Artist and art therapist Jackie Schuld and I discuss what prompted her to write “Grief is a Mess” and how creating these drawings and texts was helpful in a time of loss.
I love how she describes that the situations her charming animal characters find themselves in were often based on her own experience – the ways in which grief could surprise and overwhelm at tender moments, and the ways in which friends could be supportive or step on toes. Or, in this case – possibly be whacked by a walrus. Jackie’s genuine style and her creative joy make for a wonderful conversation!
Podcast transcript below:
[00:00:00] Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hewlett and welcome to the best life. Best death podcast. You can find out more about my work at best life, best death.com. And I’m here today with a special artist from Tucson hijack. Hello there. So this is Jackie’s shoulder and Jackie’s an art therapist and an artist in Tucson, Arizona, and I, as my listeners know, like to bring in kind of, um, you know, the creative angle to all of this, because I think creativity is such a powerful force in our lives, whether we’re.
[00:00:35] Actively creating ourselves something, making something or whether we’re kind of like enjoying the fruits of other people’s creativity as a way to support us. And that’s kind of how I got to ran across Jackie. So a friend of mine took a grief workshop. Uh, I think it was a two-day grief workshop in Boulder.
[00:00:56] As part of the grief workshop they gave out copies of [00:01:00] Jackie’s book and Jackie’s book is called grief is a mess. And, um, on the cover is this little character who I think might be like a little Guinea pig
[00:01:11] Jackie Schuld: and another
[00:01:12] Diane Hullet: character. Who’s kind of like a little. Frog. So Jackie found a way to just really visually portray that grief is a mess.
[00:01:24] Um, so I love that Jackie, welcome. And tell us about how this book came to be.
[00:01:29] Jackie Schuld: Yeah, so, um, my mother had cancer, um, ovarian cancer, and it was a long process where she knew it was terminal. She, um, had years of where she was just going through maintenance chemotherapy. And, um, we came across the five stages of grief and we were like, that is not enough.
[00:01:53] Like there are more stages. And so as a joke for Christmas, I made her a little illustrated book of [00:02:00] like all the other stages and it was just, yeah, it was supposed to be funny and it was, but, um, so then when she passed away, Which was in 2014. Um, I decided to make a book about grief, um, originally intending to use those illustrations, but then I made new ones because I, um, really just saw that everyone in my family had a different response to grief.
[00:02:27] And so like every single one of the cartoons in my book is either something I felt, or I saw a family member or friend, um, Feel
[00:02:36] Diane Hullet: or experience go through. I love it. I love it. For example, one of the pages is, um, I love the page of the little guy. Here we go. Here we go. The little guy, just in a clear bowl, he’s like in a baking bowl and it’s sort of the little hamster guy and he just looks completely.
[00:02:55] And isolated and stuck in this glass bowl. And it just, it doesn’t really [00:03:00] capture something about how that isolation can feel. Sometimes
[00:03:03] Jackie Schuld: when I think too about like the slipperiness of a bowl where you’re like trying to get out, but you can’t. And so like, and you can see them
[00:03:10] Diane Hullet: grow. You can see that eventually
[00:03:14] up against it. Yeah. Yeah. I love that. So you kind of use your families, like the test case for like. What are people’s responses and how do you capture those in that cartoon? And then I’m sure, sort of, how did people respond to the cartoon? Like how does this one feel and is this one accurate? Yeah.
[00:03:29] Jackie Schuld: Uh, there were originally, I think 76 pages, like 30 something.
[00:03:36] So I had to cut it down and, um, But a lot of the book was also that I had some family members and friends that had a very, had very strong opinions about how I should be grieving. And it was very constricting. So in a way, my, the book was a chance to be like, let me grieve. How I grieve and I will let you grieve how [00:04:00] you grieve.
[00:04:01] Diane Hullet: Yes. Oh, I think that’s actually a really powerful message because people grieve in really different ways and also in really different timeframes. Right. So one person might be in point B one day and the other person’s at point G and then the second person goes to point B and there’s a lot of movement and, um, challenge, I think.
