Grief Within the Arts: Depression
Updated: Jul 25
“If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.”
We’ve been though denial, anger and bargaining as we journey through Kübler-Ross & Kessler’s five-stages-of-loss. Before we move into the fourth stage, depression (don't worry, it'll be okay), I’d like to begin by sharing a personal story that happened a couple of weekends ago whilst in the height of early-lockdown.
As always, read these words with an open-heart and steady breath. Be curious about what these words stir, where you see yourself and where you experience something different. Take your time.
Here’s my story…
For a good few years, my partner and I had been meaning to dig up and re-lay a bit of uneven paving in our back garden where The Tween tries to play basketball. We wanted to better-the-bounce and lesson-the- grazed-knee. So, mid-March, when others were panic buying loo-roll, I panic bought DIY stuff and drove back home to my parent’s house to collect as many of Dad’s old tools as I could. I wanted us to be prepared and able to do the job well.
When I was younger, my Dad taught me how to dig, how to paint, how to saw wood and use a drill. My Dad died nearly four years ago. As I stood in the garage and picked up a couple of his old spades (one with a wooden handle he rarely used, the other with a burgundy handle I’d always seen him use) and the pick-axe, I was quietly aware that I was picking up a part of him. Yet, in the rush of lockdown-preparation, I didn’t think much of it.
A couple of weekends later, my partner and I decided to tackle the job of creating the Best Back Garden Basketball Pitch as we could, using paving slabs that we already had from the other end of the garden. I gave my partner the wooden-handled spade, and I used his spade. We lifted and shifted and dug. Mud, rubble, sand and brick. There were two 140-year-old out-house foundation walls that we had to dig up to make the ground even. The pick-axe pounded the bricks, and the spades prized them out. As the bricks shifted and our backs winced with pain.
Then we came to a brick that just wouldn’t shift. We whacked it with the pick-axe and thumped it with a clump-hammer. Only a tiny wobble. So, I picked up the spade, his spade, and tried to leaver it out, pushing down with all my might.
The spade’s blade split in two. And I froze. Shock. “No. No!” Denial. “Idiot!” Anger. “Can-I-turn-back-time?” Bargaining. “If only I’d used the other spade.” More bargaining. And then, tears. So many uncontrollable tears.
My loss-wound had been warmed up in this Covid-19 grief-time we’re all in. My old-grief wound opened up like the split in the spade. And I stood there, crying like I’d never really cried before since he’d died. Four years of stored up tears. My partner walked over and gently held me for a long time as I quietly sobbed. And then they softly asked, “What do these tears want to say?”
Through crying-catches of breath, I heard myself whimper in a voice younger than mine now, “I miss my Daddy,” and then I howled up into the blue sky, as my wet tears fell on to the dry ground. I was both a little girl again and a middle-aged woman, crying deep tears for the loss of her Dad.
That is my story.
And, we'll return to this story later. But before we do, and unlike the previous blogs, where I wrote and then shared Kübler-Ross & Kessler's words, I’d like us to turn to them first. And afterwards, I'll share my thoughts about how we may relate to depression in the context of grief within the arts and our artistry.
“After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone. Why go on at all?
Morning comes, but you don’t care. A voice in your head says it is time to get out of bed, but you have no desire to do so. You may not even have a reason. Life feels pointless. To get out of bed may as well be climbing a mountain. You feel heavy, and being upright take something from you that you just don’t have to give.
If you find a way to get through your daily activities, each of them seems as empty and pointless as the last one. Why eat? Or why stop eating? You don’t care enough to care. If you could care about what was going on, it might scare you, so you don’t want to care about anything.
Others around you see this as lethargy and want to get you out of your “depression”.
Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles into your soul, the realiszation that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing.
When we are grieving, people may wonder about us, and we may wonder about ourselves. The heavy, dark feelings of depression that come with grief, however normal, are often seen in our society as something to be treated. Of course clinical depression, untreated, can lead to a worsening of one’s mental state. But in grief, depression is a way for nature to keep us protected by shutting down the nervous system so that we can adapt to something we feel we cannot handle.
