Processing grief into art

Last year in December, while my mother’s health was quickly declining and while I was in the middle of devising a new show I had a vision of a movement dance piece inspired by my relationship with my mother. It’s a short vision, one that has us moving to a variation of You Are My Sunshine – a song my mother sang to me as a child and one I sang to her while she was dying. The vision of the movement chronicled the mother taking care of the daughter and then the daughter taking care of an ailing mother. I had envisioned doing this with my friend Melissa who’s a wonderful dancer and terrific performer. I kept this idea to myself as a couple of weeks later my mother died. A couple weeks after that, I opened the show I was devising. Although I feel like I’ve been pretty healthy in processing my grief, I also have thrown myself into work. I’m finally at a place now where I can create something from that grief.

This summer I experienced an immersive piece where they made the playing space out of a blanket fort. I loved the imagination of it, the intimacy, the delicacy of the movement and the poetry of the music. We shared tea. There was silence and longing. It ended with me being selected for a slow and delicate dance with one of the male characters. It was lovely. I left feeling inspired to create an immersive piece where I can share my mother’s death with others.

My mother’s death was pretty traumatic. I’ve never seen death portrayed like how I experienced it. I remember at the time thinking, hoping, someday I’d be able to make a piece based on this experience. I believe firmly in making something beautiful out of pain – and there was a lot of pain that week (and the years leading up to that week).

Because I’ve been so open about my grief, I’ve been wonderfully surprised by people reaching out to me with thanks yous and me toos. I firmly believe that grief is easier to bear when you share the load. This is why I want to create an immersive piece. Where i have audience member play the different nurses, where I ask them to become my family, where I give them all the opportunity to say their goodbyes.

So far I’ve done one workshop with Melissa (who lost her father when she was 25). Having worked together in creating Wonder City we already speak a lot of the same vocabulary. For our first workshop together I did a brain dump of what inspired this piece I imagine it to be. I also shared stories of that final week, pictures of my mother through the years (some of which were towards the end). We also did some physical exercises. My mother’s movements were very specific that final week, thus it’s crucial we get that right. Although we only did some movement for less than an hour, Melissa has already captured some of that movement.

Because we trust each other completely the movement flowed easily between us. After each thread or sequence I’d make some suggestions or Melissa would ask questions and then we’d make adjustments. We had one movement sequence when we were moving around on the floor – her intention “to go home,” my intention “to never let go” – where we were facing each other and I had a moment because she had that same lost look that was in my mother’s eyes. We’re already on to something here.

Writing for me has been vital in helping me process my grief. I’ve written numerous posts and free form poetry. I’ve also cried a lot. And as I’ve been writing about that final week as I’ve been trying to remember everything I can and in vivid detail, I’ve been crying even more. It’s hard to relive such an emotionally trying week. But it’s necessary in creating a piece about that week. Thus I’ll be writing about our future workshops together (which will begin properly in September) to document the process for this piece and my own emotional reaction in creating something so personal and emotionally triggering.

I’ve always said the greatest way to honor my mother is to do the work. My hope in creating this piece not only honors her (even though it’s only capturing her death and not her vibrant life) but also give an opportunity for those who experience the piece to honor those they have lost.

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