Art helped find a connection after catastrophe

AUGUST 27, 2023 6:00 AM

People can leave you when you’re not ready. Sometimes they leave with no remnants of connection left behind. When one of my closest friends took his own life, I turned to art to stay sane.

On Aug. 25, 2019, I got the call that everyone fears, but no one imagines will ever happen. My friend, Peter, had died by suicide. It came as a complete surprise to me, and I would give anything to go back and make different choices.

I didn’t have many friends in college, but Peter was one of them. To this day, he is still the funniest human being I’ve ever met; no one had wit like him! He was like a second brother to me and I always loved his presence in any social circle. He had a heart of gold, and was always willing to help out a friend. I had known Peter struggled with depression, but I always feared talking about it directly.

Depression is a pain I know very well and dealt with throughout my friendship with Peter. I always felt like we were two soldiers bearing the same battle of life together. I felt comforted by the fact that I wasn’t alone, and I believed that if he could survive, so could I. My failure to connect deeper with him left me feeling shocked by his sudden death.

The truth is, we can’t predict this, but we all can do better to care for one another. We have to be OK with talking about mental health and suicide. We have to be able to go there with people. Loneliness is the fuel for the deepest despair, so I have changed how I engage with those around me. I will talk openly and honestly with others about my mental health, so that I can give others permission to do so, too. It’s my greatest intention to make sure others feel seen, heard and valued in my presence because truly nothing else is more important. I do for others what I wish I had the courage to do for Peter. I hope that others can see my mission and make it theirs too, before tragedy strikes their lives.

Suicide grief is different than other types of grief. It blindsides you and instills mountains of fears and sorrows in your heart. The pain of loss is overwhelming, but suicide comes with extra weight. The weight of guilt that we didn’t do enough. The weight of heartache for the pain they must have experienced. The weight of stigma and shame around suicide death. The weight of reality that this could happen to anyone.

I had minimal contact with others who also knew Peter, so I hurt every day alone. After four years, sometimes it feels like that part of my life was only a dream. In order to ground my grief in something tangible, I decided to draw him one day. I wanted to see his face and give him a moment more of life on that paper. I had no prior art experience, but a few hours later, I could see his smiling face, and I felt a lot of comfort from that. It was purely therapeutic. So, I drew him again and again! With each new portrait, his image got clearer, and I felt closer to him. It was as if he was peering through the paper right at me. The days I spent drawing felt like a shedding of aching pain around my heart.

I knew I wanted to share my art because it brought me comfort, and I wanted to share that with those who were missing him, too. So, I drew portraits for his girlfriend and his family. My art had opened opportunities for me to connect with them, and that brought me much needed peace after hurting alone for so long. We just aren’t meant to live this life alone. We are meant to grieve and heal together. I do my best to be transparent with those in my life to break through the walls that separate our hearts. I hope the more I do that, others will also gain the courage to connect.

We all suffer from the disease of separation. Don’t wait to find out how bad it could get for those you care about. Don’t wait to tell people you love them. Don’t miss your chance to have a real, true connection in this life. The solution is within all of us, we just have to be brave and choose love.

Valerie Stapleton is a recent Penn State graduate with a bachelor’s in philosophy who is passionate about enhancing the well-being of those around her through education and public events. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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