If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. If you have the awareness to recognize that you are in depression or have been told by multiple friends that you are depressed, your first response may be to resist and look for a way out. Seeking a way out of depression feel likes going into a hurricane and sailing around the parameter, fearful that there is no exit door.
As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a away to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.
The stages of loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – have been widely use and misused. Our society almost seems to be involved in a “stamp out depression” campaign. Sometimes intervention is vital, but most of the time, we do not allow normal depression that comes with grief to have its place.
Clinical depression is a group of illnesses that may be characterized by a long-term or excessively depressed state. But or society often considers an appropriate sadness to be depression requiring fixing. Normal depression is the sadness we feel at certain times in our lives, the common cold of mental illnesses. We even have television advertisements offering help with it, selling pills promising ot get rid of it. When normal depression becomes a clinical depression requiring professional help, anti-depressants may be helpful for a time.
When depression follows loss, there are specific sorrows that can be identified. In more serious and long-lasting depressions, it is difficult to receive support. In this case anti-depressant medications may be useful, to help lift someone out of what seems to be a bottomless depression. Only a trained medical professional familiar with the griever’s situation can make an accurate diagnosis.
Treating depression is a balancing act. We must accept sadness as an appropriate, natural stages of loss without letting an un-managed, ongoing depression leech our quality of life. The use of anti-depressants remains a controversial topic, especially when a loss is involved. Some people are worried that if they take anti-depressants, they will miss the process of grief. If only that were so. The reality is that your grief is there and available for processing, on or off the medication. Some people feel that medications simply put a floor in for them to deal with their depression. In some cases, depression may need to be managed by using a combination of support, psychotherapy, and anti-depressant medications.
As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief. It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss. It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth. It takes us to a deeper place in our soul that we would not normally explore.
Most people’s initial reaction to sad people is to try to cheer them up, to tell them not to look at things so grimly, to look at the bright side of life. This cheering-up reaction is often an expression of that person’s own needs and that person’s own inability to tolerate a long face over an extended period. A mourner should be allowed to experience their own sorrow, and he will be grateful for those who can sit with him without telling him not to be sad. A mourner may be in the midst of life and yet not a participant in all the activities considered living: unable to get out of bed; tense, irritable, unable to concentrate; unable to care about anything. No matter what our surroundings may hold, we feel alone. This is what hitting rock bottom feels like. You wonder if you will ever feel anything again or if this is what life will be like forever.”
I find great relief in their words. They give permission to a state that is often denied or even sometimes shamed. And yet, as much as I resonate and relate to Kübler-Ross & Kessler's thoughts on depression, I find myself questioning the word “depression”, as I think it eclipses one of the major parts of this stage: That being,“sadness”. This feeling seems to get a bit lost within the, perhaps more clinicalised, world of depression. They are of course speaking about more than sadness - depression has many components - but I'd like to centralise this feeling. Maybe because it's close to my experiences.
Depression may be what we experience when our sadness gets stuck, is blocked or denied. It is depressing when our tears aren’t given permission to flow, and we fail to find meaning in what we are feeling. Depression (and sadness) is something that we often try to avoid - the slowing down, the dullness - or are told to snap out of. But I invite and encourage you not to be afraid, or to block this stage, especially your sadness. Sadness can bring great gifts, as Mary Oliver’s poem – The Uses of Sorrow - hits the heart of here:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Inside Out, Pixar’s wonderful film (I recommend you watch it if you haven’t already), also highlights the importance of depression/sadness. The film brilliantly depicts various internal psychological parts of a young pre-teen girl. The part of her that feels sad is aptly called, Sadness. In my eyes, Sadness is the hero of the film. However, Sadness’ heroism is only activated when the other parts of the young girl accept Sadness and integrate her within the whole internal "family" system. It is when Sadness is given permission to just be herself – to be sad – that her wisdom and power can then flourish. Sadness and depression certainly can take us into dark caves. But remember, it’s within those dark places that you’ll find the Genie’s transformative-lamp and the diamonds hidden beneath the coal.
