Photography and Story by Shira Gold
Introduction by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
There was a time when the circle of life was experienced by family in the home. You were often birthed in the home, with family members providing much of the support and services. Families would many times experience the miracle of birth as well as the unthinkable, death due to complications of childbirth. The fragilities of life gave new understanding to the gift of receiving it, as well as the tragedy of losing it. Our elders often lived the end of their days in the comfort and familiarity of their home, with their loved ones at their side. Humanity has become detached from the process of life and death. We have been removed from the personal experience of bearing witness, and providing care during these intimate times that give us understanding and meaning to life. In times of death it can provide closure, allowing the grieving process to begin through death, helping to move forward into the future to continue the circle of life.
Shira Gold has found a way to grieve the loss of her mother through a fascinating exploration in a photography project she has titled ‘Good Grief’. With this project Shira explores in depth her process of grieving the loss of her mother. Shira’s photographs bear witness to her grieving process by perceiving nature as a reflection of herself, with an unspoken language that allowed her to make meaningful connections to the past, and the important disconnections needed to peacefully step forward into the future. Shira shares with us her intimate journey.
Good Grief is a visual articulation of the profound personal transformations I underwent after the life-changing loss of my mother, Melanie Gold.
Each series within the large body of work relates to a different stage in my response to loss—from numbness to isolation to resurfacing. As an interconnected essay, I illustrate the deep pain and vulnerability triggered by the loss of a loved one. Through landscape portraits, I explore the vast and intense range of emotions I faced in my grief journey. During my most difficult moments, nature provided me with understanding and an opportunity for expressing feelings that I struggled to identify. The process of realizing how nature offered a reflection of myself at every stage of my grief allowed me to recognize a form of visual vocabulary by which I could understand that painful negotiation between the memories of my past and the necessity of moving into my future.
These photographs are my language, expressing a momentary sense of home when “home” as I once knew it was no longer accessible. Un-staged symbolism weaves throughout Good Grief like a cast of characters, reflecting key transitional points in my grieving and healing process.
My grief is a continuing landscape. There is no beginning and end stage; it is ongoing. I ebb and flow through this collection. The process of observing and documenting the beauty in the pain is my applied therapy; the grief as expressed through natural landscapes gives testimony to nature’s extraordinary healing power and sense of sacred space. Such seemingly ordinary occurrences reflect powerfully the extent of human suffering and inspire our gradual resurfacing. The rise and fall — or birth and death journey — is in itself a natural cycle. Everyone eventually experiences it; it connects us to something far beyond our individual selves and ties us to one another. Like the giving and taking of nature itself, this inevitable journey can ignite empathy and understanding. Ultimately, it is up to us to choose to see the Good in our Grief.
The series of self-portraits in Shock depict my entry into mourning. At once private and confessional, its images expose the profound devastation I experienced with my mother's passing. In the aftermath of her death, my life was stripped bare, as though light and colour had been extracted from my world, rendering me alone in the darkness. I grasped for some way to live in a world without her guidance.
These treescape portraits attend to the foreign and strained experience of suffocating under the loneliness of grief, while also feeling closed in and observed like an object of curiosity by well-intending loved ones offering sympathy. I yearned for my mother's presence while also leaning away from the solace of friendship. Each image in Shock is set against a stark black background - a contained terrarium of grief, observed in isolation. The beauty of the natural landscape sharply strikes against the darkness, a silhouette of longing, of solitude, even of hope -a document of the traumatic impact that marked the crisis of losing my mother.
A feeling of detachment can often follow the initial shock of losing a loved one. My series Numbness captures those physical and emotional deprivations that come on the heels of loss. The hazy, vacant beaches of Jericho—an expansive landscape in a moment of desolation — invoke the utter depletion I felt in my mourning. Images of beached logs rest like lifeless bodies, poles stand at attention, static and unadorned as if lost the haze and removed from the rest of the landscape, while tracks in the sand recall my state of dreamlike suspension, where it was hard to differentiate between being awake and asleep. Cloaked in the fog of loss, everything in my life appeared to remain sedated, even while time moved on.
After the first cold splinters of reality began to break the numbness that dominated the early stages of my grief, I was met by a creeping awareness of life’s impermanence. Vulnerability responds to this preoccupation. As I realized my own helpless mortality, I became exhausted, seeing in everything around me symptoms of peril. To capture that emotional frailty, images of barren trees suggest nerve endings exposed to the danger of the elements. Their skeletal branches extend into the rolling fog and—like a person in mourning—they become muted by their surroundings, shrouded by a cloak of uncertainty.
