Coping with loss unearths creativity: How to engage 'that place of hurt'

Coping with loss unearths creativity: How to engage 'that place of hurt'

There seems to be something about the act of coping that drives us toward creativity. It can show itself in projects and activities that, while initially meant to keep our minds busy, somehow become part of the way we deal with life's hardest moments.

"They're all variations on that theme of finding ways to engage that place of hurt in your brain while still reorganizing it and reforming it, so that you can move forward again," said Winnipeg psychologist Syras Derksen.

During the retrial of the man accused of killing his sister, Candace Derksen, Syras spoke about his own methods of coping with loss. He says that while a coping technique can be difficult to prescribe, those that work share a sense of purpose.

Recently, three stories were featured on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio that explored some of the creative and compelling ways through which we cope.

Coping with divorce: 'Connecting my own narrative'

Letting go of a marriage can leave a person in pieces, and sometimes it takes some creative thinking for that person to put themselves back together.

"We had a home and we had a very interwoven life, and since we were so young when we got married a lot of our identity was wrapped up in each other. It started to hurt in ways I didn't expect," said Joshua Ruth, reflecting on his split after a seven-year marriage.

What he needed was a road map to work through his pain, so he came up with a project inspired by the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program — but with an artistic twist.

"It wasn't a conventional art project, but it wasn't a conventional pain," said Ruth, who started his 12-steps with a Beanie Baby collection.

In the '90s, Ruth's parents collected the small furry toys, put out by Ty Warner and marketed by corporations such as McDonalds — often including very limited editions. 

"All these grown-ups around me were obsessed with these little stuffed animals, and I thought, 'What is that? What makes a grown person become obsessed with this child's toy, if not to cope with something?'"

Ruth's original plan included a public sticker series which called for donations of the once-coveted Beanie Babies, but in the end it was Ruth's friends and family who came through to provide the stuffed toys. For Ruth, they became a physical representation of the support he had in his life.

And then they became something else.

In a sudden spark of inspiration, Ruth took out the scissors and sent a rainbow of legs, arms, and heads flying.

"I don't know why. I can't explain it, but it felt cathartic."

The next day, Ruth set the scissors aside and began to sew. The result was a kind of Frankenstein's monster Beanie Baby that brought all the dismembered pieces back together to create a new species of stuffed toy.

That's when the project took on a second life for Ruth, who works at Art City — an inner-city organization in Winnipeg that provides free art programming. Shortly after making his own studio creations, a donation of stuffed animals arrived at Art City, and they decided to apply Ruth's Frankenstein techniques to create a workshop called BFF — or Build a Furry Friend.

Fast forward a few years, and the BFF workshop is a staple at Art City, and a reminder to Ruth about the power of art.

"First it was a physical embodiment of the support that I have to draw from in my own social circle, but then it also became this sculptural practice for me and ended up translating into the work I do in the community. It really came full circle for me."

Ruth says the other 11 steps of his program followed a similar trajectory, each reminding him of who he is in the world.

"It was some of the best therapy I ever had."

Coping with cancer: 'I felt an overwhelming compulsion'

Thousands of words have been written and blogged by Charlotte Cook-Dowsett since her battle with cancer began, and yet she cannot deny the power of a single photograph.

"An image is in your face. You can't look away on social media, it is staring right at you. You can give so much more with just a single shot than I ever could with words," said Cook-Dowsett.

In a blog post that documents the first moments of her ovarian cancer diagnosis, Cook-Dowsett explains the way doctors stumbled upon the cancer after first diagnosing her with endometriosis.

Since starting her chemotherapy treatment at CancerCare Manitoba, writing has become a way of remembering the important pieces of her journey, and preparing her for the battles ahead.

"It seems to give me a clear headspace of what my goals are, and of course my goal number one is to be cured and to be in remission and not have to go through this again."

