Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

Five years ago my mother passed away after a long illness.  It was hard to watch her decline, yet there was so much light and healing that shined into that last year.  We took lots of naps together.  We held hands and closed our eyes content to just be side by side.  Content is just the best word, isn’t it?

And we read novels out loud.  Novels that were so good, I would drive to see her again at night just to read a few more pages.   Our favorite was The Secret Life Of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  We saw the world through the eyes of 14-year-old Lilly Owens. The author’s words became our words.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

Right before my mother died, I started to create an altered book using this very copy of The Secret Life of Bees I had read aloud to her.

I loved thinking that the words that left my mouth and went into my mother’s imagination would become an art journal filled with pockets and places for me to work through my feelings and thoughts.  The words that soothed her would heal me too.

I’m glad I started this altered book before she passed away.  I love touching the first few pages knowing she was here when I wrote them.  As much as we both loved this story, I never told her I was altering the book. I did this quietly and instinctually. It was my place to remember moments that brought me comfort.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

“When I was little, you said I could be president, an astronaut, anything I wanted, imagined, worked hard enough for.  You scattered encouragement over my bed while placing chocolates in the palm of my hand.”

And it was a place I could write what I dared not say out loud.

“Like all your things, you are disappearing.”

Looking back, this process helped heal me in a way nothing else could.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara
Me/Mom….me at 9 getting my hair brushed. I look like such an imp. She looks determined. That photo of her in that black cocktail dress is my image of my mom growing up. Very put together. It made her decline that much harder for me to watch.

And it was a process. I gently tore pages out, painted over what was left, moved words around, and then put words and sentences back as prompts. I wrote directly onto the pages, censoring nothing.  If I misspelled a word, I glued a piece of paper over it and rewrote it.  Each thought was exactly how it rushed out of me.

And Sue Monk Kidd’s amazing words pushed me along as if I was thinking them. I used some of her words as prompts on these painted pages.  “And that’s how I fell asleep, lying there with my mother’s things.”  Yes.  That was how I fell asleep.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

We all need a place where we can honor our feelings of loss. This book is that place for me. I went away by myself for three days after my mother died to work on it. What a quiet healing time that was.  I painted in silence, sewed paper and threads, collaged, pasted and wrote quickly without thinking too hard.  Every word and stitch put a piece of me back together.  It was a new “together”.  Whole.  Accepting.

Five years later, I still write notes to my mother and stick them in the pockets I hand sewed. I know she reads them. They sit between some of the pages I once read aloud to her.  They sit between the pages that comfort me still.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

Here are some things I want to share with you to create your own altered book.  

  • Pick a hardcover book that is meaningful to you.
  • You will only be using about 15% of the pages.  They get very thick from painting and sewing.  I used 28 pages in the book I created in honor of my mother, plus the inside covers. I carefully choose the pages I wanted to alter and gently pulled out the others, keeping them to the side to be used in the book later.
  • Go and get all the little bits and pieces you save. They will play a major role in your altered book, such as photographs, stamps, letters, old artwork, bits of string or fabric.  On my book cover, is the label from a candle I saved forever. I had no idea why I saved it for so long, but now I do.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

  • I used acrylic paints (leftover mistake or wall paint) and gesso on the pages.
  • Sometimes the pages will stick together.  Gently separate them.  I love how that looks.
  • Tags and button holders from clothing are perfect for altered books.  Keep the words that mean something to you and then add some of your own.  Punch holes in them, add string and put them to the sewn pockets in your book.

Healing Loss Through Art: A Recipe for Letting Go, Colleen Attara

Editor’s note: I want to take a minute to wrap my virtual arms around Colleen and give her a huge hug and thanks for writing this post for us as her first OMHG contribution! Sharing loss so openly online like this is courageous and beautiful. We all have moments when we need to navigate dark places in our hearts but creativity and community make shining a light into those corners so much more joyful. Please visit with us and share your own experiences with creativity and healing in the comments…What stories of loss are you carrying that you want to heal through art? Has your creativity ever been a safe place to work through heavy thoughts or experiences? Or like Sue Monk Kidd asks in The Secret Life of Bees:

“Have you ever written a letter you knew you could never mail but you needed to write it anyway?” 

Selected quotes reprinted from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Copyright © 2002.

30 comments

  1. Jenelle says:

    It’s never easy when you loose someone you love, though today reading your post I’m smiling through the tears. Thank you for sharing your healing journey with all of us and encouraging all to express themselves through creativity. Your beautiful memories are forever bound within the tear stained pages that echo her laughter and I love yous.

  2. Anile, Nicole, Jenelle, Brett, Nikki, Lori-Ann, Stephanie and Jessika..thank you all for making it so easy to share this altered book here in this creative safe haven.

    We are all blessed to be able to lean into our creativity daily…and have outlets for self expression.

    When I write down what I am grateful for today, I will list you all. xo

  3. I shut myself off to the world with my headphones on when I read this, I wanted to absorb each and every word and take as much care reading it as Colleen obviously took writing it.
    How you’ve channeled your grief into something you can hold, read and see is a great way of keeping a huge part of your mother in your memory, and you will cherish that paper more than any luxury item you could ever buy.
    It will be the 3rd anniversary of loosing my mother at the end of Feb, and the biggest help to push me on was one of the final conversations I had with her as we had breakfast in bed together ‘Just GO FOR IT Pen!!’…3 months after we lost her, I did just that and launched Bonnie Blackbird,. It hurts she will never be here to go through it with me, but I truly believe she knows and that in itself encourages me every, single, day to keep going.

    All the best Colleen xx Penny

    • Jessika says:

      So many beautiful comments here! I am beyond happy to see Colleen’s story of healing be welcomed by our loving community! It is magic to me how we can make a space here to share not only the pretty in our lives, but the painful too…and explore how sometimes the two overlap. Thank you for opening the door to having this conversation Colleen!

      @Penny, I can’t imagine how painful it must be to loose your mama-I’m giving you a big squish through the internet (can you feel it?!). I can see her cheering you on as you just GO FOR IT. Even though I lost her when I was 16, over 14 years ago now, I feel my Nana with me every time I make art and it is such a comfort to know that we can choose to keep the best bits of what we lose. Our creativity is such a blessing! We can take our history and hopes, transform them into something beautiful, then release them. Thank you for sharing your story with us, we are here too, cheering you on to keep going:)

  4. Bumpkin says:

    I lost my Mum 10 years ago when i was only 27, so i really feel your loss and how you cherished all those last moments. I have a special box for all my mum’s letters, cards, photos. We both loved vintage books, winnie the pooh always making us laugh. Maybe i could try to help heal making a special book too. Thank you for your bravery sharing this. Sending the biggest hugs, catherine x

  5. Elora says:

    This is a brilliant idea. And so sweet! I admit I say this as a exuberant storyteller, but I think this would make a wonderful story. Certainly is giving me ideas! I’ll have to write it down before it gets away from me….
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Laura, Pippa, Pascale, Julie & Sandy… great big hugs. Thank you all for your support. My heart is singing.

    Catherine (Bumpkin) …Yes indeed. You have an amazing altered book in the making. Please keep me posted. I promise, it will be so healing and good.

    Penny, you honor your mother every day that you live your life authentically. So very happy to meet you here. xo ps. She does know. I am certain.

    Elora…love story telling. So glad you are inspired. Just what I wanted. Do share.

    Karen, you were there through it all. I am blessed and grateful. xoxox

    Jess…Your Nana is cheering you on. She must have loved Alt. I see an altered book in your future. What makes them so special is they are a work in progress. Like us all.

  7. Tania, I got your big hug and sweet words. Love them both…thank you. It makes me really happy to share this and hope that my story may encourage others to heal and honor through an altered book. The words in this book were so perfect to use.

    Sue and Lorrie….your kind words and encouragement are so appreciated. Art is so powerful when we let it move us.

  8. Darice says:

    I wish I could tell you how extremely moving this was for me. My own mother passed away 6 years ago and those last months together were just as you described. So content. So beautiful. So bittersweet. <3

    My mom's illness (ALS) made it hard for her to speak, so we would listen to books on CD together and watch silly romantic comedies (her favorite). Having lost my father when I was only 12, and landing in an alternative arts school as a therapy, I cannot believe I never intentionally turned to art during / after my mothers journey…such an amazing amount of healing could have occurred there. (I was diving deep into yoga, though.)

    It's funny, we often say after we lose someone that we shouldn't take people for granted…as creatives it's easy to take our creativity for granted…when it should be treated with the same love / care – after all it is a part of our being.

    I'm rambling, but thank you for this post and for sharing your story…

  9. Darice,

    Your words and story mean so much to me.

    Maybe you can pick one of the movies that you watched together in book form…and alter that. I think that would be so beautiful as you paint and recall moments.

    Healing is a life long process. It is never too late to use art to express our feelings.

    My father passed away when I was 29.

    Please keep in touch….

    Colleen

  10. Evy Lina says:

    I think providence brought me to this page today. Your art is so personal, so sacred! Your books are a place of rest and peace. Ever since I was little, I instinctively gathered all my “treasures” in a box, now old and even more beautiful. They carry so much energy in them, it is amazing! Thank you for sharing your beautiful story about love and healing. Blessings from Italy!

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