Tag Archives: grief

A Tale of Two Women

Walking into the Children’s Center entryway to drop my son off at preschool, I run into a new aide. She is an older women, impeccably dressed, whose pacing seems out of step with the general energy of pandemonium pervading the Center. I watch her guarded movements as she maneuvers her way through a throng of low, bobbling heads.

Internally, I catch myself wondering what her story is. There is not a trace of joy in countenance, nothing that says, “I am glad to be here.”

Across campus and across the studio from me in Advanced Life Drawing, paint is flying at a large sheet of hand-made paper from France. Above the rakish tilt of Betty Schneider’s large drafting table, I can just barely see her salt-n-pepper head bobbing as she works to capture the essence of the live model’s pose in abstract. Hers is a Pollack-esque dance which is difficult to confine to one cramped corner of the studio. Betty’s vigorous application of pigment to paper leaves a history of telltale red marks spattered across the model’s walled changing station, as well as giving measles to the room’s painted cinder-block walls in insitutional green.   


Without breaking the continuity of the room’s informal drawing circle, Betty’s neighbors have carefully tilted, shifted and otherwise distanced their own drafting tables as far from hers as is possible. Spattered paint aside, I think of them as shrinking from her creative exuberance.

Four weeks into her new role as a preschool-teacher’s aide, I find the older woman who is a new hire standing alone outside of a classroom. With a few words from me, her story spills forth. The narrative rolls out of her in a series of sorrowful sentences impregnated with the shock of fresh bitterness.

Her husband is on faculty. He found a new, young thing. She gave up her education and potential career to bear and raise four children. Her tiny studio apartment, which she can barely afford, is nothing like her former home—a rolling ranch affair with a large yard. Taking care of children is all she really knows how to do. Now there is no time for grandchildren. All of this after forty years of marriage.

Her heart has been broken. Her former dreams have died. And, her adjustment to her new socioeconomic circumstances is neither smooth nor easy. Then, the classroom door opens. I leave the scene in a stunned but unsurprised silence.

Betty Schneider is one of the most innovative and prolific students in the art department—middle-aged or not. Betty returned to the university to mend, after a nonamicable divorce and the recent loss of her beloved mother. Her method is Gestalt. What she creates has a one-of-a-kind strength in design. Yet, nothing she makes looks like anything recognizable. The art faculty actually fall silent in group critiques when approaching her engaging work.

Betty wins a major award during spring semester from a nationally recognized visual artist who has been brought in to curate and judge a regional art show. The entrants include local professionals, faculty members, as well as students.

Unreleased grief can cause a person to drown. Bitterness over past circumstances can lay like so many weeds under life’s moving waters—entangling even the most advanced of swimmers.

Even the natural joy that abounds in the Children’s Center seems to be passed over by the new aide. She is not managing to awaken to the gift that is each new day.

Betty Schneider has made up her mind. She is changing her name to Claire Shakti. Claire is for clarity and Shakti embodies the divine, feminine power which she IS. Claire has let go of all but a few of her personal belongings. Chicago awaits. After thirty years as a stay-at-home mother, she is going to work at the Chicago Art Institute as a guard. During her free time, Claire will be studying the French horn, taking the music lessons she has always wanted.

The Work

Standing behind a newly plowed mound of snow, I wait outside in the cool air for my friend, Adam. We have an informal appointment to go to the coffeehouse together to catch up on things.  Adam is excited to tell me about the new woman he is seeing.


Driving up in front of me, Adam slows his vehicle to a stop. Then, quickly leaning across the inside of his car, he opens the passenger’s side door.

Taking a large step across the freshly plowed bank of snow, I approach the car in two more steps only to face a wall of profound grief. Sliding into the passenger’s seat, I close the door swiftly behind me to conserve the interior’s heat.

Turning to Adam, I ask, “What is up with this wall of grief?”

Adam gazes at me intently, while shrugging his shoulders and shifting the vehicle into gear. We begin to move.

“Don’t you feel it?” I ask rather impatiently, trying to cut through to the heart of the matter. Adam is normally a focused, chipper, can-do man with a highly and amazingly developed sense of emotional attunement. It surprises me to find him at a loss of awareness about the sea of sorrowful emotion by which he is being completely walled off.

“Where is it coming from?” I ask yet another question on the same topic. “There is something wrong. Your essential Adam-ness is being injured.”

Finally Adam responds, “I am not sure what you are picking up on.”

Taking a slower approach, I attempt to explain what I am experiencing, “Normally, when we get together there is a certain ‘Adam-ness’ about you and your personal energy. It is kinetic, generally happy, quite focused and aware. Today when you opened the car door, it was like hitting a great barrier of grief that was smothering your essential being—a profound sadness is permeating everything. This is not you. This is not who you are. The profound sorrow is not yours.  Where is it coming from?”

In a brief conversation, Adam describes some of the trauma his new girlfriend has experienced in the past.  He also talks about wanting to help her get to a better place by holding some of the grief for her.

“It doesn’t work that way, Adam,” I explain, shaking my head emphatically.

“Can’t I even help her just a little bit?” Adam intones, “—Emotionally?”

“No. The grief will not leave until your new girlfriend makes the decision to divest herself of this old, emotional baggage. She may need help going through the grieving process, but you cannot do her work for her. You cannot carry any of this grief and expect her to make any progress—not even ‘a little bit,’ as you say.  She must do the work on her own. It is the only way.”