October 17, 2016 Walsh Blog: HEALING TRAUMA WITH CREATIVITY

By Carol K. Walsh


Persephone wisdom is present in kairos moments of insight when you suddenly know what you are to do; in a visitation from a muse that furthers your creativity; or in the feeling of time standing still because what you are doing feels so right and your attention is completely on the now.

   Carol S. Pearson, Persephone Rising

carol-walshWhile reading Persephone Rising, I was plunged into the depths of the Underworld that Persephone inhabited so powerfully. My descent was propelled by a memory of the sudden, traumatic death of my fiancé.

My story began on a beautiful spring day when Bob, my fiancé, and I had just met with the minister who was to marry us in three months. To celebrate, we went for a swim in the public pool. While doing laps, Bob disappeared. When I finally found his forty-eight year old body at the bottom of the diving well, I pulled him to the edge of the pool. In a nanosecond my life went from total bliss to disbelief and devastation. I was immediately plummeted into the dark underworld of grief and post-traumatic shock, where I had to attend to the dead.

My fiancé’s death turned my life totally upside down. As a single parent, I had to continue working as a psychotherapist while caring for my daughters and our home. I also had to cancel wedding plans, find a new house and move, and settle Bob’s estate. Once that was done, I had to re-create a new future while dealing with grief and the trauma of Bob’s death.

Fortunately, both of our stories have a happy ending. Persephone was able to embrace the Underworld, become its queen, and travel between the two worlds. Likewise, by using creativity, I was able to live in two worlds—one world as a mother, friend, sister, and therapist, and the second world in the depths of darkness, where I would sink every night, as I tried to connect with my dead fiancé.

As I looked back over my experience, I developed an understanding of the creative process I used to survive and then thrive. I realized that the creative energy my recovery demanded went well beyond the creative energy I expended on my art. I had to summon up energetic resources I didn’t know I had. The following is the explanation of how I used these forms of creative energy to recover.

I divided my process into five elements of creative energy: Curiosity, Courage, Consistency, Commitment, and Conclusion. Each element creates more energy for the following one. These steps can apply to anyone in any area of life, i.e. discovering your life’s path, beginning a spiritual search, developing a new business, co-creating a relationship, etc. Here’s how I defined and then used each element.

  • CURIOSITY refers to the importance of asking questions.

My initial reaction to Bob’s death was: Why me? Why now? What did I do to deserve this? Fortunately, I rapidly let go of those self-pitying questions and was able to shift to questions such as: What is the most important task to do today? Who can I turn to for support? This led to broader questions like: Where do I want to live? What do I want my future to look like? Over time, my questions became more philosophical: What lessons do I want to learn from this? How can I use this experience to better myself, my life? How will it help me help others?

I knew that I wouldn’t find the answers, but slowly I became clearer about my future path. I also believed that if I could answer my basic questions, I would begin healing and be able to move on with my life. It took me a year to feel as though I were on a new, healthy path.

  • COURAGE is required to take action to answer the questions, despite fear.

The more questions I asked, the more I needed courage to take action in response to my questions. People thought I shouldn’t be grieving so much, because Bob and I weren’t married. I needed the courage to listen to myself, stay with my truth, and recover in my way, at my pace. It took courage to ask for help, to meet with lawyers to settle Bob’s estate, to buy a new house and move. Fortunately fate, family, and friends helped, reminding me that being courageous doesn’t mean doing it alone.

However, my courageous choices were continuously challenged, as often happens. When the sale of our home fell through, making it impossible for me to buy the house I had a contract on, I was threatened with a lawsuit. A friend rescued me. Then I had to prove, in a terrifying deposition attended by four male attorneys, that my fiancé’s handwritten will was valid—which I did successfully. Most importantly, every time I answered a question for myself, my emotional strength and confidence increased.

  • CONSISTENCY leads to an abundance of emotional energy.

For me, this was the hardest part of my recovery, for it meant showing up every day for my daughters, my clients, and myself. Sometimes I felt energetic and courageous. Yet, at other times, I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep and give up. When it was hard to act courageously, consistency went out the door. Writing daily in my journal helped me to process my questions and concerns, and to clarify why certain things were important, which helped me be more consistent.

I soon realized that consistency has its own reward, so I tried to push through negative times by establishing a strict routine. When I began sticking to a routine, my life took a positive turn. I also had to remind myself to consistently ask for help when I needed it—something that’s also difficult for me to do. Yet, every time someone listened to me and understood what I was feeling and needing, I felt encouraged and not so alone.

  • COMMITMENT implies a no-matter-what attitude.

Commitments often are multifaceted, as was mine. First I had to make a commitment to take care of my emotional, physical, and spiritual health, and to forging a new future. I also was committed to my daughters and my clients. It fascinated me that the more I exhibited a commitment to myself and others, the more they were committed to me.

  • COMPLETION occurs when we finish one thing and move on to something else.

Each time we feel as though we have completed something successfully, we gain more energy for the next task. A year after Bob’s death, I experienced a form of completion when my youngest daughter and I took a trip out west to Georgia O’Keeffe country. Being in the Southwest and viewing the colors and artwork of Native Americans reignited my love of artistic creativity. It also reminded me that I could do fun things without Bob. After the trip to the Southwest, I began to write and draw. For me, this trip was akin to Persephone coming out of the Underworld and emerging into the spring and creativity of the Upperworld. After my return home, I sensed a renewed energy to continue recreating my life.

I suppose there never is total completion when it comes to trauma and grief, for my traumatic experience and my time with Bob will always be a part of who I am. In the end, there is still a part of me in the Underworld. Yet, like the philosopher Ken Wilbur says, to grow, we need to transcend and include. I had to transcend the depths of the Underworld, but also include its memory and lessons in my understanding of who I am as a woman in this world. In the end, I am still “me,” but, I hope, wiser and more mature. As Carol Pearson says, “At the spiritual level, the overall archetypal pattern undergirding Persephone’s story is that of birth, death, and rebirth (or resurrection).”


Carol K. Walsh is the author of the new memoir Painting Life: My Creative Journey Through Trauma. This is her fourth book; she also is the author of Break Through: Coping Skills for Chaotic Times, The Art of Awakening Spirit, and Designing for Weaving (a book for fiber artists). She is an artist, writer, therapist, and personal coach who views all aspects of life through a creative lens, no matter what form creativity takes. Whether it’s drawing, painting, writing, or building a business, creativity is everywhere. For her, the final product or outcome is not as important as the process, which to her is grounding, energizing, and healing. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Tom, and is the proud mother of two daughters and four grandchildren. Discover more at http://www.ckwalsh.com.