Making Meaning


Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.

Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo – an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I’ve been waiting a while for this event.

Now, I have to preface the rest of this with the fact that I am an introvert. I tend to like talking to one or two people at a time. I don’t like socializing in big groups, much less speaking in front of them. I’m also a writer. Normally, my words are carefully chosen and put to the page, with painstaking thoughtfulness, before they go out into the world. I don’t exactly enjoy anything that makes me have to speak off the cuff or string words together spontaneously in front of people. I also can’t multitask worth a damn, so trying to put together articulate sounding sentences WHILE speaking is sort of a subtle form of torture for me.

But when someone approaches you to share your story about grief and loss, and share what you’ve learned in hopes of helping others, you don’t say no to that. Partly because I’m superstitious. I’ve lost both parents and my fiance before the age of 30… at this rate, I try to listen when the universe presents things like this to me. I mean literally, I am afraid someone else in my life might be smited if I ignore God or the universe or whatever it is. It’s obvious I’m supposed to be doing work that is related to grief and death in some way – or I wouldn’t have so many dead people in my life. And so, despite my fear of public speaking and interviews and the spotlight and all of it… I’m just allowing the universe to drag me into all this uncomfortable shit.

And you know what?

This interview was awesome. I loved every moment of it. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident or assertive when it comes to sharing with others. Tonight though, for the first time ever, I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I had good, valuable lessons to share about grief and using creativity to heal. And for the first time I felt just a bit comfortable stepping into that spotlight. After all, if there are two things I know, it’s grief and art. It was a pleasant surprise, and felt really good to finally experience that kind of confidence.

It has taken a LOT of uncomfortable feelings to begin to get to this place… a lifetime of them really, but more recently, hours and days and weeks and months of working on presentations and interviews (and also hours and days and weeks of procrastinating because I’m so terrified of it). This is the first time in my life I’ve even been confident enough to just TRY to do things like this. The person I was before Drew died would have never even attempted this stuff. The person I was a year ago wouldn’t have even tried any of this.

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things. Like how trying to stretch ourselves and grow means we have to go through a lot of doubt and fear before we can begin to reap the rewards at the end. We have to be willing to feel pretty damn uncomfortable before we can begin to feel comfortable when tackling something new. I’m also thinking about how important it is to have others be part of our healing… because I got so much energy and strength back from doing this interview tonight. Energy I desperately have needed during these tough times of relocating from Texas to Ohio. Energy that helped me feel less alone and more connected to others again. Energy that I know is going to help me feel motivated to get to making some art soon.

Lastly, it made me think about the meaning of death and loss that can continue to be built over time. I cannot even express how much meaning was poured into my world tonight. It was a reminder that every shitty day, every tear cried, every moment I’ve missed Drew since he died, and every time I wanted to give up and I didn’t… they have ALL been worth it, because maybe something I shared tonight will help someone else on their own road through grief. This was also a reminder that as my life continues on, things like this will come into it and continue to give meaning to Drew’s life. He will continue to impact the lives of others in ways that he never imagined too, as a reach out to give a helping hand to others.

Ultimately, doing this interview reminded me that no matter how difficult this life gets, meaning does not stop being built into it. It continues to build over time… over our lifetimes, if we choose to give it a chance. Fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to still be around, there will be hundreds of new ways that Drew’s life will have impacted the lives of others. And even though he would not be in a single picture from June 2012 on… you would still be able to fill a dozen scrapbooks with the meaningful things that his spirit has gone on to do.

Note: For anyone who would like to hear the interview with Death Expo, you can listen and view the slides we discussed HERE.

The Healing Cycle

“On the Backs of the Wild” ©Sarah Treanor 2012

This past week something really big happened for me. It was one of those things that originally came out of nowhere, yet will be something I will remember for the rest of my life. It all began almost a year ago, with an email. The woman writing to me was a poet, and she came across my photography online and wanted to use one of my images for the cover of her first poetry book. I was astounded. Somehow… in ALL OF THE INTERNET… this stranger from Utah found MY photos and fell in love with one of them for her cover. Was a dreaming?

And it wasn’t just any photo, it was one of my favorite photos that I took in the year that took him. A year I chronicled very deeply within the pages of this blog. It was a simple, serene image of the soft slope of a horse’s back just after a heavy rain… the sky still melancholy with a blanket of clouds. I can still remember the day. It was fall. I had moved down to central Texas from Dallas to live with his family on their ranch. It had poured all morning and the horses were covered in rain and dirt from running wildly through the pastures. Horses always know how to play in the rain, they never grow up in that respect – a lesson we could learn from.

It was just months after he died and the only thing in my world that made me still feel alive was to get behind my camera. There I could search out mysterious other worlds. Worlds where my reality didn’t feel so heavy. Sometimes worlds where it didn’t exist at all. Looking back, I am astounded at the photos that came out of me during this time. They were drastically different from anything I had shot before. Operating entirely by my broken heart – suddenly all of my photos were like portraits of my grief. This one in particular felt so very close to that sacred space inside me where my deepest grief lay. The quiet solitude of this image mirrors the feeling of my own solitude so precisely. I’m only now beginning to grasp that, two years later.