[00:04:22] Jackie Schuld: Yes. And, you know, for instance around anniversaries, like sometimes people want to really mark those days. And then I have some family members that we don’t want to do anything we want to pretend the day doesn’t happen, you know? And so I think it’s okay for both to coexist. Right.
[00:04:38] Diane Hullet: How to make space for both.
[00:04:40] Jackie Schuld: Yes. And honor both. Like, there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t want to celebrate that day. And there’s nothing wrong with you if you want. So like make
[00:04:48] Diane Hullet: it a special day. Right? Right. All of the above. Yeah. Say more about, same, more about, um, some of your favorite pieces in the book.
[00:04:58] Jackie Schuld: Well, I must say, um, [00:05:00] today is actually eight years since my mom died, like today, the death of birth.
[00:05:06] Yeah. So I’m definitely thinking more. About, like what it’s been like in each year as it’s gone by, um, I know in the beginning there was a lot more anger. Like if you look at there’s the one, um, it’s the wall verses in the book where one of the walrus is, is asking, like, why can’t you just be happy? Yes.
[00:05:29] And then the other walrus. Yeah. And then the other walrus is like, if I watched you on the head, would you be happy? And I just heard that a lot. Right after my mom died, I really, really was in a deep, dark place for awhile. And a lot of my friends, we were like, their advice was like, just choose to be happy and.
[00:05:52] I also think, you know, I was called, was I 28, I think. And so a lot of my friends hadn’t experienced that kind of [00:06:00] pain and they were genuinely trying to help, but it was infuriating. It was like, if I could choose, if I could do that. Right, but I don’t, I can’t right now, whereas now I’m eight years out and I can choose a little more and I can have a little more breathing space around my grief.
[00:06:20] Diane Hullet: Right. That’s incredible that we just happen to plan this interview on this.
[00:06:25] Jackie Schuld: Oh, right. I was excited because, and that’s another thing I’ve learned. I like to do things on this day that honor my mom in some capacity. And so when this came up,
[00:06:34] Diane Hullet: Perfect. Perfect. It’s incredible. And we’re recording this on February 23rd, so it’ll go up in a few weeks, but when you third marks the anniversary, just to like note that date, really powerful other ones that stand out.
[00:06:49] Jackie Schuld: Um, well, I guess I brought that up too. Cause I remember when grief was raw for me, I just had a lot of anger, lot of anger. Like my sister was getting [00:07:00] married and my mom. Wasn’t there for that. And so there’s two cans in the book where one, two cans asking, like saying something like, I wish my mom was here and the other two can, yeah.
[00:07:12] That one it’s like, I wish my mum was here to see me get married and the other one’s like, what can I say? And that was her husband. And yeah, like what you say, it’s just, yeah.
[00:07:23] Diane Hullet: It’s just sad. Passages missed.
[00:07:26] Jackie Schuld: Yes. Yeah. I think that’s so much about grief too, is not just. Like all these things you envisioned in your head about like, oh, she’ll be here for this or this event or like a wedding.
[00:07:38] And then she’s not like that.
[00:07:41] Diane Hullet: Right. And they come up every year. I remember my aunt talking about that when her son died and she, you know, she just said, well, the first year there’s just all these anniversaries, even vague ones. Like the first summer without him, like there were the seasonal ones. And then there were the specific dates that are like big [00:08:00] holidays.
[00:08:00] Then there were dates specific to them. And I remember her talking about that first calendar year, just being really something and that it softens over time. But, uh, it doesn’t, it doesn’t really end. It just softens. Yes, it
[00:08:14] Jackie Schuld: softens. And the times you have to renegotiate, like my dad did get remarried and that was like, we had to kind of re negotiate what our new family was doing for Christmas or holidays.
[00:08:26] And like, that was challenging at first to be like, you know, I want my, I want to honor mom and the ways we used to, and yet to honor, like she’s a new member of the family wanting her own traditions.
[00:08:38] Diane Hullet: Yeah, right. Figuring out that blend. Yes.
[00:08:43] Jackie Schuld: And it does not come naturally
[00:08:46] Diane Hullet: and doing it, but it’s sort of as much grace as you can muster.
