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.