Creativity and death can be good friends

Author: Trypheyna McShane, Art Therapist at Bear Cottage

21 March 2014
Trypheyna writes about the importance of using creativity during palliative care for both children and adults alike.
I’ve spent the majority of my life working as an artist in a multitude of different fields; I was a silversmith, a community artist as well as a wildlife artist for Zoological Parks Board of NSW. I then worked in waste and environmental education fields in local government, as well as creating commissions for high end international businesses. I certainly never expected to be working in the company of death.

As I explain in the Creativity in Grief chapter of my book The Intimacy of Death and Dying – Simple guidance to help you through:

“Sitting in the company of death may seem an unusual time to consider being creative, but as Julia Cameron says, ‘creativity, like human life itself, begins in darkness. In our darkest moments, if we allow our creative selves expression, we can often touch something far greater than ourselves and begin to let the light in. Everyone is an artist. Expressing yourself creatively is your birth right and gives voice to your soul.”

I personally believe that allowing our creativity expression is to allow our soul to speak. We have a sad lack of ‘soul speak’ in our world at the moment. We somehow believe that purchasing mass produced art will help heal the gaping wound inside of us, instead of trusting our own innate creativity, whatever expression it may take.

Why would an artist write a book about death and dying? Well actually it was life’s decision to keep putting death in front of me. In the end I could no longer ignore what I was being shown and instead learnt that there was something very important about understanding, and daring to stay in the company of death.  I am not a morbid type of person. I love life and I have learnt to love death as well.

Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I feel particularly privileged to now be working as an Art Therapist at Bear Cottage Children’s Hospice, witnessing the sheer joy of so many courageous families and staff intimately involved in creative memory making. No one doubts the importance or value of the beautiful creative expressions that come from the heartbreaking journeys of losing these children.

“Things don’t have to change the world to be important,” Steve Jobs explains.

I have been blessed to be in the company of both the living and the dying who have dared to allow their creative urges true expression in answer to death.

I remember clearly a little seven year old, whose company I was in right after his father died. He spent the whole day creating a magnificent artwork to go into his father’s coffin while reciting to me all his wonderful stories about his father.

And what of the beauty of the family who spent precious time with their dead eight year old son collecting both his and the family’s finger prints together. They then created two beautiful finger print tree artworks which now hold pride of place in their family home.

It was equally precious to witness the joy of a beautiful, unique and classy woman who directed all her creativity through the hands of another woman to make her own end of life gown.

Just recently I was honoured to experience the power of a young teenage girl just days before she died. She could no longer open her eyes and yet she put all the energy she could muster into working with us to create a last artwork for her mother.

I believe that creativity and palliative care are two vital supports needed together at the end of life.

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