So by now you’re wanting to know where this story goes. I’ve wandered enough. I first mentioned to you that something big happened this past week… and it was this: After almost a full year of patiently hoping that my photo would be the final one the author would choose. After sometimes months of not hearing anything and wondering. And then months more after my photo was chosen for the publishers and designers to complete everything and get it into print… after all of that… this past week, a package arrived in the mail. From Utah. I zipped open the brown packing and there it was. The image that says everything that was inside my soul after he died… singing gracefully and proudly from the cover of a book. And not just a book, but a book of poetry – another deep love of mine (And the poems inside are breathtaking, by the way. I’ve read a dozen or so this week and many have moved me to tears with their beauty).

I’m not certain I can put into words what this feels like for me. It isn’t closure, I don’t really believe in that concept. I think it is something like purpose or meaning or maybe understanding. For the author wrote to me this: “I really can’t express this properly — I had no idea how beautiful this book could be until it was realized with your photograph on the cover. I’m so proud of this book & the image reflects the exact kind of beauty & solitude & mourning & serendipitous joy that I hope it contains in its pages. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And there it is… yes, an understanding perhaps that I never had before. Something that I created when I was in the very darkest and most painful place in my life has somehow gone on to live its own new life. And it has its own entirely different purpose now too – to uplift the breathtaking work or another artist. And forevermore, this poet and I will be inextricably linked by the creations that we have both made out of our own lives and our own pains. It is an eerie and darkly gorgeous thing I could have never imagined would happen in my life.

I didn’t expect to have some profound lesson come out of this venture. But there it is… this understanding that maybe that is what we’re supposed to do with all of this pain in life. We’re supposed to express it. And give it away so that it can become something that uplifts or supports the life of another. In this way, it can be transformed into something – transformed actually, back into love – which is what our pain was in the first place. That is one powerful healing cycle.

Maybe it’s something we create – like this photo or a song or a painting – or maybe its as simple taking the time to talk about our pain openly, so that it can help another feel less alone. When we express it openly we are giving our pain a chance to grow wings and soar – and to give a gift to someone else’s journey along the way.

It is precisely the kind of impact I have hoped for his life and his death to have since that dreadful day one. And slowly, as I begin to heal a little more, and as I keep expressing my pain in any and every way that feels right, I am starting to feel like he and I are building a legacy together… one in which he is teaching me the lessons I could not have learned any other way. Lessons that are vital in helping me to be a part of others lives in ways I never would have been able to before. And that part of this dreadful journey… I would not trade for anything.

I don’t say it enough – but thank you all for allowing me space in your Sunday to give my pain. And thank you for writing back to me with yours so that we can keep this healing cycle going together. ~ Much Love

Creating Meaning from Loss

A lot of people like to say “everything happens for a reason”. I used to be one of those people. Now, I want to punch those people in the face! I do not believe this at all. I do not believe there is some greater reason for my best friend to have left this life so early, with so many plans and dreams ahead of him… with so much of his beauty to give the world. I do not believe there was a destiny for this happening to him, to me, to his family and friends, to my family and friends. I do not believe there was a reason that he did not get to have a long lifetime as a pilot, husband, father, teacher, adventurer and lover of life. So when people say to me, “Everything happens for a reason” it makes me burn inside.

The phrasing is completely wrong for me. It suggests some predetermined purpose for his death, for any death. And I do not agree with that. I do not agree that he died in order for some incredible change to happen. After this year, and the pain I have endured and watched his family endure, I will never believe that again. The very idea offends me.

But what I do believe is that in the aftermath of this crisis, there is a crucial time in which to make choices for what meaning we will create in relation to this loss and how it will shape our lives moving forward. There is a very unique opening within the darkness, an opening to our soul self, which can happen. It happens if we allow it, if we are open to it, if we let ourselves explore it and surround ourselves with others who are doing the same. It is not the reason for someone leaving us, but it is a gift that they leave with us. We may not even see it, so lost in the pain that we are unable to realize it is there, but in small moments we may come to know it in some way. It is there.

As someone who is left on this earth after he has moved on – left with the deepest pains and fears I have ever known – I see it as my job to create meaning out of it… to allow his soul to continue to shape and guide my life and the life of others. I am not always able to. Sometimes I am deeply lost in the pain of sadness and missing him, as is part of the whole process of death. But I find that much of the time I am able to connect to my soul and to his, and I am able to realize that right now, in this moment, I have a choice to make meaning out of this darkness. For myself, for him, and for others.

So to me, there is no one specific meaning that any loss is meant to have in my life or in anyone’s life. It is up to us to decide what meaning we will create for it – and how we will be open to what we can receive in the deep vulnerable spaces of grief. It is no easy task… something I have entered into kicking and screaming in pain. But I would rather create the most meaning from this that I possibly can, to honor him, and to continue to find a way to nurture my own soul to grow into what it needs to become in the next phase of my life.