Making Art to Manage Grief

After a four-year battle with cancer, my beautiful, talented, kind stepdaughter – and Muse – Melanie Ham died a few weeks ago. Throughout her battle, and our attempts to manage the looming loss and grief, I made art as a respite.

Creativity and audiobooks re-routed my anxious thoughts and cushioned me with micro-moments to breathe inside my obsession over her failing health.

Grief feels like walking underwater; heavy limbs, muffled sound, grainy light, and muted color. All of our Familiars now feature a sharp, unaccustomed absence. Moments of previously unfettered joy are stuttered with hesitancy now: How can I laugh when I feel so sad?

I knew this already, but it has been profoundly confirmed to me: Artmaking and the deliberate practice of creativity is a safe, grounded haven from the earthquake of endings.

Melanie has been my favorite model for almost 3 decades
Melanie – posing for me in 1993, and with her wonderful husband and children last year.

Make Paintings of the People You Love

Making art – even when I wasn’t making it yet – has always guided my attention. (My artistic journey meandered/stalled for years.) I started photographing Melanie to make ‘future’ paintings of her when she was eight years old. I have 28 years and thousands of art-intended photos of her in my reference folder. They all mean something very different for me now.

When Melanie was a teenager, I used to trade her early-morning posing time for a tank of gas in her car (or pancakes). The painting at the top of this post was from an early morning photo session in 2004.

As she got older, my preferences for reference photos became less posed and more candid. She never balked when I aimed my camera at her during family gatherings. She knew she was my muse, and I learned how to paint with the gracious help of her willowy figure and lovely face.

Paint a Path Through Grief

I’ve written about the joy of making paintings of the people you love (you can read posts about painting your family here and taking more photos of your own tribe here). Painting from those photographs becomes a way to spend time with my favorite people, and you can do that too, in the quiet alone-time of your creative space.

Flip through your family albums, and scan inspiring images of your tribe from recent gatherings. Observe people and poses in photos snapped decades ago – or explore vintage images before your time.

Now, more than ever, making art from images of Mel in my photo stash will be a salve for the empty space her death has left in my heart.

Blended Families

Fairy tales and blended family distress stories depict stepmothers and stepdaughters in a strained, jagged light. When I mention that I have stepchildren, I can count on seeing curiosity that leans towards assumed conflict.

In case you’re wondering about that – my husband Don’s children are *my* kids – not by birth, but by Heart. They are his kids, their mom’s kids, and my kids, all shared together. Loving each of them, and their spouses is a galaxy of twinkle-heart stars in my life, and I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything. All those years of memories – and artmaking – will be a tool I can use to soften the sharp edges of this grief.

I’ve been absent from blogging and social media posts for a long time due to circumstances at home that consumed my attention.

I look forward to easing back into sharing with you here. Your patience and support are much appreciated.

I hope you and your loved ones are all happy and healthy as we approach the next season of artmaking together.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post –

Belinda

P.S You can follow my son-in-law Robert Ham over here.

Art Quote

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

Walt Whitman
a row of artists' paint brushes lined up

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52 thoughts on “Making Art to Manage Loss and Grief”

  1. Kevin Ross Middleton

    Dear Belinda .
    Having just discovered you earlier today I am so sorry for your loss .
    Your words were so beautiful it made me sob my heart out .
    Your are a very talented and I’m sure an inspiration to so many . Many hugs a kisses x

  2. There are simply no words to say to someone who has lost such a treasure. But I am sad that you have lost your beautiful step-daughter. I’m so sorry.

    I am praying for you, and her family and friends left behind. Comfort. Rest. Acceptance. And fond memories.

    —David

  3. Shelley Brown

    Watercolor mixed with tears – such a feeling way to experience grief. Thank you for the deep sharing. All of us who have experienced grief are reaching out to give you a big warm virtual hug.

  4. So incredibly sad, Belinda – I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for this loving tribute and encouragement for all of us to treasure every day with our loved ones and to use our art to hold them close. Peace be with you.

  5. Belinda, I am so sorry to hear of your tremendous loss! I lost my husband to cancer in 2018, and since have painted him twice. Art is healing. They are gone, but never forgotten.

    1. Belinda, I read this post yesterday and it left me speechless. I am so very, very sorry for your loss. What a gift you gave to her! Growing up is so hard and to have someone’s unending love, to be someone’s muse, to have their support… what a wonderful gift to Melanie. To be a teenager who has been photographed and painted over and over has got to give with it a sense of self-assurance and self-acceptance. Her life was way too short, but it sounds like her life was filled to the brim with love. I am thinking of you all as you move through your grief. I am thankful that you have each other for support. Sending the very warmest thoughts your way.

