Coping with loss: Artwork helped me heal

Liz’s younger sister was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that forms inside the body cavities and around the vital organs–she was not yet 30.

“By the time they found it, the cancer was touching all of her organs,” Liz recalls. “She went through major surgery, which gave her four to five years.”

Liz knew that her entire family would have to help her sister Rebecca through her illness, but she wasn’t sure she would know what to do. But as is the case when caring for somone you love, crisis forced Liz to discover things about herself that she had never explored, including her limitations. Because her sister she was always incredibly hopeful, she did not want people crying around her. “She was very much, ‘if you are going to cry, I can not talk to you,’ and she would not talk to me for a month until I could gain my composure.”

Liz learned to restrict her emtions through helping her sister. Becoming the person that her sister needed, fulfilled her own needs. Although she had recently completed graduate school to figure out who she was, it was the time she spent with her sister that taught her true confidence in her capabilities.

“I think that is what is so amazing about the experience is that I walked away, obviously really grief stricken and really upset that I had lost this person. But I had this experience that tested who I was.”

After her sister’s death, LIz went back to work. Althogh this seemed impossible, she reminded herself, “All I have to do is make sure these kids are safe and that I am teaching them, but my 100% may be different today.” She got to a certain point where getting up in the morning, going to work, and going through the motions became part of the healing process. Eventually motions become beacons of stregth.

The instant she found out her sister was sick, Liz’s idenity as an artist undrewent a transformation. “I was still making art because it’s something I have to do, but all of the critique talk that went on in graduate school went out the window. I found myself making work and taking that time to reflect and quite myself down.”

Her artwork became a physical form of how she was dealing with the pain. It also became a way to integrate part of her sister into her own life. “My sister decided what she wanted to do and she made it happen. Now with my own life, when I sit back at the end of the day and I say, ‘What have I done and where do I want to be,’ it comes down to the fact I want to make art and I want to teach.”

Like many of us who have lost loved ones, Liz kept seeing her sister in all sorts of things and people after she died. Liz and her sisters would believe that Rebecca was giving them a sign if the lights flickered in the room.

The arch continues to change–she’s now at a point where doesn’t need that shape anymore. “The shape I am seeing now is a circle or an oval, and I guess you could say it is completeness.”

Liz just sold her first big piece and it is of an arch. The woman she sold it to asked her to explain what it was. Although she typically leaves interpretation to the viewer, Liz felt like she had to tell her. After explaining the story, the women explained that her husband had passed away from cancer several years ago, it was a beautiful and intimate moment.

Liz’s advice to other people who are helping someone with cancer is, “You really just need to give this person what they need. She told us what she needed and we did it to the best of our abilities. All you have to do is make it through the day, that’s all you have to do.”

There is no easy way to get through traumatic events, but there are some things to keep in mind while time heals the wounds. Understand symptoms, how to care for yourself, and how to recover, check out these tips at the University of Iowa.

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