Grief is a sacred journey

Finding Balance during Grief: Healing Dreams and Creativity

DSC01305 I try out for a team that demands gymnastic skills. I do a handstand, shocked by my ability and strength.  I’m told to hold this position, as though I am an antenna tuned into an important station. My arms feel strong and reliable as my hands press into the earth. My feet are alive with “listening.”

Six months after my husband Vic’s death, I awakened from this dream with renewed hope. Even though my heart ached with grief and my life felt demolished, I trusted some part of me would find equilibrium in my new upside down world. Like an antenna, I was tuned to healing messages.

Since Vic’s death, I had dreamed of holding him, caressing him, searching for him, longing for him. In these early dreams, he held and reassured me, even though I often knew while dreaming that he was dead. Grieving dreams continued, but new hopeful images appeared more frequently.DSC01306

A woman plays a flute while balancing on a gymnastics bar on her belly. She leads an orchestra with her feet and her swaying body. This seems impossible, yet she’s relaxed, skilled, and in control.

I wake up awed by her balancing skills. As in the first dream, a calm part of me orchestrated a new equilibrium. I trusted this steady power would thrive and grow.

I’d studied the psychologist Carl Jung and gone to workshops with Jungian teachers since the late 1960s. I worked on my dreams with a Jungian therapist. I drew and painted the powerful images. Despite my limited skills, painting and drawing soothed me and honored the healing dreams. I absorbed the message: new balance would come.DSC01309

Around this time, I painted another image associated with a dream. My wedding ring was widow dark, but green shoots of new life crawled up my hand. Again, I was reassured. I would survive and eventually thrive, even though I had no idea how.

Throughout Vic’s illness and after his death, I wrote about my experiences in journals. My therapist suggested a writing class called “Writing through the Rough Spots” with Ellen Schmidt. Writing helped me uncover valuable lessons from loss and find faith in myself. Even though I sobbed when I read my pieces out loud in class, Ellen encouraged me to find a steady voice in this new world of grief.DSC01304

As I dreamed, painted, and wrote, I digested what had happened and found a solid place to stand. New balance and life had been promised in dream images. When I looked carefully, I noticed it was already happening.

***

I thank my teachers Anthony Damiani, Marion Woodman, and Robert Bosnak for introducing me to the work of Carl Jung and teaching me the power of dreams. You might enjoy Falling in Love with Marion Woodman or Mythological Healing in Times of Crisis.

25 Comments
  1. All I can say is BRAVO, Elaine. The dream imagery, the art therapy, the honest verbal expression–show your brave, open spirit–an inspiration to us all. The fluidity in your art reminds me of Marc Chagall. Thank you!

    • Oh my, Marian. My art work is kid stuff, but I play with it. I can see a little Chagall influence in the upside-down and strangely floating images from dreams. Occasionally, I like to experiment. Dreams are important to me and were essential to healing during my deepest grief. Writing about dreams can be dull and put a reader to sleep. So I tried to make this part of my inner grief work interesting by adding art work. Thanks for your encouragement.

  2. I’ve followed in your footsteps for so long, Elaine. But not when it comes to dreaming. When my daughter died my dreams just about stopped. They were so vivid during the years I was her caregiver. And I kept a notebook by the bed to catch them. My dream notebook sits untouched most of the time now. Maybe I want to dream of her too much. ? Maybe I haven’t allowed myself enough time or room for balance and growth in my life yet. ?

    • Dreams are a mystery, Robin. I’m going through a tumultuous time now with my mother-in-law’s falling and her new needs, plus I have many sick friends and a friend’s son just died suddenly. Yet I do not dream, so maybe I’m doing all right with the chaos. After Vic’s death, I had a long period of introversion and a therapist who was a dream-worker. I’m grateful for the comfort I received from dreams, but I dream less now and rarely take time to paint my dreams. Maybe that’s why my night world is quieter. I was deeply comforted by these images of new balance and could use more dream support right now. Maybe we need dream catchers?

  3. Oh, Elaine, thank you for sharing this. I was going to say that I love the hand image most, but each has special qualities that I love. The dreams they were drawn from and the reflection they allowed you, makes me love them even more.
    I envy the lifetime of memories that you built with Vic and your sons. I admire the way that you honor and cherish them.
    In time, I hope to learn and practice healthier ways to grieve and live. Thank you for leading the way in both endeavors.

    • We’ve had different lives and different amounts of time spent with the ones we loved, Patti, but it looks to me like you work through grief in a powerful way. You seek and capture beauty with images and words. That’s my favorite antidote to the blues. You are creative every day and wonderfully independent. I was lucky to have many years with Vic, but you have these wonderful grandchildren you love. And you have Peregrine Falcons and the ocean. So life gives and takes while we sway, adjust, and balance in our new worlds. Thank you for being you and for your encouraging comments.

