How I Used Art to Express Myself When I Lost the Words to Grief (& Tips for You)

For all my life, no matter where I was or what I was doing (including earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics), I thought of myself as a writer, mostly a poet, but one who would venture into other literary arts, from personal essays to short fiction. I played guitar, but did not consider myself to be a musician. And I knitted, but would hardly think of myself as a fiber artist. In my personal and professional life, I wrote: happy, sad, busy, engaged, exhausted or exhilarated, from the moment I could first spell my name.

But when my 94-year old grandmother died last winter, I had no language but tears. The fact of her very long life, and its profound connection to mine, did not mitigate my grief. When I went to write about it, as I usually do, whenever I feel something deeply, I could not.

Janice Lynch Schuster Mothers DrawInstead, inspired by something I had seen among the visual artists in a creativity group I belong to on Facebook, I thought I’d draw. The artists had introduced me to something called Zentangles, so I went to Michael’s craft shop to buy pens and paper. While there I was drawn—of course—to the pens, which included a gorgeous collection of watercolor pens. I grabbed two packs.

[10 Ideas for Starting a Journal to Transform Your Life]

Zentangles, purists say, are a form of meditation and mindfulness practice. For me, they were a bit of mindlessness, a way out of the sorrow, and, it turns out, a way to communicate my deep love for both of my grandmothers.

I don’t have an artist’s imagination, so I googled Zentangles and found an image of a young face. I drew that, and then another, and then colored and colored some more—and wound up with a little drawing that I shared with my group.

The artists, knowing that I had never drawn before, encouraged me. They thought my work was beautiful and resonated with others. Several urged me to keep at it. As a writer, I’d have dismissed by own drawings as too sentimental—but the act of drawing and sharing made me feel wonderful.

[Ernest Hemingway’s Granddaughter Explains Why Our Life Stories Matter]

Janice Lynch Schuster What Are Mothers ForAnd, since poetry continued to fail me, I continued to draw. I spent hours alone, drawing pictures and then coloring them. I’d share images with my Facebook artists (and my artist mother), and all suggested strategies to try: sketch with a pencil, use a pen rest to prevent blurred ink, try watercolor pencils. I now have a collection called, What are Mothers For? to be followed by similar titles about grandmothers, friends and caregivers. (I just need a publisher!)

Learning to draw, with its constant pull on my creative self, has returned me to language. Writer’s block? I can’t write fast enough. And I notice the world more, pay close attention to how things look or change or shift or connect. All elements that good writers know to observe.

It seems wise, I now see, to stop labeling ourselves too much, or to be too reluctant or self-conscious to try other arts. Last summer, I had the good luck to talk to Nils Lofgren’s one-man back-up band, Greg Varlotta. We were standing at a bar after his show with Nils, and I asked Greg how it was possible for him to go from the piano to guitar to tapdance to harp to trumpet, as he and Nils had done. Did knowing one instrument, I asked, enable him to flit around with every other one he encountered?

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

Greg laughed and said of course not, it was all about holing up in a room all alone and playing for countless hours to master the instrument. What appeared to be effortless was, in fact, sheer hard work.

And so with art. I had never dared come close—but dabbling has led to fascinated joy and mastery of a new skill. It has given me hours alone and drifting peacefully in my own mind, where words and ideas have always danced. When we think we are most overwhelmed, or shut off from ourselves, perhaps picking up a different instrument is a way to open that door. Who knows what you might create?


On the occasion of my book release, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me, what is one thing mothers are truly for? I will be giving a copy of my book to the first 10 people who comment on this article’s link on Facebook. Make sure to tag me.


15% of proceeds from sales of What are Mothers For? will go to Reading Partners Baltimore until the goal of $500 raised for the organization is reached.

An earlier version of this essay first ran on the blog for The American Society of Journalists and Authors.

About the Author

author image

Janice Lynch Schuster is a poet, essayist, and nonfiction writer who lives in Maryland. She often contributes to The Washington Post as well as many websites. She is relieved to have launched five adult children, and delighted by the presence of her sixth, now in middle school. She is the author of the new book, What Are Mothers For?.

Read more from Janice Lynch Schuster

Sign Up for's Weekly Must-Read

More Posts from Architects of Change