“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
- Bréne Brown
Shame is a specific and persistent fear. It seems to have endless fuel in this society where people automatically compare their average or not-so-great days with carefully styled moments of others.
I felt the burning welts of shame today, and they weren’t mine.
Beyond being my family’s keystone, writing here, and making countless mistakes as a flawed human, I serve grieving families through art. Sometimes I create for them and sometimes I guide them through their own creation process. I visited a family today for an art session. Together they had lived through two deaths in seven months. They felt stuck.
The matriarch greeted me warmly at the door. The foyer was stunning. It was a Victorian home that was impeccably decorated in a modern interpretation of its original style. As we talked about supplies and where to work, all things we discussed on the phone, she began shifting her weight rapidly. She looked at her feet.
Shame marched in and took over.
She spewed apologies so quickly I could hardly keep up. As we walked toward the back of the house, I could see disorder begin to creep in. Certain rooms of the house were surrendering to mountains of stuff.
I heard her voice change and although I couldn’t see her face, I was sure tears has started flowing. I gently touched her shoulder and said her name quietly. My hand stayed there; she stopped moving and hung her head.
“I’m here to help you find your light. I’m here to draw out the spark that is in you so others can see it. I am not here to evaluate your housekeeping, your decor, or anything else about your life here at home.”
She collapsed into me and I held her as best I could. This woman, a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, and a patient herself, just wanted to be seen and yet was afraid to show. She needed tender care, much like the care she regularly provides her family. Through her sobs she told me how after the second death she bought stuff she thought her deceased family members would like. After she was diagnosed with her own illness, she bought stuff for herself because she didn’t know how long she had to enjoy earthly pleasures.
She told me she had not purchased anything in eight days. I told her how much I admired her courage for sharing with me and for making changes in her life.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
- Bréne Brown
For two hours we created art - this woman, her son, and her grandson. We laughed and cried. We got messy. We ooohed and aaahed about what others were doing around the table. They expressed things on paper they hadn’t been able to say in months.
It is not therapy. It is me bringing a little bit of knowledge about art, my own vulnerability and willingness to witness someone else’s rough spots, and lots of encouragement to a table or floor and sharing in a human experience of expression. In this way I can give what I know about finding a new way to see through art.
At the end of our time I packed up my things and gave and received hugs. She said she’d like to to give me something special she couldn’t use anymore, if I would be able to use it. She was beyond grateful and wanted to give as much as she could.
She took my hand and led me deeper into the house before stopping at a closed door. She inhaled with closed eyes and pursed lips. “Please, just take what you think will help other families.”
Floor to ceiling, this room was arts and crafts. Canvases, scrapbook paper, glue, pom poms, paint, fabric, brushes, paper punches, stamps, tie dye kits . . . it was like a retail store in her home. I said nothing. I think I was holding my breath.
“I don’t want this. There are a few things, very few, I can and will use. I’ll pull those out. I want my grief to help others. Please use these for other families you teach.”
It is challenging to find the words to describe how powerful grief is. It is challenging to find the words to describe how much more powerful connection in grief is. This is why I do this.
In making these connections I find more people who are in this place. There are people who want to help and don’t know how. There are people who want to feel tied to someone through a shared experience. It starts with a spark of courage. It begins with vulnerability.
Because I was willing to stand vulnerably with someone else’s shame and help her dismantle it, I have the resources to help dozens of families.
We can tackle shame, relationship by relationship, day by day. We can allow ourselves to see someone else’s experience without pressing our own over it. We can offer the gift of being seen and being heard without judgment. We can share ourselves with safe people and courageously show who we are.
This is one of the great gifts of art. How does it show up for you?
Have you ever felt intimated by art? You know what you like, and yet you aren’t sure you would invest in something that you’ll love.
For me, it comes down to three questions.
1. How do I want to feel when I am with it?
Art exists to elicit emotion. When you choose a piece for your home or office, it needs to offer an emotional connection that jives with how you want to feel. When it doesn’t, it feels . . . well, icky. Off. Not right.
How do you want to feel when you walk into the room and see it? Joyful? Contemplative? Charged up? How do you want your space to feel (or how does it already feel)?
2. Where will it live?
A woman raved about her art collection and invited me to her home to see it. It was absolutely stunning. It was also stored in three separate closets because she didn’t know where to put her pieces.
I’ve met so many others like her who invested in gorgeous, moving pieces they love and yet can’t or won’t find a place for. My guideline is that if you don’t already envision it in a particular place, it’s not the piece for you. And maybe I’m difficult, but I won’t sell a piece or begin a commission until the collector can tell me, and ideally show me, where the piece will go. It’s my responsibility to match art with people, and it’s easier for me to do when I can see the space.
When you honest-to-goodness love it, you’ll know where it goes and will not hesitate to make it happen. And that reminds me . . .
3. Would I miss it one year from now if I didn’t have it?
I like my relationships to last a long time, and because it is a part of my daily life I have relationships with the pieces of art in my home. We have stories. I remember when I brought them home or why I decided to commission them. I clean them. I admire them.
While one year isn’t long, it works well as a threshold. Does this piece make enough of an impact that You will think about it later if you don’t take it home? Now that you’ve seen it, or imagined it for a commission, do you want to be without it? Will you miss it? Would it be like one of those missed connections that people post about on Craigslist and social media? You know, when a person happens upon another and sparks fly, yet they remain strangers because they didn’t share any contact information.
That’s the piece you want.
Torn paper collage is my newest passion. It's more meditative than any other art form I've experienced, and it is imperfect by design. Thousands of pieces come together to create something beautiful and meaningful - what an amazing thing.
Like most things, the beginning is important. It is from a solid foundation the most stable building arise. Before I lay out any paper or start to tear and glue, I sketch. For torn paper, I want to capture basic shapes and differences in light and dark. These lines guide the placement of the pieces as I start with the background and then shape the face.
The beginning is my least favorite part. It's the part I see as my biggest opportunity for improvement. This practice for me is about more than art, however, and that's why I adore this medium. Like watercolor, tearing paper disqualifies precision. It is not entirely predictable or controllable. Letting go of expectations has been one of my great life lessons, and I am both honored and delighted that I can grow with people while I also offer them art that fills their hearts.
With this first step, I surrender to the process and allow art to happen. I work to do the same in my life.
As a grief artist, I move from hilarity to heartbreak and back again frequently, both with clients and with my own family. I cry a lot. I laugh a lot. Mostly I marvel at how full my life is and how honoring grief helps me see that.