Some of our greatest cultural riches are the byproduct of grief: the pyramids at Giza were burial mounds. Homer’s “Iliad” is a tragedy. Christian texts begin with the loss of Eden. From a safe distance, we admire and appreciate the creative fruits grief has harvested over the course of millennia; collectively, humanity owes a whole lot to heartache. But what about when grief confronts us—head on, full force—as individuals?
Loss and creativity are two essential parts of the human experience, and when we experience loss personally, creativity might just be the best way out, says Dr. Shelley Carson, a lecturer at Harvard University and author of “Your Creative Brain, Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.”
Perhaps the first thing to keep in mind is that everyone has the capacity to be creative. “Some of us just express it more robustly,” Carson says, noting that there are two types of creativity: innovative creativity and expressive creativity. Carson adds that what she calls “innovative creativity” is best suited to problem-solving, while “expressive creativity” can use negative energy and channel it into creative work as a means to assist with loss or trauma.
Clinical psychologist Henry Seiden, Ph.D., echoes Carson in his assessment: “Creativity is the essential response to grief.”
Your brain on grief
Research shows that experiencing sadness results in a deactivation of the left prefrontal areas of the brain relative to the right prefrontal areas, Carson says. While the left hemisphere specializes in positive emotions like joy and hope, the right hemisphere dispenses emotions like anxiety. Unsurprisingly, the right hemisphere is more active during periods of grief. Here’s the hitch: “The main problem during grieving seems to be the relative deactivation of the left hemisphere rather than the over-activation of the right hemisphere,” Carson says.
So, even if creativity can help to heal and redirect, people don’t always feel like tapping into their creative sides following a loss or trauma—even if (and perhaps especially when) it’s their job. This was the case for Monique Malcolm, a creative coach and entrepreneur whose younger brother died unexpectedly at 26.
“Initially, there wasn’t any creativity,” Malcolm says. “I just didn’t feel it anymore.” Not too long afterward, though, she says, a creative burst followed. “There are all these things I want to do creatively, and now’s the time to do it,” she says she remembers thinking. For Malcolm, her brother’s death was a wake-up call: time is precious, and it’s not guaranteed.
Nurturing her creativity was also a method of self-care, Malcolm says.
“I had to set my feelings aside so that [my family] could be more OK and more comfortable—and I was angry,” she says. “It made me feel good to do that craft show or trade show or make things because it was something that I fully chose for myself.”
While grief is a natural and unavoidable part of the human experience, there is such a thing as “healthy mourning,” says Dr. Susan Kavaler-Adler, author, theorist, and founder and executive director of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. In fact, viewing mourning as an opportunity for personal growth can lead to boosted creativity and a renewed sense of purpose, she says.
“When you open up mourning from the deep core of the self, not only is it extremely healing but also people can become more authentic and express themselves in a deeper way. They just become more compassionate human beings and can become more compassionate toward themselves—not just others,” she says. “People can be so persecutory toward themselves,” she adds.
Moreover, she says, good intentions from others can hijack someone’s grieving process.
“Often people are disrupted in their mourning from other people who don’t have an understanding of how long it takes,” she says, noting that although it’s an individual process, a single loss typically requires one year of recovery.
Malcolm says she felt a derailment in grieving not only from her family but also at work. “In corporate, you get three days, and you come back, and you need to be fine,” she says. “But you’re not whole anymore.”
This deep sense of loss requires hard work to fill, and while a person may not feel creatively inclined at first, Carson sees grief (and creative work during periods of grief) as an opportunity.
“Grief provides some of the low notes of our lives that make it a richer symphony overall,” she says.
That symphony might feel dissonant for a while, though. “People can lie down and give up or be energized. It’s really hard to know why some do it one way, some the other—both with perfect ad hoc justification,” Seiden says. Whenever people can rouse creativity, he says, “it’s a gift to be treasured.”
Monique Malcolm, a creative coach, and Shelley Carson, Ph.D., agree that there are actionable tips that may help spur creativity during periods of grief.
“Resting EEG and fMRI studies do not show a difference in the right-left ratios of creative people versus less creative people,” Carson says. In short, everyone is capable of creativity, whether they’re a photographer or a pharmacist.
Malcolm suggests to “take an inventory of yourself.” Then, “figure out the bare minimum you can do that will make you feel OK with the rest of your day.” Some days, this might be nothing, she says.
Carson points toward specific activities such as painting, writing, or playing music. If you’re not a trained musician, she suggests the bongos, noting that drumming is a powerful mood regulator. Painters—amateur or otherwise—need only a blank canvas and paints, and those who write can choose poetry, a journal entry, or a short story. Pick an activity, and aim to stick with it for three or four consecutive days for 20 minutes per day, Carson says.
“Research shows that the mere expression of emotion in artistic form when you are hurting is beneficial,” she says.