The End of Grief Landscapes...for now.

Almost exactly two years ago, on September 24, 2014, my friends Lindsay and Adam lost their son Miles. As I’ve written about before, I felt so helpless when he died, and I wanted to do everything I could to support them, and to understand what they were going through. Being with and listening to Lindsay in the immediate aftermath of Miles’ death set me on a course to explore all of the different ways people grieve and learn to live with loss in the way I know best: by talking to people and making art about it.

It’s been kind of a crazily intense and extremely meaningful journey for me making this work, and now Grief Landscapes is coming to an end in less than two weeks. I’ve been posting people’s stories and the photographs I’ve made in response since January 1st, and I have two more stories to post, for a total of 40. (My original plan was to make 52 photographs, one for each week of the year, but as often happens, the project evolved. 40 feels like the right stopping point for now, although I'll likely add some more stories in the future.) 

Working on Wedding Ring from Grief Landscapes

Working on Wedding Ring from Grief Landscapes

I received many more stories than I could make images for, and I am so grateful to everyone who shared their grief with me. It reminded me that even though the project grew out of tragedy, there were so many positive ripple effects from making this work and putting it out into the world. Countless people told me that reading the stories helped them feel less alone, or gave them hope, or taught them what to say or not say to someone who is grieving. And the collaborations I had with the participants were almost magical, which might sound strange, but I think the experience of having a total stranger hear their pain and reflect it back to them through art was validating for many people. And I felt truly honored to be trusted in this way.

So what’s next? In terms of the project, my dream is to publish Grief Landscapes as a book—a lot of people have mentioned that they would like to see it in book form, and I would love for the project to find a wider audience. And in the near future, I’ll also start offering similar images on commission. The process has been healing for so many people, so I look forward to creating new macro landscapes in memory of someone (or in honour of someone, for an anniversary or a birthday). I’m also gestating some new ideas on different topics, which are too new to start discussing publicly, but I’m excited about them. Stay tuned.

Wedding Ring

 

Wedding Ring, 2016

 

Name: KS

Tell me about the person who died: 

My husband was on a mountain climbing trip when an earthquake hit. Large pieces of the mountain fell and crushed several climbers, and he died. 

He was my best friend. We had known each other for 15 years before we got married, and had similar values and temperaments. 

He was also a supportive partner. I am Asian and many of us are still pretty traditional. Even among my generation, there are certain traditional expectations that remain in many of our psyches, such as the onus of housekeeping being on the woman, whether she works or not. Given this, I really appreciated his non-traditional view that both partners play an equal role in housekeeping and child-rearing. Because I had his full support, I was able to pursue a demanding career and yet feel secure as a wife and mother.

Part of my regret is that my children will never see what a good man their father was. Though I know they can also see good values embodied in other people like myself or their aunts and uncles, I wish they could experience what it is like growing up with a father who truly believed in gender equality and the need for female empowerment in our society.

What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?

I felt completely lost for a while, regarding my identity, purpose, priorities, what needs to be done, and how to do things that were usually his job, like the bills. Now I am in the middle of forging a new sense of self, and learning how to do things I never knew how to do before. It feels overwhelming at times, but I just tell myself, “Who would have thought I'd know how to do this?” and press on. 

For a long while I couldn't feel much of anything apart from grief. Often I would smile at or play with my children, while being conscious of feeling numb inside. Though this sensation remains, I have also begun to able to feel grateful about the little blessings.

Most of all, I feel that my grieving is... stunted? I felt as though I never was able to mourn for him properly as I was pregnant and then busy with caring for my children while working and settling all the necessary and numerous post-death matters. I look forward to the future when my children are grown up and I can go off somewhere just to mourn for him for as long as I want.

If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?

I associate my grief with darkness. It is nights that I miss him the most; when we would come home and be with the children, when we would put them to bed, when we would have our quiet time together. It is nights now when I finally have some quiet time to mourn for him, to grieve and think of him, to pray for him.

When I look forward to having the time and opportunity in the future where I can go off somewhere to finally mourn for him as long as I want, I imagine it inexplicably as an airport hotel overlooking the runway, or a chalet by the beach. Maybe it is because they remind me of places we often found ourselves, or maybe I unconsciously find something soothing about planes in flight and the sea.

Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?

Due to the nature of his death, I couldn't see his body. Also, he died in another country, and when his body arrived, he had to be buried almost immediately. I literally had only minutes with him during the funeral. 

But before the funeral began, someone passed me his wedding ring. It was a simple and broad titanium band. It was badly chipped. When I saw it, I broke down. Part of it was grief, but part of it was gratitude to that person who had thought it important to return it to me. 

How have the people in your life supported you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?

I found people who gave me space most helpful. I found people who imposed themselves on me frustrating. And I found people who belittled my feelings hurtful.

How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?

Some people talked about him or their grief about his death openly. That was how they coped. For me it was different. I could not and did not like to talk about it. A year on, and I still dislike talking about it, though I am better able to now.

How has your private grieving related to your public mourning?

They are unrelated. Generally I do not show my grief publicly and go about my life as usual. But that makes living exhausting.

Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?

I am a Muslim. We believe that while God gives us free will, a few things are predetermined like our time of death. That helped stop me from dwelling on thoughts like, "If only he hadn’t gone on that trip.” I also took comfort that he died on a day and in a way that was described in the Quran as a “good” day and way to die. So that helped me to be less self-absorbed in my grief as I reminded myself that there are signs his death might have brought him eternal bliss. I cannot know for sure, of course, but since he was destined to die that moment, it could have been worse... God took him in ways that seem blessed, and for that hope I am thankful.

Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?

Scheduling, time management: this helped me to manage my life and my children better and gave me some sense of control and accomplishment, reinforcing the belief that I can do this on my own.

Having my own time at night, after the children are asleep or between night feedings. To cry, to mourn, to talk to him or to God.

Putting my phone away when I feel particularly weak. Communicating “normally” with people or surfing the web somehow sap my energy. So staying away from my phone helps me to conserve energy and I get back to it when I feel stronger.

How has your loss and your experience of grief changed you?

It shifted my priorities—how I live and why I live. I used to want it all: family, career, friends, everything. Now I just live for my children, and have very little desire for anything else. 

It has made me weaker, and stronger. Before, I could never have imagined the dark depths my mind has gone into, and yet my ability to come out of it each time has made me better realize my strengths.


This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.