Touch Drawing: The Art of Grief 

BELT_SEPT_09_TwoInterfaith Minister Uses Touch Drawing in Grief-Work

Author: Rev. Donna Belt

It’s been five weeks now since I sat with my mother as she died, and in many small ways, I have become a stranger to myself. Sometimes I hear the foot-stamping anger of a petulant little girl crying through my mouth and I’m as startled as my family. This is strange and unfamiliar territory as feelings bubble to the surface, often asserting themselves from years past.

Elizabeth Lesser (co-founder of the Omega Institute) speaks of the “… ‘ego deaths’ we encounter when we experience loss, when we must give up a sense of control…” (p. 184, Broken Open, How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow). I must find a way to allow my feelings, yet at the same time observe them to glean the messages they deliver. Touch Drawing is the perfect surrender to this tide of shifting round.

I begin by dabbing Payne’s Grey oil paint onto a board and rolling it out into a thin, fine layer. Now I take a fresh sheet of newsprint paper and drop it over the surface of the paint. Closing my eyes, I move my hands and fingernails over the paper, allowing feelings and impressions to guide my way through the dark.

This is the art of grief. Each picture I find on the underside of my paper, every experience in this nameless place arrives as a fresh surprise.

Peeling a drawing of a woman away from my board, I notice first the energy of pain that seems to emanate from her thoughts. Yet at the same time I am startled at a gesture familiar to me from pregnancy. I recall the way I’d encircle my stomach with my hands, treasuring the baby I had not yet met. Grief, I realize, is a period of gestation. By ceding control, by rediscovering lost parts of myself, I’m filled with the promise of transformation. What will be born of me? Again, I go back to what I can discover through touch. Resolution does not arrive through thinking or logic. It seeps up like the dark, sticky oil paint that clings to the bottom of my paper where ghosts of other drawings lurk and entities hover unidentified, winking from white spaces. My sorrow leads me deeper. 

I relive the moments by my mother’s bedside as she lets go of life. In my journal I write, “Things are reduced to a relatively blank screen now so I can notice small changes, but in the wild variety of life moments, she was changing and dying just as surely. Dying, living. They’re just names for being – and not as opposite as I had supposed until now.” (July 3)  This realization is echoed in my present sensing. Labels lose their grip and I find ease in the space afforded by my curiosity. Loss, gain; tears, laughter.  They’re all one.

This truth reveals itself through my fingertips as I draw. I start with a tight-bunned image I recognize as coming from my intellect. My mother never had a bun and never grew old in a traditional rocking chair kind of way in spite of her 90 years. This surface understanding of grief soon gives way to whimsy. What if I dare to step aside from what my mind tells me about loss and claim my growing sense that love is only magnified by its dropping of skin? To the cadmium red of pain, I am led to add fledgling sprouts of cobalt green vitality. Love takes root in the cracks opened by my pain.  Again, I’m mazed by how my fingers assert metamorphosis.

Kathleen Dowling Singh describes how in the dying process, “The mental ego is pushed to despair – and out of despair into the leap of faith…  The border crossing to the Ground of Being, long ago closed by edict of the ego, is opened” (p. 70, The Grace in Dying).  My mother has allowed me to glimpse this letting go and in spite of my ego’s efforts to cling, my fingernails are sliding off the page. Old nderstandings cannot contain this place I find myself.

I reach the final drawing in my series, a bird. It doesn’t seek to fly away from the red of its pain, but integrates it as part of the process that has given it wings. I notice its shape suggests the figure eight of infinity. 

I rest on my limb now, knowing that there is nothing to hurry or fix in this experience of grief. By giving me the gift of observing life with a new sense of allowing, it’s awakened me to the wholeness that lies beyond my controlling. I’m reminded of a friend who having received her doctor’s report that she was cancer-free, told me she never wanted to forget the raw awareness of imagining her own death. I join her in that feeling of awe and gratitude. 

Death – my mother’s, mine… There is no better teacher of what it means to be seamlessly eternal.