Grief Within the Arts: Denial
Updated: Apr 13
Here is the reality. This is going to be a tough beginning. We are in tough times. Take your time reading, and be curious about what comes up for you as you move through. Notice your breath, your heart beat, tensions within your body. I recommend you read from a grounded position, with a steady and consistent breath. Try to stay with these words as we move through feelings of shock gradually towards a greater sense of acceptance and a hopeful softening of the spirit.
Things are not as they once were. So much has changed in the past two months in the arts. Theatres that were brimming with light have now gone dark. Filming has been suspended. Music venues are deathly quiet. Galleries are only occupied with paintings and sculptures. Projects have been postponed, some cancelled. Venues are shut, some uncertain when or if they will open again. Grants have been frozen. Work has been lost. As we look forward, there is a sense of deep uncertainty. Things will not be as they once were.
There is a lot of loss. And where there is loss, be it temporary or permanent, grief will be close to follow.
“If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it” writes Scott Berinato in his helpful article That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief (I recommend you check it out). When running wellbeing sessions with artists in the past couple of weeks, grief has been so very present. It has been felt, and at times it has been named. It is a thing that comes and goes. In the past 15 years working as a psychotherapist grief has always been part of the work, no matter what. Where there is trauma, there is grief. And, here we are: we have been plunged into a global trauma of un-experienced scale. Consequentially, here comes the grief. And we're trying to make sense of it, of ourselves, and this muddle of feelings we're experiencing.
In the next week or so I will be exploring the five stages of grief: We will be leaning into the wise words of psychotherapist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler, pioneers in responding to life and loss. They will hopefully help us name what we are feeling in response to the loss of our jobs, our vocations, our creative spaces and methods of social-expression.
Once we can name it, maybe we can then begin to make sense of what’s happening to us. With greater self-awareness we may be better equipped in responding to our feelings. Finding meaning and feelings of relief. Alongside spending time now thinking about how we are responding to the seismic shifts within the arts, I also hope we are laying some solid foundations for the future, so that when this global trauma has subsided and things do go back to (the new) normal, we can begin to heal and create again with greater stability and strength.
The five stages of grief are:
In the beginning of Kubler-Ross & Kessler's book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss the speak eloquently about loss and grieving. Their book is focused upon the loss of a person in our lives. Inside our small-six-degree-of-separation-worlds, regrettably we may find ourselves loosing someone we love or at least someone we know to the ravages of COVID-19.
On a personal note, Kübler-Ross & Kessler helped me make sense of my world when I lost my Dad to cancer nearly 4 years ago. But I'd like to also give space to the current losses within the arts, and how artists are experiencing their lives right now. Now being a time when all feels like its turned on its head. I hope that we may find comfort and connection here. All types of loss can take up space and thought.
So let’s see how Kübler-Ross & Kessler begin their book on grief. I'm gonna leave them to take your through, they say it much better than I could. I've taken sections from their book to be our guide. As you read, see what you can take from it. Remember to keep breathing.
“The stages […] were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one [or what] we have lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline of grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.
Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss.”
How do we recognise that we are in denial? It can come in many forms. We might hear ourselves saying, in slightly overly bright tones, “It’s going to be juuuust fiiiiine!” Or we might find ourselves going for the fourth nap of the day, engaging in a sleep-induced attempt to not face what is happening to us and the arts. Or we’re already on the eighth series of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which we’ve already seen twice) saying “Aaaand, don’t fuck it up!” to everything we attempt that day, be that making breakfast or trying to figure out which project survives and which one doesn’t. Or we’ve found ourselves drinking alcohol for the 10th day in a row, when we normally wouldn’t (please keep an eye out for this one).
However we may find ourselves, denial is okay. However, we find ourselves, it is a time for compassion towards our actions, we don't need to add inner-critisim onto the pile of emotions we're already dealing with. Denial and it's behaviours are an important part of the healing process. It is a place we will find ourselves returning to time and time again: When something shifts in the news, when we move past an important date (like, “I was meant to be performing my show tonight for the first time if all hadn’t gone to shit”), we might find ourselves in a renewed state of disbelief. And perhaps especially when things do get back to “normal” and we return to a life that is missing huge parts of what used to be there, and what we always imagined would be there for our foreseeable futures.
The cycle will repeat. And with each repetition something new will be learnt, a new insight will show up, a new bit of healing will be felt.
Let's turn back to the wise words of Kübler-Ross & Kessler as they write about denial. As you read see what resonates with you. Where do you find yourself within their words? Where don't you? Are you able to move towards recognising and naming some of your feelings as denial? Great all your responses with acceptance, curiousity and compassion.
"When we are in denial, we may respond at first by being paralysed with shock or blanketed with numbness. The denial is still not denial of the actual death [or loss], even though someone may be saying, “I can’t believe he’s dead.” The person is actually saying that, at first, because it is too much for his or her psyche."
"This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It’s natures way of letting in only as much as we can handle.
These feelings are important; they are the psyche’s protective mechanisms. Letting in all the feelings associated with loss at once would be overwhelming emotionally. We can’t believe what has happened because we actually can’t believe what has happened. To fully believe at this stage would be too much."
"The denial often comes in the form of our questioning our reality: Is it true? Did it really happen? Are they [is it] really gone?"
"People often find themselves telling the story of their loss over and over, which is one way that our mind deals with the trauma. […Then] you begin to question the how and why."
"The finality of the loss begins to gradually sink in. She is not coming back. This time he didn’t make it. [Life will not be the same again]. With each question asked, you begin to believe they are really gone.
As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface."
Let’s stay connected. Share your thoughts in the comments below, in a way that builds something rather than knocks something down. Let’s not add to the losses – we have enough to contend with already.
[Quotes are from "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss" by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler]