When somebody mentions the “stages of grief”, what comes to mind? Is it necessarily death or the loss of a loved one? Is it necessarily tied to losing a person (or perhaps pet), or can it be applicable to inanimate things as well? For example, could it be related to a certain stage in your life with all of its major events and minor moments? A time when you felt like everything was going well and you were in control of your future. A time when you knew who you were.
Of course, there are no perfect times. It is human nature to be upset with something every now and then. But in the grand scheme of things, do you remember a time when you were happy to get up in the morning?
The five stages of grief define a framework by which people can identify and (partially) justify their emotions. Not everyone goes through all five stages and they do not necessarily come in the same order. But for the sake of a simplified explanation, we can say that after a traumatic event the person goes through the following periods.
- DENIAL – As the earliest form of grief, it allows us to put on the blinders and at least temporarily not face the truth of what happened. It gives us time to get ready for the true emotions that are bubbling below the surface.
- ANGER – As we begin to face the facts about the circumstances, anger comes to the surface. Although we may be consciously aware of the fact that there is no one to blame, we get angry just to express our feelings of loss. Allowing the anger to come to the surface can serve as the beginning of the healing process.
- BARGAINING – At this stage we begin to question what it would take to return everything to the way it was before. What could we do to go back in time and restore the feeling of balance? What would it take to fix the situation now?
- DEPRESSION – After realizing that bargaining did not help, the we fall into the state of depression. We experience the deep pain of our loss, feel hopeless and view life as empty and pointless.
- ACCEPTANCE – There is no defined period of time that it takes to go through the first four stages. We may go through them in a linear fashion or keep circling back. Not everyone may reach the stage of acceptance, but those who do, put the past behind them and reach the state of quiet equilibrium.
After creating my art pieces in a rather unplanned order, I realized that they can be used to represent the stages of grief. At this point, the first piece representing DENIAL is not done, but I am providing the schematic I have sketched out on the left. It will be called “The Void”. While in my earlier pieces I did my best to stay true to scientific form, this piece will turn the biology on its head, showing the outline of a cell as an empty black space surrounded by three dimensional structures in between the cell dendrites. It represents the emptiness we feel after losing what was dear to us. I am looking forward to beginning to work on it soon.
“Abyss” represents ANGER. It was inspired by the news following Hurricane Irma, where bodies of water were said to contain “brain-eating” amoeba. The amoeba is viewed from the top, with its “mouth” (represented in green) devouring nerve cells (red). In a way, this process is similar to a hurricane, which “swallows” everything in its way. The “mouth” of the amoeba is surrounded by the swirling waters and winds of the hurricane. Anger can consume us in a vortex-like manner as we get sucked into a whirlpool of uncontrollable emotions.
At this point it gets a little tricky. Both “Hope” and “Guidance” can represent BARGAINING. In “Hope”, an eye is positioned inside of an hourglass, below a stream of black sand that represents the bad news and negative emotions that bombard us during a difficult time. We try to hold on to any thread of optimism, but it is often very difficult to find. The hidden jewel tucked away inside of the iris represents our attempt to find a glimmer of hope.
BARGAINING can also be seen in the “Guidance” piece. When a neuronal cell develops, it extends a delicate membrane, called a growth cone, to probe its surrounding environment. The growth cone can sense positive and negative signals, resulting in attraction and repulsion to a certain path. When a positive signal is present, the growth cone begins to slowly turn in that direction, to find the way towards its target.
It attempts to find a way forward based on its immediate surroundings. While this process is typically studied at the stages of early development, it also plays an important role in recovering from acute traumatic injury. Just like people, cells need to not only overcome the barriers in their way, but start navigating in the new, uncharted territory they enter. These survivors need extrinsic factors to guide them towards their new potential targets. Sometimes you don’t know where to turn. The question is – will you be guided in the right direction, get lost, or find a new home in a different place?
I created “Tortured” right around the time of the peak of my grieving process. It is used to represent DEPRESSION. “Tortured” shows a temporal continuum, where the left solid side of the nerve represents intact life before an incident. Once the nerve is crushed, a large inflamed scar forms at the site of injury, as represented by the red cells (astrocytes). We do our best to get through, extending small tips of weak optimism that we have left past the scar. But in the end, these slender processes come out bearing a deformed, tortured morphology showing the permanent damage that they withstood.
Finally, there is ACCEPTANCE. This stage can also be seen in more than one artwork. In “Transformation”, a single neuron is shown to undergo its differentiation process. Over time, it not only acquires a more complex morphology, but also specializes its compartments. This process can be visualized by staining the cell with different markers. While an immature neuron typically shows a homogeneous distribution of a certain protein, over time these proteins will localize in different areas of the cell. In “Transformation”, we see a neuron with yellow staining of the cell body that extends into the trunks of its processes. However, as they grow further away from the center, the processes gradually begin to lose the yellow marker and transition to a red one that is necessary for proper functioning of the distal ends. I think that ACCEPTANCE shows a similar phenomenon. We adjust to change and move on, transforming ourselves to fit the circumstances. When the extrinsic world cannot be changed, we have no choice but to change ourselves.
Similarly, “All Wrapped Up” can also represent ACCEPTANCE. In this piece, glial cells called oligodendrocytes are shown as they grow in an artificial environment. In reality, oligodendrocytes tightly wrap their membranes around neuronal axons to provide insulation and support. Amazingly, these cells can also wrap around artificial nanofibers, showing remarkable resilience. They adjust to their new environment and do what they can to survive and flourish. I believe we can learn something from these amazing microscopic structures that constitute our brains.
What do you think? Have you experienced a major life event that has changed you? Can you relate to any of the feelings these images represent? I would love to hear your stories.