[00:08:49] Jackie Schuld: Yeah. And also, again, it’s the same as honoring that, like everybody wants something different and how do we do. Compromise and still get to be together as a
[00:08:58] Diane Hullet: family. [00:09:00] Well, and I go back to, how do we even have the conversation, right? Like, here’s this new mom or dad’s second wife. And how do you even sort of have the conversation about how do we do these traditions differently?
[00:09:14] Jackie Schuld: Right. And I think they used to. I don’t know if I avoided it, but now, now I’m much more like we’re going to talk about this where it’s like, once you go through a holiday and you don’t talk about it and feel so horrible, I was like, I don’t want to go through that again. Let’s just talk about it. Let’s make me plan.
[00:09:33] Diane Hullet: Right. Right. And do you find like for you and your family, was that easier to do sort of like one-on-one like first you and your dad first, you went to sibling or did you just kind of have a big group conversation?
[00:09:47] Jackie Schuld: I don’t remember what I tried initially. I just know it didn’t work. So I know what does work is one-on-one conference one-on-one so I’ll individually talk to my dad.
[00:09:57] I’ll individually talk to my step-mom and [00:10:00] individually talked to my,
[00:10:00] Diane Hullet: you know, all the, yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. Cause I think about it as almost like, like in my mind, it’s like a series of small conversations that kind of shape into something organic that feels right. As opposed to somebody saying here’s the new plan everybody gets.
[00:10:17] Jackie Schuld: And I’m not trying to make the plan for everyone. I’m just going to my dad for instance, saying like, Hey dad, like, I really would like some small way to recognize mom on the Christmas tree. Would you feel comfortable with that? You know, it’s just specific things for my own needs. Not trying to like take over.
[00:10:35] Diane Hullet: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I love that. I love that. Like honoring what you need and then bringing it into the bigger context of the.
[00:10:42] Jackie Schuld: Right. And sometimes the answer is no. And, um, that’s when I meet my own needs, then I make my own little tree, but I didn’t have to do that, but that you could learn that as well, like, okay, [00:11:00] this doesn’t work for them.
[00:11:01] So what can I do for myself?
[00:11:04] Diane Hullet: Well, going back to this, the five stages of grief I think has become, I think it’s interesting. It’s like it became Elisabeth Kubler, Ross developed that re work. And I think it it’s really powerful work because it gave us as a society kind of a framework for talking. But I think it’s gotten really, uh, I think it’s misunderstood and kind of widely tossed around, right?
[00:11:26] Like, Hey, it’s not that linear B, are we referring to the dying person grappling with. Terminal illness or are we talking about the brief, like, what are the, what are these images even mean? So I love that you kind of threw it out and said, yeah, forget the five. How about 72?
[00:11:44] Jackie Schuld: Yeah. When I think, I didn’t even understand the original intention of that model when I mentioned it in my book, I think in my book, I just said someone came up with five stages.
[00:11:55] Like I didn’t even bother to look it up. Like, that was an interesting thing about this book [00:12:00] is I did not do a lick of research. I read a single book about grief. Like I was at a place in my own grief that I couldn’t read. I couldn’t really take in information. It was exhausting. And so I was just painting away and, um, in a way I’m glad it happened that way because it just came out.
[00:12:20] Diane Hullet: Yeah, it came out, Ron, it came out really true to your experience and you just let it be true without having to be like, well, is there research, backing this idea that you feel as the wellness says fail or something? Huh? Beautiful. How many, how many people has, has this book touched? You know?
[00:12:38] Jackie Schuld: Oh, I don’t know.
[00:12:39] I do know I’ve sold about 20,000 copies and it’s kind of its own little animal now and that people just buy it on Amazon and I’m like, oh, that’s nice. Um, So I self published it. So that was also kind of. Kind of fun to see where it could go on its own
[00:12:57] Diane Hullet: really fun. I mean, just the other day on [00:13:00] Instagram, um, a doula group, somewhere in the east asked about children’s books about grief.
