The ache of loss and lingering aroma of deathless love
Words and images by Peter Bruun
A letter from a parent to a child who has died has particular resonance for me, especially when the sentiment expressed articulates a truth I have perhaps sensed myself but not quite named. Such was the case with this letter, from Caryn to her son, Robby, who had died after four years of illness. This question of narrative, arriving at one to live with – such has been my own quest since the passing of my daughter Elisif in 2014. We weave tales as best we can, and as writer Isak Dinesen noted, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” This drawing offers a kind of narrative, one where we who experience transformative grief are cloaked in blue, layers upon layers of it, becoming as familiar and form-fitting as any item of clothing. Our milestones shift from that of the living to those marked by our loss, each new pang of missing him or her a new patch of fabric to the quilt of our lives.
Fora deeper look at Caryn’s perspective, visit Any Way the Wind Blows, a blog geared toward families with a child managing a significant medical condition.
“I find myself reaching out to you again to contribute something more personal to your collection. It is with unbearable sadness that I come to you with a heavy grieving heart.” So begins the email I received from Brooke, who elected to share with me the letter to her husband, Zach, that she had read just the week before at his funeral, following his death at the age of 29 while in the line of duty as a firefighter. Throughout the span of this project, I have felt the weight of honoring all letters, but perhaps never more than in this case, with so much fresh grief, and an obvious seeking of healing in simply asking for a drawing. How to meet that? For starters, I made not one but five drawings from the letter, so deserving was the story of meeting in so many ways. In this one, I try to emphasize the idea of lifting with love – the red at the top Zach’s love, the green lines symbolic of Brooke’s rising – a rising I through my art prayed I could assist.
When one is making hundreds of drawing, it is always possible to fall into tropes, making one drawing after another from a kind of pre-ordained template, an approach that threatens the authentic honoring each inspiring letter deserves. When a letter expresses a particularly powerful sentiment, I am especially wary of this prospect – I have needed to dig deep to find fresh visual vocabulary to try to meet the words at the lofty place they are. In this case – from a Facebook post of Laura’s grieving the sudden and unexpected death of her husband months before – I venture into territory new for me: the green watercolor line blossoming into fields of colored stain, like a bilious scent rising – that feeling of the worst possible thing real and hovering like a nauseating cloud. I do not fully understand my own drawing here – why this form or that, and how it relates to Laura’s mourning – but I hope what is perceived is a kind of visual affirmation of what Laura writes; a justice done to her depths of grief.
Loss can be a private affair. The simplicity of this letter – “I love you because I do” – stands as a testimony to the simple fact of love. Steve loved Richard, and gave his all in care through Richard’s final years and especially the final months. At times, the unconditional love took on a martyr-like aspect, as all of Steve’s kindnesses and generosity were not always accepted magnanimously. But the love was pure. For this simple phrase from Steve uttered during that final month, I chose simple forms, and a quiet visual resolution: this was a private journey of the heart for Steve. Each formal element in this drawing is carefully considered: the dark lines swelling to astable shape, like a large, soft lap; the red bending form (Richard), bent and held close; the whole thing with the aspect of a Pieta, the ultimate expression of devotional love. And finally, the yellow light bubbling to the top – a kind of hallelujah of love, shining true and clean.