  4. Elaine, What a grand testimony to the resilience of the heart to heal even in the midst of feelings that it is broken beyond repair. That is why I, like you, value dreams so much…they move us beyond our limited scope of things and show us our inner strengths and abilities. My own dreams guided me to understand my new place in the scheme of things for several months after my husband died and were a lifeline of hope in the otherwise grey landscape of my thoughts. Thank you sharing your beautiful inner journey and imagery…Jenna xo

    • Jenna, it’s nice to share healing dreams from a Jungian perspective with you. Grateful to know this touched you. How I loved sharing dreams with Marion. I once told her a dream of her in which she was an ancient crone with clown make-up and a Buddha laugh. She handed out sweets. We laughed and laughed as we discussed dream Marion. She got serious and asked, “Have you ever heard the Dalai Lama laugh?” I said, “Yes, many times, and in the dream, your laugh was like that.” We laughed some more. What a generous teacher and how I miss her. I’m daring to bring a little more of this part of my grief work into my blogs to see if I can make dreams engaging rather than soporific. I’m glad you had healing dreams of guidance, too. My ego was devastated, but when I worked on dreams with my therapist, I always found a new perspective and a strong sense of hope to keep me going. Wishing you sweet dreams or at least interesting archetypal ones. Elaine

  5. Wow, Elaine. Your story certainly illustrates the healing power of art. Through your drawings and your writing, you have grown so much and shared so much valuable insight with the rest of us.

    • I’m not an artist, but I spent many hours painting and drawing in the year after Vic died. His medications on the kitchen counter were replaced by watercolors and oil pastels. I stood at the counter and drew or painted. It calmed me and made grief bearable. I know you know this very well as you enter your studio and create amazing color and image.

  6. Elaine, what an incredible tribute to your beloved Vic, the struggle of losing him, the reassurance you offer that life can again be in balance. You offer hope to all coping with loss. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Bonnie. When I had those dreams five years ago, it was hard to believe new balance would come in my outer life and I’d stop weeping all day. Working with a therapist who does Jungian dream work made me dig into the images and believe in new possibility.

      It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas with snow and cold, and my house has zero decorations. This is getting serious. Need a little red sparkle around here. I imagine your home decorated beautifully and maybe some cookies in the oven.

  7. What an amazing teacher you are, Elaine ~ and so open and generous with your lessons! Blessings to you, and thank you ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I always hope my short pieces are “teaching stories,” so you couldn’t have said anything nicer than this. I hope my book is the same.

  8. Art and writing and movement classes have gotten me through many moments of grief – allowing me to process my feelings & transform the pain into something healing. Thank you for sharing you’d beautiful story and lovely art!

    • Thank you, Susan. Yes, movement, too, and poetry and nature. I learned my mother was dying (after 12 years of Alzheimer’s), while at a one week workshop with the Jungian writer and analyst Marion Woodman in Canada. After a long coma-like sleep, my mother slipped out quickly with my husband at her side in the nursing home. She was gone, quietly slipped away wit no fuss, so I decided the workshop was the best place for me to grieve. I spent days dancing a dream I’d had the night before my mother’s death (and before I knew she had stopped swallowing) of a hummingbird being released from a cage. A perfect image for grief and dance–and I danced. I’ll look at your website soon. I have it bookmarked. Thanks again for reading my piece and your kind comment.

  9. You continue to inspire me, Elaine, not only with your strength and ability to see life’s blessings even in the most difficult of times, but also with your incredible self-awareness. Thank you for sharing yourself so freely with all of us.

    Love,
    Ann

    • Ann, what lovely words. It’s amazing to have the time to digest and find meaning in the stories of my life. I’m grateful I kept journals through Vic’s illness and after his death or so much would have been forgotten. As we know, memory is a precious thing.
      Love,
      Elaine

  10. Elaine I get so much inspiration and pleasure coming to your page. The artwork coupled with the words are beautiful, despite what you say about your art. I particularly love the one with your hand and the ring. You are a brilliant artist and I cannot wait to own one of your books! 🙂

  11. Elaine, I look so forward to coming to your page of wisdom and compassions. Your words coupled with your art are truly beautiful, even though you may doubt your art. I look forward to owning a book written by you that I may have for my own to turn to for words of comfort. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. I hope I can live up to your expectations. Speaking of expectations, you’re delivering a Christmas present this week. Congratulations on your book. I look forward to it and send you the best.

  12. Thanks for addressing this issue and the article . I suffered several losses in 2009 and have been on the same road. This offers good resources and direction !

    • I’m sorry you’ve had so many losses, Liz. 2006 to 2008 were my catastrophe years and sometimes I felt I would never find my way out of the depths of grief. But dreams showed me something else was happening and there was inner movement even though I felt stuck.
      Wishing you the best on your healing journey.
      Elaine

  13. Thank you Elaine. I am creative too so you are reminding me to look for and interpret clues in dreams as to where I am heading.I have been doing it but not with a Jungian perspective It is all about getting ones balance back. the body knows how to heal if we trust it. The dreams give us clues and signs that we are on the right path. I lost long term boyfriend suddenly, two dogs, parents, from 20006-2009 and uterine cancer stage one, We all have our stories!
    I will look more closely at Jung and dreams someone who I used to refer to a lot and have many books.

    • I’ve been a Jungian most of my life, Liz–and love the Jungian therapist I work with. I’ll check out your website and see what you’re doing. I’m sorry you’ve lost so much. Sometimes it piles on and there is nothing we can do except endure and move through the grief. I agree the body knows, too, if we listen carefully. Hope you are healthy now in all ways. Sending you good wishes and warmth. You’ve had lots of healing to do. With love, Elaine

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