Art helped me face the storm of grief
It is a calm winter day with a deceitful sun barely touching the frosty ground. Inside me, there is a storm. I am in two places at once. I am in my house sitting at the desk and in the middle of a turbulent storm. Sometimes it gives me hope that it will soon pass but more often it thrushes me into the abyss of chilly darkness. I am grieving. Still am. After three years of losing my dad to dementia. They say it comes in waves, it eases off and pulls you in. I am being pulled with all its wicked might.
My dad was 83. In Ukraine where I am originally from, they would say:” What do you expect? He is lucky enough to reach this age. Go away. Our priority is youth”. The stigma towards people affected by dementia and the elderly in general is beyond belief. Till recently dementia was not even spoken about. The solution is a madhouse. “He is crazy, there is nothing we can do”.
So, we took him home and looked after him as much as we could, lacking knowledge, unprepared for physical labour associated with care but most for all mental challenges that lay ahead. He had been vanishing before he vanished, slowly fading like a flower, gasping for air, unable to absorb a drop of water.
I was an artist painting peaceful abstract landscapes, finding beauty in light and cascading waves. Suddenly curtains were pulled, and something changed within my core. I was numb first, running around on adrenaline, trying not to think about it, not to look at photos to trigger any memories. It worked for a while until guilt settled in. I didn’t tell him enough that I love him, I didn’t hug him enough, I was not with him when he sunk into unconsciousness. Why did we ever argue?
Then something shifted. I am a spiritual atheist. I can only explain this transformation within me as the universe sending me signs, my dad’s vibrational energy guiding me down a new path. I followed this voice without questioning or doubting it, just listened to the monologue in my head. Ideas started pouring. I was dreaming ideas, sitting at the dinner table eating ideas, working in my studio sketching them, seeing these ideas materialise. Neither landscapes nor colours coming to visit me, only dark, rusty wires, shattered bricks, limbs, and cobwebs of multiple wrinkles.
For the past two years my creative practice consisted of walking, looking and collecting. I go to building sites to meditate. What I find resonates with the unwanted, unloved and I immediately want to take care of it and incorporate it into my art, give it another chance. At least unlike my dad, IT can have another chance. Every little object I find is incomplete, used to belong to something bigger and had its own story.
I find crafting healing: bending, sticking, cutting, saving. Many thoughts came and went, many feelings felt. Every piece was taking a bit of grief away, helping me process the sadness. I faced this storm. It needs to be embarrassed and looked deeply at, “like mother is embracing her crying baby” (Thich Nhat Hanh). Isolating and treating grief as an illness will never work. It is a long individual journey and the only way to learn to live with it is to say hello to it. And walk, be swallowed by nature, feel its healing embrace, think how our bodies fertilise the rich soil and let the daffodils grow, dance as dust in the air and settle within our hearts. There is only transformation. Everything continues in a new form. Those who are lost continue to live within us. We see with their eyes and walk with their feet. Their life experiences, thoughts, actions, legacy are our building blocks. We are the stalactites of their memory.
Every time I step into my studio, I feel closer to my dad. I use clothes belonging to him and my mum’s photographs together in one piece to bring them close. I am curious about grief, ageing and the impact of dementia. How it shapes us, how apprehensive we are of the beauty of ageing, how unaware of the realities of dementia.
My creative practice slowly started to shape my true purpose and authenticity. Its value develops my humility, learning and opportunities. I am only an emerging artists trying to work things out, passionate about helping others, aiming to raise awareness and make an impact, staying true to my values. I am an active supporter of open conversations about death through death cafes and other events. I am the Ambassador of Arts4Dementia, the leading organisation providing creative opportunities for people with early-stage dementia and their carers.
My solo exhibition Vanishing point took place in the Crypt Gallery in October 2021 as a personal story of loss. Throughout this event, I had many touching conversations with strangers who shared their emotional stories and were curious to know more about my art. This inspired me to reach out to the community and include their stories in my work.
#griefletterproject- an ongoing community project promoting grief support. The aim is to write a letter to the one who you lost. It is a deeply painful meditation. It took me two years to write a letter to my dad. There were so many things I wanted to say, regrets to shed, confessions to make, impossible questions to ask. Why do you write a grief letter? You are empowering yourself to do something with your grief, show yourself self-compassion and build a new relationship with the person you lost. Writing practice is widely used as a healing exercise. Flow writing helps you dive into your subconscious and pull the thoughts hiding in the shadows. The letters will be arranged in the art installation and responded to through different mediums to create a powerful emotional experience, sharing challenges, ideas, and beliefs.
My art is not always aesthetic or adding to the interior décor, but it is meaningful and authentic. I share myself with the world. This vulnerability is both scary and rewarding.
I am hoping to gently touch everyone who opens their heart to my work. To listen. In the end, my art is my dad’s legacy. I feel his presence every day when I continue to examine this compost of suffering forcing me to live my daily life deeply aligned to my purpose.
If you would like to take part in the #griefletterproject please contact the artist with your address to receive a pack firstname.lastname@example.org or get mode details on the website https://www.nataliamillmanart.com/griefletter
If you would like to know more about Arts 4 Dementia and their creative workshops for people with early-stage dementia please check https://arts4dementia.org.uk/