Tearing and the Process of Grieving

I have been studying the grieving rituals of different cultures. I am am outsider, not raised in these traditions, so I can select where I see equipping truths without any personal pressure to conform. I can approach various culture's grief traditions through an expressive arts perspective.

I have been fascinated recently with the Jewish tradition of tearing one’s clothing as a powerful expression of sorrow. It is called keriah (tearing the garments) .

The key motives of this practice seem to be to resist minimizing pain and to resist hiding. These elements speak to me deeply as places of challenge in my own work with the grief in my life. I am prone to minimize and hide.

This tradition is about tearing your clothing until your heart is exposed. It is rife with symbolism: the soul has ripped the garment of the body. The body is merely the "soul’s accessory." There is a hint within the concept of keriah that the soul lives on.

Let's go a little further than the tradition. You may recall, as a child, playing in what I call a "de-construction" mode. This included taking things apart, ripping things, destroying things... it was child's play. Usually as adults we do not engage in any form of de-construction any more. We are busy building, mending, fixing.

When we experience a death - de-construction is often suddenly thrust upon us. We lose many things when someone dies. The life we constructed is ripped to varying degrees based on the relationship and the circumstances. There are small ways that the de-construction occurs. We must retire the dog's water dish, close out the husband's desk, dispense with the child's dresser. There may be large levels of de-construction - losing a home, a dream, intimacy. Everyone's journey in de-construction is unique. What unifies us is that, with death, we often cannot chose when, where, which and how these de-constructions occur.

Tearing is Great for Expressive Arts Grief Work

Expressive art can offer a safe and choice-ful place to act out de-construction and engage in re-construction. In an expressive arts project you are in control of when where and how it happens. The process of ripping, tearing, smashing, destroying - and then recreating something else - is cathartic. Outcomes can vary greatly and express a great deal of rage, anger, sorrow, depression and grief. Work done in early grief can look very different than works done later. These differences reflect where you are in your process.

Instead of tearing our clothing, this exercise leads us in tearing paper and putting the shards and fragments into a cohesive design. This echos the work we are doing in our daily lives as we grieve.

An Expressive Arts Collage Project with Tearing Paper as the Medium

Collage Supplies:

paper - magazines, colored paper, whatever paper appeals to you that you can tear
general purpose white glue (glue sticks are ok)
inexpensive brush to apply liquid glue (foam is fine)
Card stock, cardboard or something sturdy for your base

The only rule I have is that all the paper should be torn.... the temptation to cut with scissors should be resisted. Other than this, all approaches are fair game.

You may notice that paper has a tendency to rip easily in one direction and not as easy in the other. Paper does have a grain. Tearing the paper with the grain allows you to create a cleaner edge, against will look rougher.

Start by thinning down a small amount of general purpose white glue. Then use a small inexpensive brush to apply a layer of glue on your base surface. As you place pieces of torn paper onto the glued surface you may wish to cover the piece with a second layer of glue. This will secure the first layer of paper to your base and allow you to layer paper.

No paint is used, no cutting, just hand torn and layered bits of paper and glue.

Allow the tearing to be as emotive as you can. As well, let the process of collage to be a working and releasing and processing time.

This is my most recent collage, called "Pain". I used card stock for the base, I had some old vellum around, so I tore holes in it and pasted it to the base (that is the green paper). Then I ripped images out of magazines and ripped out the word "pain" from a section of white magazine paper.

Another example:

The collage is a symbolic gesture of the hard work you are doing when you grieve. It may help to step away from it for a day or two and then return to it later and look at it for deeper meaning. Journaling can be a great accompaniment or sharing the collage with a therapist, support group or close friend.