Depression is not just one feeling. Sadness is part of depression's expression. Depression also turns up in apathy, heaviness, a lack of motivation, a lack of libido, a dulling of the senses (why feel-the-feels if the feelings hurt, right?). Depression is often a retreat, and has an in and downward energy. As an artist, this can be really tricky territory to negotiate. Especially when we’ve still got scripts to write, projects to plan, funding applications to submit, and there is an expectation that we'll still create all whilst we're swimming in a giant sea of un-knowns. But instead of being creative, some can find ourselves simply staring into space doing “nothing”. This then often breeds two unwelcome yet frequent visitors to depression - self-criticism and doubt.
“I mean," says the inner critic, "what have we got to be depressed about as artists?” Quite a bit I'd say. To begin with, I thought the grief was about the loss of the arts. The dark theatres, cameras gathering dust, silenced concert halls. But art will survive. It always has and always will. What I think is most depressing, and is the grief that cuts deeper, is the loss of individual artists' identity, purpose, and value systems. The pain we may be experiencing is in the loss of our Self as an Artist. Our sadness and depression is not about the loss of another (the arts). It is more, understandably, narcissistic than that. It is the loss, or anticipated loss, of something profoundly inside and part of ourselves, that is most depressing.
Being an artist, in whatever form, is often not a perfunctory occupation. In my experience, rarely does an artist go to work, then goes home and can separate and leave their job in the office. There is a huge overlap of the personal and professional within the life of an artist. Moreover, art often comes from the self and so there is inevitable mingling, merging and overlap, making the separation between art and the self hard to define. And so, now that we’re faced with the loss of the arts as we once knew and how we used to be artists - be that a temporary and permanent shift - we are therefore facing a loss of something that is intrinsic to who we are, rather than what we do. Again, that's really hard.
This was tenderly illustrated in an artist-wellbeing session last week. I've been working with an experienced and successful children’s theatre maker for the past six months or so. They began their last session by telling a story about the experience they had of their morning walk:
“This morning, I had a meltdown in the park. Complete and unexpected sobbing. I still want to make theatre that resonates emotionally with children. And so, I sat on a tree stump and cried and I hoped the police wouldn’t move me on from sitting.” After a pause, they continued, “I don’t know who I am if I’m not making work for small children.” *
Who am I if I can’t make art? It’s like this artist was looking down at themselves and witnessing the potential empty space where their artistry once stood. Understandably, depressing, right? Right. No wonder they got in touch with their sadness and cried. I'm glad that they did, rather than putting on a brave face and "getting a grip".
This is pretty depressing isn't it? I'm sorry about that, but it's par for the course. Although we are experiencing seismic changes, all will not be lost. We will adapt and find a way forward. After all, necessity is the mother of all creation.
Widening our lens beyond the arts, grief and loss is everywhere right now. Whether we like it or not, we are in an on-going acute global loss phenomena, and it is stirring up so many of our unfinished grief stories. We have all suffered loss in some way, shape or form. The loss of a loved one, the loss of our childhood, the loss of a friend, the loss of our freedom, the loss of our innocence, to name but a few. The Covid-19 world, and the direct or associated loss stories we hear each day, are awakening our old unresolved grief wounds. I profoundly experienced this as I stood in dust and rubble, crying about the historic loss of my Dad (a man who was a scenographer and who built the main stage in the Belgrave Theatre, Coventry)
And so, we must take good care of ourselves in these times. Our feelings of loss/grief about our artist selves, may also be a route into healing old grief-wounds about another things too. Take time to listen to yourself. Take time to sit in your sadness, your sorrow, your depression – but don’t stay there too long: acceptance, and more importantly, meaning making are waiting for us. And remember, that when we feel sadness & depression - and other painful stages of loss too - we are also in the act of praising and expressing our love and gratitude for the very thing that we have lost or are losing. These depressing feelings are the very place where you will "build from the ground up.”
The next blog will be Kübler-Ross & Kessler's' thoughts on Acceptance.
Here are some resources that may be of help:
- Shaman, Martín Prechtel's, amazing and life affirming talk on Grief & Praise. There are 3 parts, this link should take you to Part 1, which will show you Part 2 & 3.
[Quotes are from "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss" by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler]
* thank you to the artist who gave their permission to share their story. And thank you to all artists who I work with - you teach me more than you will ever know.