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.