Seeing is believing: how an expressive art grief ritual helped me gain clarity and strength

Last night was the anniversary of my dad’s suicide in 1980. Most years I just ignored it and tried to carry on, but this year I decided to do a letter writing ritual. My ‘letter’ turned out to be a piece of expressive art as I followed my intuition and did what I needed to do throughout the process.

My expressive art ‘letter’ to my dad who killed himself 39 years ago.

Before I started, I lit some candles and lamps, ate some dinner, then meditated. An image of me taping four sheets of A4 paper came to me so, when I finished meditating, I did that. I got out my coloured pencils and stared at the paper before making marks, holding a pencil in my right hand. I felt some nervousness and wanted the image to be beautiful, and then it occurred to me to use my non-preferential hand to stop my inner critic getting in the way of the process, and it flowed from there.

I made jagged red marks – they feel angry but may not be – they’re like a Catherine Wheel firework. And then there’s a turquoise centre that spirals out and pink (or is it red?) joins it at the centre, making dashes in the space between the turquoise spiral lines. The yellow starts at the heart of the spiral and fills the space between the turquoise spiral lines, getting brighter as it spirals out.

It was intense doing the yellow; I was focused on it and pressing quite hard – I had to sharpern my pencil a number of times. I had thoughts about every day stuff and then brought my mind back to what I was doing and what might be the next step of the process. Once I finished the yellow, the next step was obvious: just write whatever thoughts come into my head about my dad.

The first was, “why?” over and over. It’s the question that repeats and won’t leave you in peace when someone kills themself and doesn’t leave a note. And that’s just one layer. My relationship with my dad was so complicated and I think this image captures that. It was 39 years ago that he killed himself and still I have these questions, yearnings, anger, disappointment, love, judgement, and unmet needs.

There’s something refreshing about seeing all of it present, rather than focusing on one aspect, which is what writing does for me. Seeing it all gives me a sense of how I’ve held all this at the same time. It’s almost relief, the feeling I get from looking at it.

I’m wondering about the “time to let you go” and “bye dad”. I think it ties in with the recognition that I care for myself, so I don’t need a father figure; in fact, the way I care for myself is nothing like the care he would have given me because he was barely there and sometimes he was abusive.

The question, “why do I still care so much?”, given the emotional distance and abuse, comes from a frustration, and possibly annoyance at myself, for yearning for someone who was so painfully bad for me. Why is it that we want connection with parents who couldn’t be good enough for us? Surely the healthiest thing would be to walk away but we feel a pull, perhaps an unmet childhood need.

I didn’t have massive catharsis whilst making my letter, like I thought I would. There were a few tears when I felt the yearning and heart ache. If there was some catharsis, it was gentle. I feel like it was a steady, wholesome process, and I’m really glad I made time for it. I feel strong.

I walked through the woods and captured my experience on paper

I’ve been thinking a lot about movement and expressive art lately and decided to try an experiment: a walk in in the woods, followed by drawing whatever I feel like.

Stanmer Park in Brighton is home to some beautiful trees and it’s one of my favourite places to walk. This image was taken in May 2019 on a sunny day, not like the rainy day of my experiment.

The walk felt hurried – I walked fast, stopping to put my coat on because the rain was heavy at one point. I felt sturdy on my feet and was enjoying the surety of moving my feet until the rain came and made the ground slippy in places. I noticed I tensed up, moved slower and felt less certain of the consequences of my foot placements, particularly downhill; uphill I felt confident. At points I got lost in the sounds of my movements – my breath, my feet, my trousers rubbing – and the trees blurred into browns and greens as I made quick decisions about which trails to follow. Soon I was at the car park again and was surprised at the timelessness of my walk through the woods; I had no idea how long it had taken.

I unlocked the van and sat half in with my legs out, grabbed my sketchbook and began making hurried, careless marks with a watercolour pencil. The rain blurred them and I laughed at this pleasant, unplanned interaction with the weather. Who needs water brushes when you’ve got rain? I closed my sketchbook and drove home. When I opened the sketchbook I saw new marks on the opposite page, and I felt delighted at the pattern of rain that had been inadvertently captured.

The marks I made with a “Dark Chocolate” watercolour pencil on the left; the rain pattern marks on the right.

A day or so later I felt an urge to add dark green marks to the brown. For each brown line I saw I added green either side of it in repetitive marks. The rule gave me something to focus on. I noticed I was gripping the pencil quite hard as I made these marks. I felt very serious.

I added “Leaf Green” marks to the brown lines.

Later, I added light green into any white space I could see; I felt the need to work quickly, to get it done. It felt comforting to work on after an intense volunteering session with survivors of sexual violence. I needed to see the transformation that occurred when I dabbed the water brush onto the pencil marks. I finished the image during a phone call with a friend, and I noticed my dabbing action became much calmer as my friend and I exchanged stories of recent experiences.

I added “Apple Green” into the white spaces and blended the greens and browns with a water brush.

I notice the finished drawing has aspects of what it was like to walk through the woods – the blurriness of the greens and browns and the pathways.

What’s your experience of movement and expressive art?