fragments. I searched for ones big
enough to take a word or two but some I knew were just too small and it didn’t
seem to matter because they could represent all the feelings I don’t have
words for. The next day as I stood still at the shore I noticed that where the
waves broke on the shoreline larger fragments of shells appeared like
memories – incomplete but still beautiful. I picked up a red fragment raw and
sore, a lilac shard spiritual and delicate, a spiral eternal. Some with holes,
spirals, stripes and spots, shiny, glittering jewels on the sand. With patience I
found some large and complete shells – I watched the waves bring them in as
my eyes darted about the shore to capture the whole ones as the waves
receded and before the next wave comes disturbing the still life in the sand.
Shells that once provided shelter are discarded and bashed about by the sea
and rocks pulverised into sand. I became compulsive in my gathering –
picking shells that moved me be it their colour, shape, roughness,
smoothness, incompleteness, completeness. Each shell spoke to me of loss
and love and how beautiful we still are even with our missing parts. I wrote
words on the shells – complete, together, sea, fly, fragile, rough, eternal,
different, pieces, apart, clean, fragment, transform, ache, whole, raw, broke,
white, smooth, pure, red, lost, found, small, hope, delicate, life, joy, love. I
wrote the names of my four children – Laine, Annie, JP and Ruby-Rose. I
found an old jar in the diving kitchen and cleaned it. I walked down to the
shore and filled it with sea water. I took it up to my tent and sat quietly taking
each shell and putting it into the jar. Near the end salty sea water overflowing
all the tears I’ve shed. I jiggled the shells about to make room for more – a
few large and complete shells with no words.
Even seemingly small creative acts can have as much impact as bigger acts
of art-making. Not everyone can or even wants to write a book or make a
 

6  

large wall-hanging but all of us can find a jar, fill it was water, gather stones,
write on them, place them in the jar and we can experience the power of
metaphor. I also did many smaller creative acts. I built a labyrinth on the front
lawn – I measured it out with string, dug channels to demarcate the paths and
filled these with small tones. The work was repetitive and rhythmic and at
times magical as I watched the labyrinth take shape transforming the front
lawn into a spiritual and scared space. It became a place where I could go
and walk. To find my centre. To find peace. I also made rag dolls – many
many ragdolls – out of fabric and bits and pieces I had around the house. I
loved these dolls – each unique but with a red heart sewn onto the body from
a t-shirt of JPs. I sent them out into the world as gifts to whoever asked for
one. My way of giving back. On what would have been JP’s 16th birthday
Ruby asked me to make a rag doll for him – I did – it was a JP rag doll and I
gave it to Ruby – a symbolic gift from her brother.
When I make the effort to create something, I can feel my power and strength
gently rising and flowing back towards me. It’s a tenuous thread, but it’s there
and at times it’s a lifeline. My creativity can’t be judged, it’s not good or bad,
it’s not amateur or professional, spiritual or psychological, it’s not done to
uncover a profound truth or insight, it’s simply done for its sake and its sake
alone. It’s mine and it’s something nobody can take away. It comes from a
source that doesn’t seem to dry up or abandon me. It’s always there for me to
tap into. It helps build my self-confidence. I love the act of transformation –
school socks become the wings of an eagle, a piece of wood gets turned into
a bowl, a lump of clay becomes a pot, old clothes and cloth become rag dolls,
paint becomes a portrait… light a fire, burn a candle, walk a labyrinth...
whatever you are drawn to do.
I read an article a while back that resonated - Creating something good out of
loss is not a trade, and it's not a cure. The author wrote along the lines that pain
is not redeemed by art, that pain like love needs expression and that creating
something beautiful and useful out of our pain is a wonderful thing. It’s a healing
thing. But it’s not a prescription and it won’t fix anything – but that we create
anyway.

In those early days when even walking was difficult and all I wanted was to lie
curled up on the couch for the rest of my life wishing the days and the pain
away – there was another voice competing for space – get up, get up it said –
keep moving, show up, all you have to do is show up – the rest will be taken
care of. About two weeks after my son died and the visitors had reduced to a
trickle and the house was emptier – I remember wanting a cup of tea. I looked
up but there was no-one jumping up to ask what they can do for me, get for
me. I got up off the couch and moved to the kitchen – I felt all stooped and
shuffling like a heavily sedated inmate from a psychiatric ward. I filled the
 

7  

kettle, I turned it on. I got a cup from the cupboard. I put the teabag in. The
kettle boiled and I filled the cup. I added some milk. I removed the teabag. I
sat at the kitchen table and I drank the tea. With every action I didn’t want to
be doing it. I resisted with every cell in my being. All I wanted was to be on my
couch. But the voice said – get up – if you want that cup of tea you are going
to have to make it yourself.
My creative grief journey has led me from darkness, loss and utter despair to
gratitude and for brief moments even joy. I have learned that I can feel my
grief, lean into, and it won’t annihilate me. That perhaps one day I will find my
grief has been the source of my healing. Grief does not preclude happiness
and I am learning to live with this paradox. I know I can listen to my heart and
trust what it tells me. And most importantly I am more resilient then I ever
imagined possible.
For the past few years on the anniversary of JP’s death the girls and I plan
months in advance an adventure to celebrate life. We think of something he
would have loved to do – swimming with a pod of wild dolphins in
Mozambique, and this year it was river rafting. Next year Laine has suggested
we go on a Buddhist retreat – the four of us. It gives us all something to look
forward to. And maybe just maybe we are also creating some happy
memories for Ruby-Rose – her brother’s death won’t just be about the trauma
and devastation but also about adventure and delight and nature and beauty.
Grief doesn’t diminish or shrink with time – but the possibility does exist that
the world around our grief can expand – like the wholehearted stones in the
jar of water – our grief continues to flow through our lives opening up,
connecting, creating. Not that anyone who has lost a child would wish for it to
be this way – but now that it is – and we can’t change it – now that loss has
been forced upon us – what will do it with it?
Some months ago I dreamt one of my rare John Peter dreams - he appeared
as if from nowhere and when I went to hug him he didn't disappear as I
thought he might instead it was him solid and present and he let me hug him
and hold him and rejoice in him - I kept showing everyone look John Peter's
here I am touching him holding him laughing and they seemed to appreciate
my joy but I wasn't sure if they could also see him - it's him it's him John
Peter's here I can't believe it I say over and over again between just loving
and embracing him. And he lets me and he seems to get such pleasure from
my delight in him. In my dream my son is whole complete and present.
Kate Shand
18 November 2014

 

8  

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

9