In the somber farmland between Pemberton and Lillooet, British Columbia, I found visual expression for the devouring sense of isolation that followed my loss. Forgoing a map, I drove along unfamiliar roads at the height of winter to lose myself in peaceful, remote snowscapes. Isolation focuses on the division I sensed between my-self-in-mourning and the rest of the world. Secluded spaces provided me with a backdrop for emotional rest and deep reparative work. The dream-like blanched palate signals purity and the unusual sense of calm I found at this juncture of my grief journey. This series reflects those places where my mind wandered, finding respite in a withdrawal from the busy pace of my body as it continued to go through the motions of daily life.
SILENCE OF NOISE
In grief, dichotomy and contradiction are pervasive. Grief can consume, while silence can deafen. My series Silence of Noise speaks to my experience of needing distractions to get my mind off of what I’d lost. Yet, even with this desire for diversion, whenever I encountered real noise, it seemed superfluous — empty chatter at odds with the debilitating pain I felt inside.
In nature, snow absorbs both sound and silence. It can be difficult to detect the source of a noise, and the cacophony of the world becomes muffled beneath a blanket of white powder. The snowscapes in this series evoke my feeling of existing between two worlds. On one hand, I occupied the world of the living — surrounded by noise and vibrancy, conversation and community. On the other hand, I was cocooned in grief — a feeling that often muted the clamour of the living. In this sense, snow offers a metaphor for the buffer between my two modes of living — a pregnant pause between the deafening noise outside and the resounding silence of my private anguish.
FIGHT OF FLIGHT
When is it time to re-engage in life? What does that return look like? Fight of Flight brings into inspection my struggle with apprehension about re-entering the world after my loss. In many ways, it felt like it would be easier to bury my head in the sand than to reclaim my space in regular life. This series reflects that conflict, drawing on images of black birds to suggest feelings of contradiction. Many of us regard these birds as desperate and lonely, but they are also resourceful and free — wise with memories of a thousand small details from past encounters. These birds symbolizing my need to stretch my wings into the future, even as I am burdened by the lonely actuality of loss. To continue to live, it is impossible to remain stagnant — fighting my way to flight was the only means to move out of the confines of grief, taking my chance on life.
Loss of life is absolute, but accepting these facts can feel impossible. I found it exceptionally difficult to surrender to the reality that the person who gave be life was now a part of my memory. Letting go came with an incredible sense of guilt, feeling as though I was abandoning the person I’d lost, even while I felt lost and abandoned myself. Acceptance and surrender allowed me to begin to slowly let go of the profound injury I carried with me for such a long time — feelings I held onto in order to remain connected to the past.
With Resurfacing, I document the emancipatory transition from mourning to healing. Unlike the black birds of my previous series, the white birds of Resurfacing signal the release of past burdens. Each image depicts the emotional shift from darkness to light, highlighting the a newfound sense of life and levity. The cracks of light that emerge after great mourning are depicted through muted hues. Sturdy rocks suggest the foundation of strength required for taking off into the world again, lifting into the air with all the promise of hope. The discovery of my own resilience during trauma was profoundly beautiful, and so human. To resurface after grief is to witness life in one of its most poetic states. My message in this series is that grief need not define us. It can simply reshape how we see and engage in the world.
ON A WING
I shot On a Wing not as a conclusion to my grief journey but as one of many phases that mourning can travel through. The series documents the spirit in all of us who continue to navigate life despite obstacles in our paths. The contrasting imagery of darkening skies atop a bright horizon demonstrates the tension that comes between past grief and future freedom. And, amidst that struggle, white birds flock to the sky—a community of light that surrounds those in grief, lifting us up until our own wings can bear us forward.
Life is as much about discovery as it is about letting go, but my grief journey inexplicably altered the landscape of my life. Being swept up by grief shaped how I moved through the world, ultimately teaching me how to live better. In creating the series that make up Good Grief, I realized that this journey and healing process have no real end. They are now simply a part of who I am. These images are self-portraits. By capturing them, I have not only reclaimed my voice, but I have also realized that I am capable of feeling far more through the journey of shock, numbness, vulnerability, isolation, reengagement, and renewed living.
In giving myself permission to breathe, to find support and to take time, I have discovered in myself threads of resilience, reflection, and fight that I never knew were there. These discoveries have allowed me to move forward to make a good life, to see the possibilities for a rich life. The process of creating this series led me to the realization that while we may not be in control of what life throws our way, we do choose how we view and engage with strife. I choose to find beauty in the breakdown. I choose to trust the wind, and to go with wings.
Capturing the essence of fleeting moments is what inspires Canadian photographer Shira Gold. Photography has always been the antidote for her mind, a visual expression of subjects that often defy verbal articulation and a lens in which she can see the world through new eyes. Finding a pathway through personal crisis by exploring art's intersection with mental health and well-being, Shira's sizeable bodies of work are steeped in her personal visual narratives and observations. Photography became her applied therapy. With each frame she began to learn more about herself as well as deconstructing and digesting the experiences that shaped the person she has become. To see more of Shira's photography please visit her website.
All photographs © Shira Gold