Despite the honesty in Cook-Dowsett's writing, she hesitated when it came to posting a photo of herself. The image was a stark contrast to the vibrant young woman with long blonde hair whose colourful wardrobe no longer worked with her changing skin tone.

"I was really scared about it because I looked probably the worst I've ever looked. No makeup, so you can see the lacking eyebrows, you can definitely see the few eyelashes I have left, my bald head, and you can see the weight gain as well," she said.

"I also have acne, which is an extra bonus joy when you are 35 and get acne for the first time since you were 15."

Cook-Dowsett's writing was motivated by a desire to raise awareness about ovarian cancer and endometriosis, and in the end she saw the photo as a way to compliment the writing.

"I felt an overwhelming compulsion to post it. I was really compelled," said Cook-Dowsett.

Cook-Dowsett's photo has been seen, liked and shared hundreds of times on social media. It required a level of bravery that she says was inspired by the women in her life who have also battled cancer, including her friend and mentor Nancy Miller, who died of leukemia in January.

"Nancy showed how you should face cancer every single day — positive, ready to fight, ready to never give up, but also never putting the blame on anyone else because there's no rhyme or reason sometimes," recalled Cook-Dowsett.

April 20 of this year marked Cook-Dowsett's sixth and final round of chemotherapy. As she heads into what she hopes will be the final chapter of her cancer journey, she's glad to have a few things on the record.

"It was a photo. It was honest and it explained the things that are positive, that are lacking, and things that are better now since I started chemo, because I love life more than I ever did before."

Coping with a child's diagnosis: A 'tedious, diligent process of creating'

Joy and Derek Eidse tried for years to get pregnant, so imagine their surprise when at their first fertility appointment they learned they were expecting. Then imagine their heartbreak when four months into their pregnancy, they learned their son, River, would not survive birth.

"I remember it was like a rush of wind that came by my ears … everything kind of tunnelled in, both audibly and visually, like I just couldn't take it in anymore at that moment," said Joy Eidse. 

River was diagnosed with anencephaly, a serious birth defect that affects part of the baby's brain or skull. He would continue to grow, and Joy would have a normal pregnancy, but her doctor said River was "incompatible with life outside the womb."

Joy and Derek were given the option to terminate the pregnancy, but decided to carry their son to term.

"When we made that decision, we decided we were going to operate in two different worlds at the same time: we were going to carry the grief of this diagnosis in one hand, but we had wanted this baby for a long time, and we were going to try to find some delight in that time period we were given to be parents," said Derek Eidse.

Finding delight came through a few intentional projects. At the time, the couple was living in Norway House, a remote community in northern Manitoba, and Joy was off work. She says she felt the need for structure in her day.

"I set aside the morning to cry, pray, journal, play the piano, do whatever I needed to do to process whatever was overwhelming me in the morning. I'd never done this before, but I started a project to make a quilt for the baby," she said.

"I had a little needle and a tiny pair of scissors, so I did it all by hand and just would spend my afternoon doing this tedious, diligent process of creating this quilt for the baby."

For Derek, bonding with River came in the form of a claymation project, motivated in part by the desire to share his son's life with their future children.

"It was helpful to me, and it served a very similar purpose to Joy's project with the quilt, in that claymation is thousands and thousands of very small, minute movements. And it took a long time," said Derek. 

It is possible for babies with anencephaly to survive for some time after birth, but River would not be one of them. Still, Joy and Derek were determined to bring him home.

"We took him home and he spent one night overnight with us, just to examine every part of him and discover, 'Oh, he has the same kind of foot as Daddy, and he's got really black hair in the back,' and different little details that we wouldn't have gotten to notice otherwise," said Joy.

The couple emceed their son's funeral and provided guidelines to friends and family on how to best support them after River's death. From the projects that helped them bond with their son to the plan for after his birth, the act of coping was a thoughtful process.

"We wanted to do what we wanted to do. We carried that through taking River home from the hospital, the way that we did the funeral and what we did after the funeral. It was always very intentional," said Derek.