Creating Art A Healing Process
As an artist, Judy loves to explore, experimenting with different media. She paints and carves and isn’t afraid to try new things. One of her most poignant pieces is a shadow box made in memory of her daughter, Jenny. The shadow box is elegant in its simplicity. It features a photograph of Jenny – a selfie that shows Jenny’s sassy, confident side. Along with the photo are flowers and butterflies and a stuffed Minnie Mouse – Jenny’s favourite Disney character.
Along with the shadowbox, Judy has also created two wood carvings that connect her to Jenny. One carving is of a dagger, made from the deadwood of a forest recovering from a fire.
“It’s significant to me that the wood came out of the ashes of a forest that is growing after a fire,” she says. “The dagger represents our life’s struggle.”
The second carving is an apple, carved out of a piece of redwood given to her by a friend. Intuitively, she knew that the apple and dagger would go together but she didn’t know why. She mentioned this to a relative who made the connection for Judy.
“She reminded me that Jenny was always the apple of my father’s eye,” Judy says. “It reminds me of Eden, of beginnings. I knew it represented a journey but I didn’t realize that it would be my journey.”
The process of creating art is life-giving to Judy. For her, it has become a way to heal, a discipline that allows her to focus on something positive and gives her opportunities for success. It’s a way to cope with life’s challenges and Judy’s days are filled with more challenges than most.
The Day It All Changed
Several years ago, she developed Reactive Hypoglycemia, a rare side effect to surgery. The condition means her blood sugars drop drastically within two hours of eating, which can cause her to lose consciousness. On November 23, 2016, she fell and hit her head resulting in a compression fracture in her spine and a concussion.
“That day my life changed forever. The fall left me with a traumatic brain injury,” she says. “I haven’t been able to work since then and can’t have the active lifestyle I once enjoyed.”
Her new reality left her with feelings of hopelessness but through support from Communitas and its Brain Injury Drop-In, Judy has found a community where people understand her. This community made an enormous difference when her daughter passed away suddenly last summer.
Jenny lived with a number of challenges of her own. She lived with Type 1 diabetes, cerebral palsy, and autism. She was deaf in one ear and was mostly non-verbal. Despite these challenges, Jenny lived a full, active life and loved being with people. Judy recalls one day when Jenny missed her handyDART ride. Judy drove Jenny to her day program.
“She announced her presence with a big ‘hi’. Someone took her coat and another took her back pack, while everyone else clapped and cheered,” Judy recalls. “You’d have thought the queen had arrived.”
While it was a life filled with challenges, Judy says the biggest challenge that Jenny faced was the stigma of being a person with disabilities. It is a challenge that Judy also experiences as a person living with an acquired brain injury. She used to hide it by calling it a “head injury” because she was scared of what people would think of her. But no more.
“I am not afraid of telling people that I have a brain injury,” she declares. “I am no longer afraid of telling my story and I’m willing to take more risks.”
As an artist, she has become open to trying new techniques and new art forms. She sketches, paints with oils, water colours, and acrylics. Over the past winter, she’s taught herself to knit. Her favourite medium is wood carving.
“I love carving because it’s so unique. I’m constantly learning from other artists and trying different mediums,” she says. “My creativity knows no bounds.”
Having a supportive community has given Judy opportunities to share and even teach art. And when Jenny died, that community gave her the valuable support she needed. Judy says that Jenny’s death left her feeling as though a part of her had died as well.
The every day things that revolved around Jenny’s care suddenly came to a halt and all she was left with was her memories. Judy reached out to her doctor for help but nearly all the places to which she was referred did not provide the grief counselling she sought.
“I wished the world would swallow me up,” she remembers.
A Healing Community
Her psychiatrist eventually found grief counselling for Judy. That, and her friends at Communitas, made the difference. Judy cannot say enough about the support she has received through Communitas’ services both online and in-person. Because of the pandemic, many services offered by the organization had to be delivered virtually, with in-person services restarting just recently. This support gave Judy just what she needed when life was most difficult.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Communitas, I don’t know where I’d be,” she says. “It was and still is a family for me. I’ve met people I would not have met otherwise. It gave me a safe place to be.”
She is grateful for the cards and calls of encouragement she received but what she appreciated most was the opportunity to share her experience and learn that she was not alone.
“One of the most encouraging things to me was when staff opened up about their own mental health struggles,” she says. “I was surprised but I realized that they sometimes hurt too.”
It has been several months now since Jenny passed away and, understandably, Judy still struggles with her grief and loss. But she knows that no matter what the future holds, her art will give her the life-giving, healing process she needs. She also knows that she will always have a close and supportive community at Communitas.