The Art of Grieving, and how art saved me

painting by peter d'alessandri describing bereavement and loss

I recently came across a call for artists for The Art of Grieving exhibition in 2022. This immediately caught my attention and I sent them a photo of the above painting. When they asked for “a description of the circumstances in which it was created or the inspiration behind its creation” I sat down and wrote the following for them:

I lost my partner Veronica to a long term illness on Christmas Eve 2009. What I remember most from the period leading up to Veronica’s death, apart from the constant state of physical and mental exhaustion, was the increasing sense of loneliness, as friends called on us less frequently and we slowly withdrew from the world.
After her passing, there was just this dark void – a sense of emptiness. For a few months I felt compelled to paint her. I was trying to preserve my memory of her before it faded; I have never worked so hard. I completed three paintings, and then felt myself falling into the void again. I started this painting, but didn’t manage to finish it before I gave up painting.
It was a few years before I returned to painting, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I felt able to return to this particular painting. It only needed a few touches to finish it. It had been finished all along, it was just that I had not been able to look at it for all that time.

I was surprised at just how upset I became in trying to recall that period over ten years ago. It got me thinking about that dark time in my life; how I got through it and the life choices I made in the process.

oil painting portrait of Veronica, winner of the Frank Todman award

The carer.
For a long while I was “the carer”. I can’t remember when this role began. It started innocently, with a friendly request by Veronica to accompany her to her hospital appointment, and then years later I had fully joined the battle. By then everything else was put aside – work, art, socialising, holidays – as Veronica and I focused on trying to get the best treatment for her illness, and monitored her declining health. And in the end, when she was less able, it was left to me alone to make all the decisions. It was scary, and very lonely.
The bereaved.
For the longest time I felt broken. After an initial frenzy of activity, where I finished those paintings that I had planned when Veronica was still alive, I then entered a prolonged period of emptiness. I lived on autopilot. I did not know what I was going to do, but I did know that I could not return to my old life pre-carer. All those things I had worked so hard for didn’t seem to matter anymore.

oil painting by peter d'alessandri. relationships series
Relationships Series No.4

The artist.
I remember the day that art saved me. A friend had offered to pose for a portrait, which had slowly stirred me from my stupor. But then, after I had gone to the trouble of buying a canvas and setting everything up, they casually said they had changed their mind. When I complained to them, they couldn’t understand why I was so upset, and just said “it’s more important to you than it is to me”. And that was the moment I realised, yes, this portrait was very important to me. Just the anticipation of it was exciting. It wasn’t just this portrait though. It was art. It gave me a purpose and made me feel alive again. Within a year I had thrown away my furniture to use my lounge as a studio, and a few years later I sold my house so that I could afford a studio.