Thursday, November 12, 2015

Grief, Empathy, and Dance


It has been a year since my last blog input. Sometimes life just gets away from you.

Life imitates art. 
Tuesday was one of those days. A week ago I was facilitating a professional development workshop for the NYC Department of Education. The people participating were teachers of elementary school children. The theme of our workshop was “Grief and Empathy” through the lens of a famous dance “Lamentation” by Martha Graham. Not an easy topic to approach with elementary school children. We were exploring how to teach metaphor and abstraction to 3rd through 5th graders. During the workshop we learned excerpts from the piece. Graham’s intent was to embody grief, to become grief, to get inside the emotion and live it not just imitate it. In the process of learning and doing I really felt like I had a deeper understanding of grief and empathy.

Exactly a week later my brother-in-law had a massive heart attack as he was waking up. After contacting 911, my sister attempted to administer CPR. He did not survive. By 8am people were trying to get in touch with me to let me know what occurred. By 12:30 I was leaving school and driving to Connecticut to pick up my nephew from college and drive him back down to South Jersey. We arrived in the evening to a house full of people stopping by to offer condolences. When things are so public grief takes on a certain form. It is almost polite. Visitations from empathetic people allows one to relive the grief but also relive the memories before the grief.   One imagines “what if” as one is remembering “what was”. As Joan Didion wrote one enters the realm of “magical thinking” where all things are possible if I just did one thing differently. This is good and of course unrealistic or “magical” and somewhat necessary as one tries to make sense publically of such finality. 

However I think what Graham was after was something more personal. It is what one experiences when one is alone at night, when the pain of the loss is so great and you feel your heat ache so strongly, as if someone has reached inside you and ripped it right out and you are not sure whether you are scared, sad, angry, exhausted, or all of that rolled into one total expression of grief. The grief and the empathy that happens in the middle of the night when you hear your sister sobbing, alone and afraid and you got to her and let her know that you care and that she can just let it out because you will be there for her to do so.

The first dance that I created to be shown professionally was after my father had died. His death propelled me to officially enter the artistic world as a choreographer. My dad was 56, I was 26. The piece, “Passing On” was about transitioning from this world to whatever lies beyond. 25 years later when I was devastated by my mother’s death I created a piece, “Margaret’s Lament”. This time not about transition but about devastation. One artist’s attempt to make sense of, to understand, and to express such strong and powerful emotions.

Grief is here, it is with us everyday, it crops up out of nowhere and sometimes takes us over when we least expect it. We have all experienced it in some form and when we see it in others and recognize it we show our humanity and capacity for empathy, compassion, and understanding. The past three days have put me in that place again and all of the emotions and feelings surrounding grief and empathy are right there on the surface.

So was learning “Lamentation” a preparation for this week’s events. Does “life imitate art” and/or “art imitate life”. Or through the lens of the artist isn’t it all life.


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