Picturing Grief

by Rebecca Fish Ewan
published in Reading

As the world enters into a winter of COVID, grief hangs over so many people, it’s hard to know how to comfort others, to console oneself, to anticipate the next loss coming round the bend. 

It seems ridiculous to say with any kind of certainty what’s best to do in these shifting, traumatic and disruptive times that very few of us have any equivalent experience to fall back on.

But we share the grief as human beings. We respond to loss in ways that unite us through our humanity, through our capacity for empathy, even when isolated by physical distance.

Two books released this year offer glimpses into the place where grief resides, reading both together gave me a sense of hope and lightened my heart with their humor and loveliness.


Review of Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Dancing at the Pity Party: a dead mom graphic memoir by Tyler Feder, invites the reader into her life when she was in her first year away at college and learned her mom had stage-four ovarian cancer. Feder offers an intimate and honest view of her family as they navigated through chemotherapy, hospital stays, her mom’s death in 2009, and the decade that followed as Feder began to turn her life experience into this beautiful book. Every page is a delight and many made me laugh out loud, not in that laughing-at-a-funeral-feeling-inappropriate way, more the laughter that comes from the surprise of human candor or the delight of being shown another human being’s true self.

Dancing at the Pity Party not only tells the story of one young woman coping with loss and grief, but also gives good instruction on the do’s and don’ts for dealing with a grieving person. In fact, there’s a list on page 110 that addresses precisely this concern. Do, for example, “ask them questions about their loved one.”  But don’t “compare their loss to yours unless the situations are EXTREMELY similar.”

This is Tyler Feder’s first sole-authored book in comics art form, but she has illustrated books for other authors, including Unladylike: a field guide to smashing the patriarchy and claiming your space, a 2018 book written by Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin that is now on my how-am-I-just-now-learning-about-this-book? shelf.  

Reading Dancing at the Pity Party is like being hugged by a child, a favorite aunt or a best friend, the kind of hug that immediately makes you feel like you’re okay even when life hurts.

An Interview with Laraine Herring, author of The Grief Forest

The Grief Forest by Laraine Herring follows a bunny’s journey to meet the many forms of grief and grief responses. It pairs a brief narrative with her drawings to create a very approachable story about “what we don’t talk about.” Herring and I both hail from Arizona and had met at writing events and workshops, but it wasn’t until this summer, when I took her online writing workshop, “Grieving into Life: writing raw in the time of the pandemic,” that I came to appreciate the depth of her expertise as a grief counselor. For this post, I interviewed her about The Grief Forest.

RFE: How did you decide on the scope of grief that the book addresses?

LH: Bunny’s particular grief is the loss of a parent, but her journey through The Grief Forest puts her in contact with a multitude of different aspects of grief—sudden loss, anticipatory grief, deflected and denied grief, intergenerational trauma, etc. In the company of her mentor, Death, she’s being given windows into lots of different ways people respond to grief. For example, when Robin’s egg doesn’t hatch and she says, “I did everything right!,” this could connect to someone’s miscarriage, or a long-term illness where the treatments ultimately did not work, or it could apply to the loss of a dream or a plan (enter COVID!) I wanted the book to address a variety of types of grief and a variety of stages along the grief process so that it could be used in a therapeutic sense as well as for a personal journey. 

In my own graphic memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, I grappled with the grief I had carried for years from the murder of a childhood best friend when I was fifteen. Creating the book made me look at grief more deeply and I came to understand it as more complicated than the so-called five stages of grief that leads one to think of grief as a thing that ends. If I had met Laraine Herring sooner, I might not have taken forty years to get that I was still grieving. I asked her about the differing ways of experiencing grief.

LH: Grief has many aspects. There’s an acute phase (the surging ocean), and then there’s the ways it lives with us for the rest of our lives (the lake). No one experiences grief in the same way, and grief ebbs and flows throughout a person’s life. There is no end-point. If we loved a person and they die, we will always have moments where we miss them and wish things were different. Even for me, 33 years after my dad’s death, there are still some moments of that acute phase. It doesn’t last as long as it did back then, but sometimes just the right song or the right scent will rip the skin back again. Many of the animals Bunny meets are in various stages of “stuck”. Bunny is also stuck. Bunny’s complicated mourning is manifesting through intense attachment to the deceased and an inability to adjust to the reality of a world without her dad. Animals like Whale and Spider Monkey are “stuffers”. They’ve absorbed all their losses and tucked them neatly away. Of course, that’s only sustainable for so long. The Startled Kittens at the beginning of her journey represent the shock of the news—how we can get swept away by emotion and be untethered. As Bunny moves through the Forest (which magically becomes an ocean in Act 2!), the animals transition from grievers to guides, each one offering an insight on how to approach living with grief (which is decidedly different from the “get over it” messaging). This is not to say that we will be devastated, sad, and angry our whole lives. If we move into our grief and learn how to address it, ask it questions, and listen to its wisdom, grief also moves from being a weight to being a guide, as evidenced by Bunny’s ability to work with grievers and her own grief story by the end.

