Imagination is Grief Work

The last three newsletters have been germinating on what it takes to exposeunderstand and break down the systemic box, ending with the sentence: “There is no creativity without action.” This is an allusion to our working definition of creativity as imagination in action. So while creativity is an act, this also means that our creative actions are dependent on our imagination, i.e. we create what we believe is possible, which is to say, it is just as important to cultivate our imaginations as it is to take action. And if all of our capacity is focused on action, we will burn out, which in a way is an extinguishing of our imagination; we become hopeless or dejected when we no longer believe change is possible. How do we keep this imagination alive in the face of ongoing destruction and loss? This is why our imagination must include our grief. 

There is so much to grieve in this moment: the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the fear of forthcoming loss of human rights in the hands of a more conservative Supreme Court (1), the mourning of Breonna Taylor and the justice her life did not receive (2), the staggering toll of over 200,000 people killed by the Coronavirus in the United States (3) and the ecological devastation as unprecedented fires ravage the West Coast (4). This is a lot to hold. The onslaught of it all weighs us down, limiting our capacity to just get through the day. The day that was not a day, since no sunlight could shine through the smoke and ash blanketing the Bay Area sky felt like a breaking point for me; how could I be expected to function under such terrifying conditions? And then I felt myself break even further the day RBG died. I think we all collectively realized we had placed too much of our hope on the shoulders of a single person; I grieved for the impact this had on her life and mine. And yet, the next day I woke up fired up. The question posited by somatics activist Prentis Hemphill (5) — What if freedom was contingent on each of our lives the way it seemed contingent on hers? — shook me awake. This question gave my imagination something to believe in, precisely because the question was not devoid of my grief, but in honor of it.

As the field of trauma healing knows, we have to integrate our past in order to imagine alternative ways of being: 

On the impact of trauma to imagination: 

“When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past…they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.” 

(6) Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

On how EMDR, a therapeutic method of relating memories helped a patient heal and tap into their imagination: 

“With the help of EMDR Kathy was able to integrate the memories of her trauma and call on her imagination to help her lay them to rest, arrive at a sense of completion and control….The process freed something in their mind/brain to activate new images, feelings, and thoughts; it was as if her life force emerged to create new possibilities for her future.”


This reminds me of wisdom from another field: sex education. The incredible therapeutic sex & relationship coach Dawn Serra (9) is the one who taught me that pleasure is grief work: “Because deepening your pleasure practice means deepening your grief practice, your boundary practice, and your capacity for complexity.” (10) Or as adrienne maree brown says: Your no makes way for your yes. Boundaries create the container within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes yes a choice. (11) This concept of honoring your “No” to make room for the “Yes” is actually based in neurobiology. Our nervous system tells our body what stimulates or inhibits our sexual drive, what is a turn on (gas pedal) and what is a turn off (brake). As sex educator Emily Nagoski explains: 

“The process of becoming aroused is the process of turning on our ons and turning on our offs. Your level of arousal at any moment is the balance of your brakes and gas. Most people think that difficulties with desire and arousal can be solved by adding more stimulation to the gas pedal. Research has shown that it’s much more likely you need less activation to the brakes. For most people, the single best predictor of sexual well-being is overall well-being.”

(12) emily nagoski, the dual control model comic

This is to say context matters (the mantra of this newsletter). When the context of our lives is filled with stress, heartbreak and trauma, then we must tend to that in order to stimulate our imaginations. This is not a practice of toxic positivity (13) where we ignore our wounds with a forced smile, but a practice of cultivating an imagination that includes our pain, that holds the full range of our emotions with compassion. Only then can we imagine a future where we can all be our whole selves. And that vision is worth creating. 

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

I have often felt that the page can hold whatever sorrow I feel and can even make sense of it. In fact, I just heard the poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama echo this sentiment: “I think paper was my first therapist. Having the capacity to say something on paper and then to see what the paper is saying back, because something strange happens when you write. You find yourself writing things you didn’t know you knew.” (14) So I encourage you to put pen to paper and see how it can help you process and integrate your grief. And to prompt a little inspiration, I offer a poem I wrote that taught me to be patient with my grief. Or as Liz Gilbert names: The assignment is not to heal everything but to become comfortable with having open wounds (15). 

Grief is a Fickle Ghost
by Evelyn Thorne

A proper haunting is tenacious but


    ious                    Jolting between

 attachment                        and        aversion

                     on the end                    of sentences,        


    laugh                     ter

                    s t a m  m e r    i n g

(silence)                              OUTCRY


                     and only here.

We grovel 
and argue
and pine                      Knowing full well


                    are meant to hurt

“I have to let you go”


                                just let me go.”



1. Adam Taylor, “How the U.S. Supreme Court affects the world,” The Washington Post,
2. “’Justice Failed Us,’ Ky. State Rep. Booker Says Of Breonna Taylor Decision,” NPR Morning Edition,
3. Ed Pilkington, “After 200,000 coronavirus deaths, the US faces another rude awakening,” The Guardian,
4. Umair Irfan, “‘Unprecedented’: What’s behind the California, Oregon, and Washington wildfires,” Vox,
5. Prentis Hemphill’s Instagram:
6. Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2014, p. 17
7. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b).
8. Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 2014, p. 261
10. Quote from Dawn Serra’s Pleasure in Power course:
11. adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, 2019
12. Erica Moen, “the dual control model” comic,
13. Samara Quintero, LMFT, CHT and Jamie Long, PsyD, “Toxic Positivity: The Dark Side of Positive Vibes,” The Psychology Group,
14. Collective Healing Summit Event Recordings, “Poetry as a Gateway to Collective Healing” with Marie Howe and Pádraig Ó Tuama,
15. CIIS Public Programs, “Elizabeth Gilbert: Magic, Creativity, and Fear,”

Originally published September 28, 2020 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.

Share your ideas!

Contact us or comment below!

Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: