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Week 11 // Sanctuary

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When you lose a parter, you lose your sanctuary in a very real way. The person you used to go to with your most vulnerable feelings, daily stresses, irrational fears, crazy hopes, ridiculous doubts and horrible secrets is no longer there. You have lost your home and all the safety, warmth and encouragement that came with it. I personally don’t think there is any more debilitating trauma than to lose our sanctuary – whether it be a parent, partner, child, sibling, or best friend.

For my fiancé and I, our home was very much each other. We were deeply bonded. The space between us was sacred – a sanctuary where each of us was protected, loved, and accepted above all else. This was the core of what we shared, and in this, we were home. Nothing has ever made me feel as vulnerable, lost, scared, sad, hopeless, tired and in danger as losing the sanctuary we so carefully and lovingly built together.

I once read a quote that said “The thing with feelings, is to make it safe to feel them all”, and that is what a sanctuary is for. A large part of this “after” life now is about learning to recreate this space in a new way. As it turns out, building the nest for this image was just as powerful as the end moments of laying down inside the curves of it. I was reminded that a sanctuary must be created - piece by piece. That it takes times, and that one must carefully select only the most loving people, encouraging thoughts, and inspiring things to build it with.

Even though my sanctuary now is very different from the one he and I built together, parts of him still surround me there… and it is still the place where all of me is safe and nurtured. For me, this image is a reminder for those times when I am impatient with myself or I begin to feel lost, angry, or scared. In those moments, I am learning now to step back into the gentle womb of my new sanctuary, breathe deep, and allow myself to rest safety until I am restored.

“Still, Life” is a year-long self portrait series about living on after loss. If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 10 // The Mask

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Losing someone very dear changes you entirely. It must. And for a time, your identity may feel like is has been lost altogether – hidden behind a darkness that is too big for you to see past. This is a large part of the journey we go one when someone we love has died. It is the search to understand who we are now that they aren’t here, who we will become as we go forward, and how they will be a part of that.

Since he died, it seems I’ve done nothing but look for myself. In every word I write, every photo I take, every relationship I begin or end, every brave new thing I try… each of these informs me of who I am now. It is not who I was when he was alive – I cannot be that girl anymore. It is instead, who he is helping me to become. This is who I am always observing.

It’s a tireless trek to say the least. A messy, lost, wandering, humble journey. A balancing act – with one hand down to the darkness and one raised to the light. One to my pain and one to my joy. Both of these are within me - often fighting to exist at the same time. I try my best to create balance between them in order to heal. I am learning it’s equally important to allow the light to warm me, just as much as to allow for the pain to mask over me from time to time. And that sometimes, it is okay to allow both of those to wash over me all at once.

If you’re in the midst of a deep loss of your own, you may fear that you will never quite find yourself again. That you will never be able to see past the pain and see yourself again. I can tell you - from where I am today – that with time and gentle hands to balance yourself, you will find yourself again.

 

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 9 // Bleeding The Darkness

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This past week was a struggle for me both personally and creatively. My fiancé’s birthday was over the weekend, which means weeks of riding various emotional waves and traveling to new levels of grief I have not yet been to. It becomes hard for me to create photos when things feel very raw. For that, I often turn to painting or writing. But I had no choice but to push through, I won’t allow myself to skip a single week of this portrait project.

I’ve sat with this image actually for several weeks… mulling it over. Exploring what it means to me. Unsure even about sharing it, perhaps because I have needed to find my own meaning in it first. Often times I don’t have a plan when I go out and shoot, so it can take time before I begin to even know exactly what part of my myself and my grief I am diving into.

This image was certainly one of those, but it began to resonate with me this past week, with his birthday approaching. Those days and weeks leading up to a birthday, an anniversary, a holiday create a special kind of darkness when you have lost your partner, or anyone you loved very dearly. My mornings have been empty, hollow, filled with a vacant weight – not of nothing, but of even less than nothing, the loss of something. Someone. They are the days when you cannot want to get out of bed or eat or get to work or be awake or be asleep. Moments when you feel neither dead or alive, but hollow, and all-consumed by the darkness inside you as if it is bleeding right out of your skin. It is not a part I enjoy being in, nor a part I enjoy sharing particularly. But it IS.

This image is about seeing yourself still standing, even though you do not feel like you are there. Somehow, with all the pain, some part of you  - of all of us – keeps standing. That is what I see here… a part of me that is beaten and broken, the part that is in such pain that it’s bleeding out darkness from her pores. And she is caught in a moment of showing it unapologetically. It is about facing life and truth head on – not because we want to but because we HAVE to, each day.  It is about saying “This is me. This is what my darkness looks like. And I will not apologize for it or hide it away. I will be me, where I am, how I am, as I am.”

Love to you all.

 

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 8 // The Climb

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The climb out of darkness is not easy. It is not graceful or clean or smooth to the touch. It is filled with rocky slopes and sharp edges that pierce and scrape at us. It is a journey set in mud and blood. But a worthwhile journey… for just on the other side of the ledge is a lighter place. A place where hope surrounds.

This week was the hardest yet in this series for me. My fiancé’s birthday is in just five days, and it’s hit me hard all week long. It is a special kind of heartbreak to not be able to celebrate with a loved one on the day of their birth. So understandably… I’ve been completely unmotivated to go out and take photos. By Thursday, I finally had to force myself outside with my camera. Reluctantly, and with limited time due to the fading light, I made a rushed attempt to capture an image. It wasn’t feeling right. I wasn’t connected to what I was doing. I felt rushed and frustrated. The resulting images were good, but they weren’t good enough. And they weren’t telling a piece of the story I was connecting to.

I went out Friday morning for a second attempt, only to have the weather decide not to cooperate. Returning home unsuccessful, I pretty much fell into a pit of grief for the rest of the day. I cried all day long. I sat in my misery and in my grief, alone. And just when I didn’t think it was going to get any better… I got an email about an art presentation at a local art center. It featured eight artists talking about their work in a new exhibit, and one of the artists was someone who’s solo exhibit I saw last year and loved deeply. I decided to get myself all dressed up and go, if only to meet this artist I so admired. And with that decision I began to climb. By the time I got to the show, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for even getting out. I got to chat with a dozen or so other artists, something I don’t get to do nearly enough. And then the presentations began, and that is the moment I felt myself hoisted out of the dark. Seeing all the different styles of work and hearing the personal stories behind it made my heart sing in a way that nothing else quite does.

And then something even cooler happened. I began to imagine myself up there, speaking about my own work to a crowd of people. Which was both the most terrifying thing I can imagine and also the most thrilling. And in that moment, I realized just how much I have grown since he died. Two years ago, this thought would have been a far away dream, something no were near my reality. And now, I am almost shocked to see that it is so close I can almost taste it. The best part? He is every bit responsible for this happening… an overwhelmingly beautiful feeling – he is still right here, right in the middle of me achieving my goals and my dreams – for it is our story that I tell in my work.

I returned home with a fire in my belly – the kind that I needed in order to get the shot. I also came home with a new vision of what to capture this week… that hard, dirty, triumphant journey out of the pit. And this time, shooting it was effortless and exciting and deeply connected. The flow I’d needed all week was there finally. This is I think – an image that I really needed to see. It will remind me the next time I fall, that I will not be in darkness forever. That I am strong enough to climb out again. And that there will be things along the way that help to pull me out of it. Inspiring things. Funny things. Beautiful things. Things that take me by surprise and remind me of what is still amazing about life, even after death.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 7 // Hope

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Hope is an incredibly small thing when you are in a very broken place in your life. I don’t think it is something that looks bubbly and enormously bright and fills up the room – not when you are in total darkness. At the beginning of this journey through grief, for me, there was not even any room for hope. I was in total despair almost entirely for the first six months. But there were, in those early months, small glimpses. It did not come rumbling in with bold splendor, but instead appeared in small, subtle ways. Like the first time I was able to take my camera out and photograph the sunset and ENJOY it, about a month after he died. Or the first moments that real, honest, laughter happened. Or in the sharing of painful stories with another wounded soul and helping each other feel less alone. Or going art galleries and filling up my soul with inspiring and beautiful artwork that somehow made my incredibly broken soul sing for a few moments.