  6. Melanie was my crochet fairy and I will never forget her ❤ she was a truly special human being, touched the lives of so many people around the world with her grace and kindness. I felt devastated when I heard that she had lost her battle and I can only imagine how hard it has been for all her loved ones to see her leave so soon. Creativity can indeed be of great comfort. I’m sending warm hugs to you from Switzerland, Alessia

  7. The vulnerability of love…how very well said, Belinda, in a time of grief and sorrow. Best.

  8. I am so sorry to read of your devastating loss. I never painted my boys, but have tons of photos. Thank you for sharing Melanie with us through your art. And thank you for the inspiration to paint our loved ones.💗

  9. My deepest condolences for the loss of your precious daughter. I will know an angel is helping me with my granny squares!! Sending prayers for you and your family. 🙏

  10. Dear Belinda,
    I’m so incredibly sorry for your heartbreaking loss, and grateful for this beautiful, brave post.
    I love your paintings of Melanie, and the story of her as your muse and one of your favourite models.
    I feel like I’ve seen and loved many of these paintings. Thank you for your grace and kindness in
    sharing these.

    Sending love and hugs from Toronto.
    XOXOXOXOXOXOXO Barbara

  11. My heart is achey and my eyes teared up reading your blog that came in my inbox today. You are so right about painting through grief. Making those paintings is a kind of prayer and a meditation that allows your fond memories of the dear and departed soul to revisit the essence of who they were. Thank you for sharing all of this with those who follow you. May each day shine a little bit brighter, and may the deep ache and vacuum left behind lessen as time continues to pass. Thank you for painting through it and sharing with us, Belinda. May God hold you and your family in His palm.

  12. Phyllis Elliott

    Dearest Belinda, thank you for this. Melanie could not have had a more beautiful tribute than the tender words and loving images you posted. Now we all understand how, growing up in your and Don’s care, she herself became your most exquisite work of art, and we stand with you weeping for her loss. Melanie made the world around her more beautiful. As you continue painting her, that beauty will continue to touch and comfort many hearts.

  13. Belinda and all the family,
    I’m in shock! Such sad and unexpected news of the passing of Melanie. I learnt how to crochet because of her easy to understand explanations and I was continually in awe of her creative, hand making talents. Words can never heal the pain of your loss but her kindness in allowing us to be a part of her life will always be treasured. Heartfelt condolences to you all.
    Chris P
    South Australia

  14. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for sharing and gifting us all with your words of inspiration. Much love for you.

  15. I’m so very sorry to read of the loss of your stepdaughter. I’m sorry that you all have been going through such a difficult time. I know you are hurting/grieving. Know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.
    Melissa

  16. Oh Belinda, this is so sad, my heart goes out to you and all your family. But you’re right – take more pics – art heals. xx

  17. Dear Belinda and family,
    I am very sorry to read your sad news of the loss of your beloved step-daughter. Please accept my sympathies and (if acceptable to you) prayers for her and the loving family who are left behind. .

    I live in Sydney (Australia) and have been buoyed by viewing your artworks & instructions since the pandemic began. I noticed the absence of your friendly, inspiring posts and thought I (or the gremlins in my IT system) might have somehow deleted myself from your list.
    Thank you for informing us of your loss,
    Margaret

  18. Claire Bronson

    Joining all the other here who are wishing you and yours peace in this difficult time and thanking you for your beautiful tribute and resources. May Melanie’s spirit continue to provide inspiration to all who loved her.

  19. Belinda,
    I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved daughter. I think now of all of the representations of her in your work over the years, and now I understand the connection a bit more, and I’m so impressed by your devotion and love for her that came through your creative work.
    Sending warm healing thoughts to you and your family.
    I’m so pleased that you are back to sharing your inspiring art journey again. You have been missed.

    Linda

  20. Belinda,
    I echo Christiane’s thoughts:
    Thinking of you, Don and the rest of your family….know you are surrounded by peace, love and prayers.

  21. My deepest condolences for the loss of your beautiful Melanie. I’m so sorry for your loss. I recently lost someone very dear to me, also. The pain is still raw, but your post has inspired me to try to ease the pain through creativity. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and heart felt post and your wonderful artwork.

  22. Belinda: Bless your heart. Thinking of you and your family as you struggle through this painful period of time. Your work has brought me such joy.

    Warm hugs to you,
    Sue Lasbury

  23. Belinda, this is such a warm, generous post. I’m so sorry for your loss. This post will shine a light for others who face the same bereavement. Thanks so much for your kind sharing. I wish you and your family comfort.

