It’s the call no one wants to get: “I’m sorry, Jess, but your dad has just died.”
One hour before I received this call, I’d had dinner with my dad as part of our new idea to catch up weekly for dinner. This call was a complete shock — totally unexpected.
My dad was not sick. He had suffered a previous heart attack in his fifties, and wasn’t at his healthiest, but it was an unexpected and sudden death. I remember receiving the call and being so confused. I thought to myself, “How can my dad be dead when I just saw him?”
I suffered a type of emotional whiplash.
As the shock subsided and I realised this had actually happened, it tore my heart open. Losing a parent is tough. Losing anyone you love is painful. When death comes so quickly, there is no time for good-bye, for thank you, or for heartfelt conversations. It’s so hard to get your head around the fact that someone you love no longer exists.
I was struggling to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t get to see my dad again. I wouldn’t be able to talk to him, laugh with him, or visit places together, and he wouldn’t be there for the big life moments. He wouldn’t be there to walk me down the aisle, or to hug my child, and he would be missing from all the Christmases and birthdays in between.
Like a brick resting on my chest, I would wake up in the mornings and feel the heaviness of loss weighing on me. If you have lost a loved one, you know how deep the pain can be. I was scared this would be my reality forever, and I didn’t think I could cope if it was.
I needed to find a way to deal with my loss and grief. As a writer, I’ve always seen words as powerful, so lying in bed one morning under the weight of grief, I wondered if words could help me.
I started to think about what the opposite of loss might be. The two words that came to mind were: gain and create. The word create resonated with me, so I started there.
I set out to find ways to be creative that would be both fun and help me to take a break from my mind and the suffocating feeling of loss. I took up painting (albeit very badly!), jewellery making, drawing, candle making, and I got back into photography. Photography had been a much loved childhood hobby that I had started with my dad’s old Yashica manual SLR camera.
I also took on a big project with an even bigger purpose.
I’d heard about a charity that took knitted blankets to a hospital in Ethiopia, where they operated on women who had suffered serious injuries during childbirth. This sounded like a perfect creative opportunity, and a wonderful chance to positively contribute to the lives of others. So I bought a pair of knitting needles and some wool, and my wonderful mum taught me how to knit (she is very patient!).
The organisation would take a photo of you with your finished blanket, and give that photo to the woman who chose your blanket in Ethiopia. They would then take a photo of the woman with your blanket and give that photo to you. It was wonderful!
I still have the photo of a beautiful woman all wrapped up in my hand-knitted blanket. It was a very special project to be involved in, and I like to think this exchange was healing for both of us. I know it was definitely healing for me.
When you lose a loved one, you realise how fragile life is, and how it can change in a heartbeat. We can’t control what happens in our lives, but we can take some control over how we make sense of our lives, what meaning we create from difficulties, and how we choose to respond.
For me, turning to creative expression was one way I was able to calm the anxiety and pain that came from losing my dad. The creative arts provided me with an avenue to switch off my mind, engage in beauty, and to connect with others in a meaningful way. Creative expression allowed me to reconnect with my ability to transform grief and loss.
As I saw each creative project take shape, I felt a sense of control returning to my life. Being able to create something that didn’t exist before slowly filled the holes that had been left by loss and grief.
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