Hope isn’t always easy to see or find amidst the debris of a broken world. It can be easily overlooked when you are so tightly focused on the pain and on keeping things together. I have learned in my grieving that to find it, I must try to always keep a part of myself reserved – assigned to the job of looking only for hope wherever it can be found. The rest of me can wallow and cry and scream – all 98%… but that other 2% of me must always be looking for hope. No matter how small, no matter where. Find it.

Hope is the most powerful thing you can have in your hands when you are going through a deep loss. When you have fallen into the depths of grief and there feels like no way out will ever come… even the smallest proof of light can entirely reframe your world. Even if you cannot see the sun – even if you don’t want to open your eyes and try – to have some small piece of evidence that it indeed still exists somewhere creates a visual in your heart of a place you want to be. And that visual, if you hold it with you as often as possible, eventually, will get you to the sun.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 6 // Desperation

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My father-in-law once described this whole experience of grief as feeling like falling into a pit over and over again. You exhaust yourself trying to climb out of it. You claw your way up muddy walls, sometimes reaching high enough to feel the sun on your face again for a moment. And then you lose your grip, and you feel yourself sliding back into the depths of your pain. Your fingers digging into the wet earth… hoping to find something to anchor to. But much of the time it is to no avail… and you fall and fall and fall. Until finally, you are once again at the bottom. Exhausted. Depleted. Empty-handed.

It is a special kind of desperation to be back in the bottom of your pain when you’ve lost someone incredibly dear to you. I was brought back there just a week ago, after attending my first bachelorette party since my fiancé died. Seeing everything I should have had and want so dearly to have… I lost my grip, and down I slid over mud and ash and pain. Stopping only when I reached the bottom of my pain, where there was nothing to do but surrender.

Almost 2 years after his death, I am not brought back there as often as I used to be. But I never forget the place where – for at least the first 6 months – I think I only managed to climb a few feet up the wall before falling (and I rarely had the strength to try and climb at all). When I am brought back there now, the reaction is still the same as the week he died. Every hair on my body and every last cell of me screams out in desperation. Even my hands themselves cry out – begging to be able to feel him again… pleading to know none of it is true. Aching to know the world I once knew, which looked nothing like this one. It wasn’t dirty. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t dark. It wasn’t hard to look at or hard to feel. My world before was bright… something people liked to look at. Something I liked to look at. How complex living your life becomes when you find yourself in a world that no one wants to see, including you.

That is why I have so much appreciation for all of the people who have watched the most painful parts of my journey. Who have been unafraid to look at my world when it wasn’t beautiful to see. Hell some of them have even hurled themselves right down into the pit after me – entirely unafraid to feel the darkness with me. Those are the heroes in my story. They are the ones who make the loneliest place we will ever travel a little bit less alone. Today, if you are still here reading, that is most certainly you.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 5 // The Guardians

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Since a young age, I have felt protected and watched over by the ones in my life who have died – most notably my mother, who died when I was nine. At thirty one, I’ve now lost my mother, father, and my husband-to-be. I have also lost all of my grandparents, and several aunts and uncles… so I have accumulated quite the gathering of guardians on the other side.

I sometimes imagine them around me. I sometimes FEEL them around me. Especially my fiancé – as he is never shy to tell me he is near. They are tall and expansive – much bigger than they ever were in this life. When I stumbled upon this tree a few weeks ago, I knew instantly that it communicated exactly what I wanted to show of this inner world of mine.

Everywhere I go, everything in life that I do, this is where I stand on the inside. Surrounded by the power and protection of these souls. All the parts of me are there – the part that is small and sad and still broken… she is curled softly amidst their feet… looking up to them and asking for help. Asking for them to help her feel safe and to show her the way.

The part of me that is strong and tenacious and determined is there too. She stands tall but never alone – always with a hand braced against them. Should anything try to knock her down, she knows… she will not ever fall far, for she will always only fall into the limbs of great guardians. This is my reality. My way of being in the world is to operate internally from this place of spiritual strength. It saves me, heals me, guides me, and allows me to embrace life more fully each day.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post.
Please share
 with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

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