GUEST POST: Grieving graphically

Last week I posted my first guest blog by Elisa Auvinen, a Finnish writer and PhD student I met during my teaching exchange in Finland. This week, I would like to share the second guest post, written by the talented and engaging Katja Kontturi.

Like me and Elisa, Katja also lost her father. We spoke about this and on my final day in Jyväskylä, she showed me the graphic memoir she wrote about him. The book is bound and beautiful. It is in Finnish so she translated each page as I turned, explaining her process and creative choices. At the end, our eyes welled and I knew I wanted to share her story of art and bravery and grief. 

My Dad died suddenly in June 2013. To our shock, my family learned that he had undiagnosed coronary heart disease. What made it worse, was the fact that he had fainted earlier in the spring during a volleyball game, got taken in for some medical exams but never received the results of his EEG. Those papers were sent to his local health centre, but were buried in the drawers. EEG would have shown clear abnormalities.

Dad had turned 60 the previous year. I was about to turn 30 in August, on the day the duck hunting season begins. That’s how Dad had always remembered my birthday, but he never saw this one.

Needless to say, I coped badly. It was summer, so I was in holiday from my teaching post unlike my Mom and sisters who had to take sick leave. Still, the week after the funeral, I was already in a seminar giving a presentation about my PhD. When the autumn semester began, I had to be bubbly and cheerful for the children I teach in the literary art school. I wasn’t dealing with my loss the way I should have. I wasn’t even able to write down my thoughts, so when the year turned to 2014, I ended up getting crisis therapy with a psychologist. In the meantime, I got into extracurricular education about creative and therapeutic methods. The year-long educational course required us to write a short thesis specializing in a selected creative method. I realized, I needed to do it about my grieving and process it into an autobiographical comic – a graphic memoir.

As a scholar of comics and graphic novels, I was finishing my PhD about a totally different subject (Disney comics – Finns are crazy for Donald Duck!), but I had gotten interested in the rising genre of autobiographical comics and how they dealt with quite profound, touching and difficult subjects. This was visible both in the memoirs published internationally, but also in the vast scene of comic blogs in Finland. I decided to find out if making a graphic memoir would help me deal with my grief better and if it would feel therapeutic as both a process and a finished product. It ended up being a massive 50-paged autobiographical comic with photos, cited song lyrics and poems, about the death of my Dad, how I was reacting to it, how his funeral were organized and how I missed him and remembered him with my speech in his memorial.

At the same time, alongside with my doctoral dissertation, I did research about therapeutic writing, poetry therapy, art therapy and how people had organized writing groups for those who’ve lost someone. I started drawing way too late, but in two months managed to finish everything for evaluation. I found it interesting to study my own methods of comic making, especially since I hadn’t produced any comics in years and never anything of this magnitude. I was fully aware of the theoretical background of comic narratives and how I could use symbolic figures and backgrounds of the panels to express emotions.

Since my drawing style is quite realistic, it was really hard for me to draw strong emotions. I realized I could hide behind a character I thought was more capable and stronger to express my anger and inner hate for people in general, so I drew myself transforming into the character Little My from the Moomins.

Image 1

Translation: “I felt like putting on my leather coat. / To go there with my facial iron and tattoos… / And scare those gossiping grannies into hell. / Apparently life in a small place is so fucking boring that you need to get more meaning by gossiping. / Fuck those people from Ilomantsi, those inward, narrow-centered dicks!”

Moomins, and especially My, became a way of expressing my grief: how I couldn’t write anything, how I was constantly crying and forgetting everything and how all I wanted was to sleep (unlike my family, who basically lost their appetite and ability to sleep without medications). Little My was an easy character to draw, she became my alter ego and with her help I could find the courage in me to draw my father, which was exceptionally difficult a task to do. After I finished the panel of my Dad’s face eyes closed – the way we saw him at the morgue – I burst into laughter, because with his 70s style moustache he reminded me of those Tom of Finland gay characters. Then I cried like a waterfall realizing how Dad would have thought it super funny and perhaps texted to his mates about it.

Image 2

Translation: “And there was Dad. And it looked just like him, but felt so cold. / You just had to realize it was true. You just sat there and cried.”

According to psychologist James W. Pennbaker, writing about traumatic, stressful or emotionally unsettling experiences can advance both physical and mental health. In these cases, writing should combine facts with emotions. That’s what I realized I was doing. I recited the discussions me and my psychologist had for the frame story of the comic from how Dad had died and what kind of process was to organize a funeral of his liking. I exaggerated my feelings about idiotic people who asked stupid questions from my Mom with the help of Little My. The rage in these panels became my favourite part of the comic. I was honest as hell telling it should have been my great-uncle or my grandmother instead of my Dad.

Image 3

Translation: “Lord have mercy / the servant of God, Seppo / Amen”

I was doing creative work with panel designing, working with angles, taking reference photos and planning the structure. But at the same time I was pouring all the pain and grief on the paper, making it visual in a way only a graphic memoir could do. I noticed in a concrete way why it was working better than mere writing: with comics, you can show one thing, but tell something totally different in the same time. A character might say she’s doing fine, but in the background of the panel all her true feelings could be portrayed. By adding black and white copies of photos, I included memories captured on film to strengthen the story. And there was the fact I couldn’t get myself to draw Dad many times. His persona and personality became visible in symbols, quotations and details of his appearance. I was putting him there, on the paper piece by piece, and at the same time I was making myself and our relationship into tangible piece of art. Something I thought would have made him proud, and perhaps even a bit embarrassed, if he’d be there to see it.

Image 4

Translation: “I couldn’t dare to say it aloud in that situation, because I was thinking that this kind of symbolic things happen only in the movies. But all of us sisters had thought the same. / Dad had come to say goodbye.”

With the help of this creative process I learned that I had been afraid to grieve properly, and only because I had thought that if I could get pass the sorrow and grief, I would forget him. It was a silly thought. Now, after almost four years, I still remember his style of walking, the smell of his clothes after a long days of work in the forest, and his laughter. And I have my graphic memoir to help me remember.

Katja Kontturi (b. 1983) has a PhD in contemporary culture studies from University of Jyväskylä, Finland (2014). Her doctoral dissertation dealt with Don Rosa’s Disney comics as postmodern fantasy. At the moment she’s working in a project called “The Digital Stories of the Invisible Youth” to help young adults integrate into society and find their strengths and goals in life. For this, she organizes comics workshops with creative methods and therapeutic, autobiographical assignments.

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