[00:13:05] They, they said we’re compiling a list for, for children’s and them families to use. And this one wasn’t on there. So I threw it on there. He was a mess. Yeah. Cause I, I just think it’s such a, um, I dunno, I just think it’s such a nice, um, Opening of what the experience is that as you said, you’re not trying to be on someone else’s map for how this should be.
[00:13:28] You’re really trying to experience it yourself and I, its rawness and complexity. I think your book in a playful way opens up that conversation.
[00:13:36] Jackie Schuld: I’m glad you said that. That was the other main intention of my book. Get the humor that like, if there are these, like it’s, so the emotions are so intense that it is kind of funny
[00:13:46] Diane Hullet: sometimes right on the back, it says through humorous animal characters, she shows that although there is no straight forward map through grief, there can still be laughter and positive experiences amidst the mess.
[00:13:59] [00:14:00] Yeah.
[00:14:00] Jackie Schuld: And I think that’s so true that like, and that’s why I wanted to use animals so that anyone could relate to it regardless of race or gender that you could really be like, oh man, I’m having a hamster day. Or like, or now with my own clients, um, I’ll ask them like, which animal do you identify most with?
[00:14:18] Diane Hullet: That kind of thing. Yeah. Tell us about your work as an art therapist. Do you specialize in grief or is that just one thing that
[00:14:23] Jackie Schuld: comes, you know, I originally did. I, when I started my art therapy practice, I specialized in grief and then it just kind of shifted over time. Now I see primarily women that have, um, a high amount of emotions and thoughts.
[00:14:37] And so I specialize more in that now,
[00:14:40] Diane Hullet: uh, almost like, like, um, calming or focusing.
[00:14:46] Jackie Schuld: Really basically people that have overactive minds and feelings. So kind of like brief as a mess where it’s like, here’s all my feelings and all my thoughts. And how do you deal with.
[00:14:58] Diane Hullet: Right. So [00:15:00] I’m going to hold up another little picture.
[00:15:01] I love this one too. It’s the giraffe and the new is that how you pronounce that? The GNU, I don’t
[00:15:09] Jackie Schuld: even remember if you’re new or new,
[00:15:12] Diane Hullet: let’s call it an antelope. And so the, um, the antelope is staying very busy with a long to-do list and the giraffe is quietly meditating. And you know that each of those are really different strategies that come into play at different.
[00:15:28] Jackie Schuld: Yeah, I know. Cause I remember in the beginning with grief, it was, I was in such a fog that I really oh. So appreciated. If someone was like, okay, here’s what you need to do. I just needed someone to kind of give me a to do list and okay. Okay. I can get through that now. Don’t want anyone telling me what to do.
[00:15:46] Diane Hullet: Yeah. Different part of the mess. Have you, have you created other books, Jackie, or is this
[00:15:53] Jackie Schuld: I have, I did one, um, called making it through chemotherapy. Which was, um, about my mom’s [00:16:00] experience doing, you know, five plus years of chemotherapy and staying positive
[00:16:04] Diane Hullet: through it. Fabulous. Fabulous. Do you have any books in your mind that might come out?
[00:16:10] Jackie Schuld: No, not right now. I kind of learned with making it through chemotherapy. Wasn’t as good as the book, frankly. And I think it’s because it didn’t come solely from like my experience. And, um, so that kind of taught me to. To only create like something at this level to only create from my own lived experience, that’s when I’m most effective.
[00:16:33] So I’m just kind of living my life. And if in fact feel called, I will do it.
[00:16:39] Diane Hullet: I won’t, and I love that kind of waiting to see, but, but I love that the authenticity of, of this book is part of what makes it so strong.
[00:16:47] Jackie Schuld: Yes. I mean, and I do right now, like I write on my blog daily. Um, so I’m much more. Writing as a PO and I do art the company, but I’m not like pulling together a book or anything.[00:17:00]
[00:17:00] Diane Hullet: So great. Well, I can imagine, uh, you know, I, again, my friend came across this book in a grief workshop, which I think was a really powerful. Piece for her to both take the workshop and then come across this playful book in the midst of it. And so I think about that, that, like, if you’re listening and you’re thinking, oh, I have a friend who’s grieving, would this be an appropriate book?