RFE: Picturing grief as a tethered balloon and also as the colored air within it was really illuminating. How did you arrive at this image?

LH: Before becoming aware of the environmental damage of balloons, releasing balloons in grief groups was very common. The balloon represented the griever’s loss and then it was released to the sky. I didn’t consciously think about this, but I have done so many grief groups that I think it was a natural image waiting in my subconscious. I wanted something playful and colorful to represent what is often so heavy, and I wanted an image that could change—the balloons lose their strings in Act 3, although if you notice, every single animal, even Grandmother Bunny, has their own griefs nearby. I wanted to visually represent that grief isn’t “gone.” It informs who we become, and we have the choice as to how to use this energy when we meet it.

RFE: How do you imagine people might use your book in processing grief or helping others process their grief?

LH: I’m working on a companion book: The Map to the Grief Forest: a guide for grievers and groups. I wanted the images to be the primary springboard into conversations about grief and the sharing of grief stories. If you think about using the illustrations through the lens of an art therapist, we can discuss what we notice. Where are the grief balloons? What colors are used? Is it light or dark? What is the proximity of animal to grief? People can draw their own images of their grief story (and I want to put together a workshop that does this). I think the text helps anchor readers in the particular parts of the grief process, but each person is going to have a different way of relating. I hope to see this book in clinical settings, hospices, educational centers, hospitals, and with individuals. I put illustrations on every page because I wanted the book to feel joyful, even though the subject matter is serious. I wanted there to be that sense of play and wonder, and I hoped that because the illustrations are so imperfect, they will not intimidate other people. I wanted the “soul” of each animal to come through, and I hoped that the animals’ souls would connect to the grievers’ souls and create space to breathe.

RFE: Humanity is grieving right now from all the loss of lives and disruption of life due to COVID-19. Can you reflect on what people can do with the many grief balloons they’re tangled in because of the pandemic?

LH: The book exists because of COVID-19. I couldn’t really put two sentences together, so I started to teach myself Procreate on the iPad and behold, a Bunny arrived. I felt so strongly the amount of different kinds of griefs emerging as both primary and secondary losses of COVID. I wanted to make something that created a space for grief that was open-ended and bright. I certainly am in the middle of the waves of grief these days too—so much time alone, teaching only through screens, missing my mother, missing trips we’d planned, seeing the economic and climate devastations—and hidden in all of those from time to time pops up my dad again. I think it’s important for folks to recognize that a grief response to times of chaos, upheaval, and change is absolutely normal. It is not a pathological response. Grief is a stress response—and we’re certainly in the middle of a whole lot of stressors. Grief requires adjustment and adaptation skills, and even those of us who are practiced in that are struggling right now. The grief response often involves things like: brain fog, forgetting things, fatigue, and (insert your avoidance-coping-mechanism-of-choice) (Mine is Doritos…). Add the unbelievable amount of screen time we all are engaged in, and it’s easy for our systems to hit overwhelm. 

1. Recognize that these times are not “normal” and having a response to them IS normal.

2. Practice compassion and patience for yourself and other people.

3. Practice discernment around what actually MUST happen versus what we’re conditioned to do in a particular day.

4. When a strong emotion arises, allow yourself to feel it (safely). It will pass if it is allowed to move. Too often, we clamp down on it because it scares us, and so it starts swimming around the body taking other shapes.

5. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to seek outside help. One of the surprising components of grief is that because it is a stress response, it releases oxytocin, which is popularly known as the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin helps us reach out for social support. It’s pretty amazing that our stress response has a built-in mechanism to help us find the thing that is most valuable. I know that with COVID, our social networks and activities have been dramatically curtailed, and that has further complicated people’s lives. I’ve started writing handwritten letters again, and that has helped me. I call people on the phone more instead of text (but not Zoom – GAH!!!!) 

RFE: Final thoughts?

LH: I’m thinking these days about how, though it seems the world is in many ways contracting, we might find expansion in the specificity of our single, beautiful lives.

Yes to that.

Rebecca Fish Ewan, a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Tempe with her family. Her cartoon/free verse memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, is her grief response to a childhood trauma. Her new book, Doodling for Writers, just released through Books by Hippocampus. You can connect with her at rebeccafishewan.com or on IG @doodlescriptorium

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