    1. So very sorry for your loss Belinda. Our beautiful daughter Joanna died 8 years ago with cancer. I Have printed and painted my way through the grief and her three awesome children have helped me get through. They were just there, without their mum, and needing this Gramma so much. I found it an honour and a joy being with them. They are just about grown now and doing well. Sending you my heart and my prayers.

  24. Thinking of you, Don and the rest of your family….know you are surrounded by peace, love and prayers

  25. Such a poignant and moving post. She was a lovely woman and your love for her apparent. These last couple of years have been hard for everyone in one way or another but that doesn’t diminish the sorrow we feel for you at this time; it amplifies just how precious life is.

  26. Dear Belinda,
    I am so sorry about your families most difficult loss, and even in the darkness your light comes through to all of us. Thank you for your beautiful, generous heart.
    With love,
    Jo Ann West

  27. So very sorry for your tragic loss Belinda, and thank you for sharing. Sending heartfelt wishes for peace to you and her family.
    Leigh

  28. Judy Cunningham

    My heart is so full of love for you dear friend & that wonderful husband of yours. Miss you & hope to see you soon.💕

    From your Tall Friend.😻

  29. My Dear Belinda,

    Thank you for this beautiful newsletter.
    What a beautiful muse your step-daughter is/was. I’m so sorry for your loss, and her family’s.
    Sending you all much love,
    Teresa

  30. Belinda
    I noticed that I hadn’t been seeing notification of your posts in quite awhile.
    I’m sitting here with you for a few moments this morning..sending love.
    Kristen

  31. Angela Finney

    Belinda, I am so very, very sorry that you have to grieve your daughter.so many beautiful paintings and powerful words, both filled with love, — you are a shining,, guiding star for us all.

  32. Donna Thibodeau

    I am so sorry about the loss of your daughter. I have sick adult son right now so understand the feelings of obsession and grief. I was too busy helping after his heart surgery and mentally blocked from painting. He is better but facing another serious heart surgery where we will help him again. In the meantime, I have in mind a photo of him walking away with his dog that I should be able to handle in gouache quick enough. I think he would like it and I would enjoy doing it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  33. Qué hermosas palabras nacidas del corazón inmenso que tienes. Mi más sentido pésame por la muerte de tu hijastra, desde Madrid, España… Te extrañaba, pero ya estás de vuelta.

  34. I am so sorry for your loss. Your words are inspiring and having lost my husband a few years ago, I find the only joy and relief from grief, in creativity and nature.

  35. Belinda I’m so sorry to read this. I remember Melanie as a beautiful and kind young women – sending love and prayers to you, Don and your family.

  36. I do my art in patches of inspiration (mostly print, textile or mixed). I enjoy your encouraging blog even when doing nothing arty. I missed your input and guessed you had something going on at home. I am just writing to say I am sending my healing and loving thoughts through the ‘ether’ to you. Catch them when you can. (No reply required at all.)

  37. Belinda, I am so sorry for the loss of Melanie. I, too, am painting through my grief. Our much wished for and deeply loved first grandchild was stillborn in December. So many wonderful hopes and plans gone in an instant. And the grief is not just for me, but for my son & his wife, my husband, my daughter who was so looking forward to being an auntie, and the extended family. That’s a heavy load when picking up my paintbrush. Thinking of you and Melanie’s dear family.

  38. Melanie is immortal because of your art. You can still spend time with her, running up and down the memory timeline. In time, I hope that will become sweet.

  39. Brenda Sleightholme

    Oh Belinda, I share your grief and my tears for you are also tears for me as I read this. It has been two years since I lost Kacie. I remember painting her portrait in acrylic right after she died and that helped me tremendously. Thankfully we have art as a comfort. Thinking of you and your loss. Much love, Brenda Xx

  40. I’m so sorry for your loss Belinda. Your paintings of Melanie are beautiful. I love to paint people I love too, although I’m not very good at it. Thanks for your inspiration. Take care.

  41. So good to have your beautiful voice back, B! Thank you for sharing your journey so deeply and beautifully. I am so sorry for all you and your family suffered, and for your terrible loss. It seems your beautiful muse is and will live on in your beautiful paintings and words. If only we could ease the pain of others, wouldn’t that be swell? Helplessly, all I can do is send love each day, and keep my brushes moving. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  42. I am very sorry for your loss of your “daughter” I lost my daughter in law to cancer 4 years ago on Valentines Day to brain cancer. I wish I could tell you it gets better but honestly when I read someone else’s story it all comes flooding back..
    Thank you for sharing and please keep providing us with beautiful art.

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