IMG_4877-002My eye was drawn to her eye, I recognized the deep sorrow and her reluctance to being captured and painted. I looked to her mate, his beak gently resting above her beak and the profound sadness of his eye and the heaviness of his wing, was it broken I wondered? The snow fell around them as they huddled together on a thin branch, alone.

I opened the blinds to the pale winter sun to make sure my eyes were not IMG_4900-004playing tricks on me. And there in the light, the grief of those cardinals painted by my own hand was so palpable it stopped my breath. Tears flooded my eyes blurring the images and I set my painting down to grab tissues and and try to absorb what my hand had so readily shared with the paint.

On a lark I had signed up for a painting party in January, I loved the cheerful snowman with his jaunty top hat and carrot nose making his way into town. Having not really painted before, I went with no expectation except to have fun, and drink wine. Our snowman was supposed to be making his way into town, my snowman ended up in the woods, he took a different path. I loved how free of expectations, my heart conspired to paint its own story. I came away from that first experience filled with peace and smiling. And eager to attend another painting party.

The perfect opportunity presented itself, an evening painting party featuring “Lovebirds,” two striking cardinals cuddled together on a snowy branch. We gathered in a small room and guided by the instructor started to create our canvas sized snowstorms with charming cardinals.

I knew from both research and experience that creativity helps open up the frontal lobes of the brain and provides opportunities for the brain to build new pathways and connections, a gentle way to break up what may be lodged in the primitive part of our brain. The death of a child takes those frontal lobes off-line and we live in survival mode, a heightened, adrenaline pumping state of being. Our deep and abiding relationships map our brains, Justin’s death required an entirely new mapping of our neural connections. Even with all my reading, I was unprepared for what broke loose and came to the surface through the medium of paint and brush strokes.

What I did not have the language to express, my heart shouted in paint.

Swirling red and brown paint together to create my cardinals on the waiting canvas, I had no conscious thought of what would happen next. I was totally engrossed in the texture of the paint, and the angled fibers of the long-handled brush, finding contentment in boldly creating their dear little faces with what I thought would be sassy beaks and laughing eyes.

Why was I shamed for grieving, why was I shamed for my grief taking so long?

Startled by her eyes as they peered back at me, I flinched in recognition of what I saw in her eyes and body. Shame. Confusion for being shamed. What I did not have the language to express, my heart shouted in paint. Why was I shamed for grieving, why was I shamed for my grief taking so long? Why was I shamed for my lack of faith. I see the hurt in my little bird’s eye? My child is dead, my brain fragmented, why does that make me open for ridicule and chastisement?

Grief is an untamed, unimaginably raw and powerful life force…

My feathered self leans into her mate, the unintentional shadowing creating his wing around her, his other wing weighted and heavy. I am struck by the profound beauty of our grief captured and suspended for a moment in time on canvas. Grief is an untamed, unimaginably raw and powerful life force, to taste the death of a child is to hold lightening in your hand. Ravaging and consuming what once was,  its elemental force forges new lives with its searing, burning energy.

My eyes lift to where my painting rests, a place of honor not shame. I am still in awe at the power that art and creativity has to reveal our deepest layers to ourselves. How the act of creating and bringing light and color to our wounded and confused hearts can be empowering and restorative.

Tenderness for those wounded birds overflows my heart, I know they will survive the storm.



Many thanks to Tina of Petite Picasso – Canvas Celebrations for providing such a warm and nurturing environment to enjoy the magic of painting.


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16 thoughts on “Painting the Shame

  1. Oh Terri, this is such a powerful post. Those poor birds, there is tremendous sadness in their faces and bodies, but also love and tenderness in their shared grief. Our culture puts so much pressure on people adhering to a timeline of grief but there is none, as you know. I’m glad the initial moment of shame have way to pride and honor and grace. It takes bravery and strength to stand with your eyes and heart so wide open.

    • Dear Dana,

      Thank you for the gift of your time and companionship on this journey! I treasure your words of encouragement about being brave. I am working through Brene’ Brown’s course and my go-to response is to “armor up” before entering the arena – taking off the armor is new for me. But I see the fruit of allowing vulnerability. Baby steps.

      Wishing you and your house a very peace filled week!

  2. What an (interesting just isn’t the right word – and amazing seems so cliché) post. Your painting is lovely and such an expression of emotion. I can’t paint a thing – did some folk art painting years ago – but other than that, I can only enjoy the art of others. I’ve studied some art- most notably the Spanish masters, and understand something of the expression of emotion in art. Love your post, as always. And love the birds. Blessings.

    • Thank you Deirdre! Studying the Spanish masters sounds lovely. I love going to art museums and traveling exhibitions to see different pieces, it always lifts the spirits.

  3. I am so sorry that anyone would ever make you feel ashamed of your grief. Those who would feel that way never lost a child. Grief never ends, ever. We simply manage to go on living, we even feel happiness again but that grief is always there under the surface and that is real and normal.
    This is so beautiful, you have such a gift of words and also have a talent for art. Please keep creating.

    • Dear Doreen,

      Thank you for the gift of your time to both read and write such beautiful words of affirmation and consolation. You have so much happening in your life right now, I am touched by your visit. Grief does sit right under the surface doesn’t it, I am slowly learning to scoot over and make room for it to sit with me.

      Thank you for your words of encouragement, I will remember them when I am tempted to hide away and disconnect.

      Wishing you a very peace filled day!

  4. You should never have to feel ashamed for your feelings. I love the painting, but I’ll never look at Cardinals the same way again.

    • Dear Rena, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I know your moments are precious and few, thank you for sharing them with me. This grief journey has been such a lesson on being human and the culture of shame in our world. I was watching my little cardinal out the window this morning, he had the feeder to himself – which is just how he likes it. But I too look at him differently now. Wishing you some moments of peace in your day.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this post. I recently lost my 13-year old daughter and am conscious of no longer wanting to take ‘selfies’ or be ‘seen’ by certain people in my life. Your cardinals remind me of how I must look to others. I’m so sorry for your loss and that we are both members in a club that nobody else wants to join. Grieve proudly, my friend.

    • Dear Tamara,

      I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter, there are no words. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, I know that energy is a precious commodity. I still get side-swiped by how much energy grieving takes. I remember the first time I saw a picture of myself after Justin’s death, it was kinda shocking. It is a club that no one wants to belong to, the Compassionate Friends was a wonderful lifeline for us to meet other members. I remember the first national conference we attended, we were so shell shocked. And I saw women there who had make-up on and their shoes matched and they weren’t afraid to cry and laugh all in the same breath. There were no strangers and all of a sudden, we weren’t strange either. It has taken me years, but yes, finally, I am grieving with my head held high. Thank you my friend for that affirmation. Keeping you close in thought, wishing you some gentle moments on this journey.

  6. The old adage a picture says a thousand words springs to mind. Sometimes when there are no words, there is an image. And such an achingly beautiful image, too. Thanks for sharing.

    • Dear Anne,

      Thank you for the gift of your time to visit and read. That adage is one of my favorites! So true.

    • Thank you Julie for the gift of your time to both visit and comment. And such a process it is, yes? Ever changing like the ocean. Thank you for your kind words. Wishing you a peace filled day.

  7. Beautiful- so beautiful. Isn’t that just awful – the shame? I had one person tell me after one year to stop pandering my grief. Ha. You grieve as long as you damn need to.

    • Oh Julia, that was a dreadful thing to have been told! Yes, we take as long as we need to! And thank you, I have become a bit of a painting event junkie. Painting brings me a peace and calm that I have not felt in a very long time.

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