[00:17:22] I sort of think, well, it depends on the timing of it, right? Like, yes, on the right day, it might be a really sweet nudge to say, you know, I thought of you and I thought of how complicated everything is and all your big feelings and came across this book.
[00:17:36] Jackie Schuld: Right. Like, I don’t, I would not recommend, like if someone just died that you stick the book in the mail, like
[00:17:41] Diane Hullet: that dentist don’t do that.
[00:17:44] No, it’s too soon. Get a copy yourself, take a look, wait for the right timing. And it probably
[00:17:51] Jackie Schuld: family member, I don’t know about you, but in my experience, you know, there’s so much support right away when someone dies and then about two weeks to a [00:18:00] month later, it just drops off and you’re like, oh, I’m out here alone.
[00:18:04] Does anyone remember. Um, like it’s just very, very lonely. And I think that’s the time to like, send a book or make a phone call to really reach out. Um,
[00:18:16] Diane Hullet: yes, I think that’s really, really good sound advice. And then remembering those anniversaries, if you can, the special days, and just saying, thinking of you.
[00:18:25] Jackie Schuld: Yeah. And my friends, the ones that have experienced loss, I will specifically ask them in advance. Like, Hey, I know this anniversary is coming up. What do you like, do you like, cause I have some family members that don’t want the day acknowledged and then I have some that are like, yeah, give me a call. You know,
[00:18:41] Diane Hullet: so right.
[00:18:42] I love that. So we can kind of, we for ourselves and we for others can kind of be kind of deliberate, kind of be conscious about how we want to go through that and ask.
[00:18:54] Jackie Schuld: I know if so many therapy clients that are upset with how people [00:19:00] treat them will say about their grief or whatever’s happening. And then I ask like, but have you asked them for what you really want or told them?
[00:19:09] And they’re like, well, no, when they feel embarrassed to do that, and it’s like, I get it. I used to be there, but now I’ve
[00:19:16] Diane Hullet: really learned, like, Right. Just ask. It’s so funny. Cause I just, I had a late phone call recently and I thought, well, I’ve implied that my family should make dinner. So I’m sure that will.
[00:19:27] And I got up this late phone call and I came downstairs and lo and behold, they hadn’t done anything. I was like, what? And then I thought, well, they can’t read my mind. So the next time I had a late phone call, I was like, Hey, could you do this? And could you do this? And I’ll be down at six 15, and we’ll all eat.
[00:19:43] And that’s the most satisfying, but I was kind of cracking up like, wow. At this stage in my life, I still think people can read my mind. Well, and people
[00:19:50] Jackie Schuld: feel like, oh, they sh, if they cared about me, then they would do this. And they would know. But like a lot of times, even myself with my own friends who are [00:20:00] grieving, I’m like, oh, I don’t know what to do.
[00:20:02] Right, right. It’s like a little paralyzing or like, oh, what’s the right thing to do.
[00:20:08] Diane Hullet: This is part of the lake we’re swimming in this kind of grief, phobic culture. So everyone gets so fearful of doing the wrong thing, that they sort of pull back and do nothing sometimes not every month generalizing, but that’s
[00:20:21] Jackie Schuld: why like it’s so relieving when someone tells you exactly what.
[00:20:25] Yes. It’s like, oh, thank God. Okay. I can do that. You want a meal? I’m bringing a meal. Yes.
[00:20:30] Diane Hullet: Yes. I don’t want that. Well, that seems like maybe a great place to just kind of end with this kind of like, you know, ask for what you want. And listen, when people say. Beautiful. Beautiful. I love it. I’ve been talking with Jackie Schulte and, um, she’s an artist and art therapists down in Tucson, Arizona.
[00:20:50] This has been so great, Jackie. I can’t wait to share your book, but thank you for having me. Yeah. So again, her book is titled grief. Isn’t it? And it’s a [00:21:00] wonderful, I believe these are watercolors little watercolor drawings, and you can find out more about her at jackieshold.com.
[00:21:18] Got it in I’m Diane. Holly. You’ve been listening to the best life, best death podcast. Thanks for listening, right.