What do you do when a project ends? We explore creative grief and how to deal with it
When finishing up a project, feelings of loss, despair, sadness or emptiness may rise to the surface. To understand creative grief better – and to learn why and how it happens – we’ve called upon a psychologist and three creatives to get some advice.
The creative process has been well-documented. You can easily find out how your favourite creatives approach idea generation and how to nurture a harmonious partnership, but what about when the creative process ends? What happens when the work has been signed off, you’ve posted it on socials, and all you’re left with is a deep sadness in the pit of your stomach or emptiness in your chest? You wander around aimlessly; you feel lost and depressed, unable to summon the energy to get back up and do it all over again. What then? And what is this feeling of emptiness and grief? How do we process this period of mourning? What factors lead to feeling this way, and what are the best strategies for dealing with this creative grief?
I have felt this many times throughout my career when a creative project has come to an end and most keenly last year when a book of short stories I’d been working on for over two years finally launched. I naively thought it would be the most exciting time of my life, but the opposite turned out to be true. Throughout the weeks following publication, I found myself experiencing a deep sadness, fatigue and loss of purpose. I felt vulnerable, unable to focus and at a loss of what to do next. It was a feeling I recognised and, after speaking to friends, I realised I was in a period of creative mourning, something that is commonly experienced but not widely discussed in the conversations around mental health and creativity.
To dive into this idea of creative mourning in more detail, I spoke to a range of people, including psychologist Natasha Frome, creative director at Wieden+Kennedy London Freddy Taylor, Maya Moumne, co-founder of Studio Safar and Journal Safar and editor-in-chief of Al Hayya, and photographer Vivek Vadoliya.
“After being so hyper-focused on something, it was gone, and I had this sense of panic.”Maya Moumne
So, let’s start at the beginning, or rather, the end of a project, to find out what is going on. Psychologist Natasha Frome suggests there are many reasons why a person might experience feelings of creative grief, but for the most part, it centres around a sense of loss. She explains, “Grief, in our traditional understanding of the word, is the physical and mental reaction to losing something or someone. In relation to a creative project, it can be a loss of identity or purpose when you’ve put a lot of energy into a project or piece of work. Once it’s gone from your life or it’s out in the world, you’ve lost control of it. You’ve lost connection to a part of yourself and perhaps a wider group of people you worked with. This sense of loss can leave you feeling empty and with a void in your life.”
Natasha goes on to outline how this sense of loss can manifest for different people, “It can show up as emotional turmoil, fatigue, sleep disturbance, physical agitation, an inability to think clearly, and it can affect how we behave socially – you might not want to be around people or feel disconnected from those closest to you.”
On the hamster wheel that is modern life, we often don’t have the time to process these complicated feelings fully. It can be uncomfortable to sit with difficult emotions and easier to plough on to the next project, burying what we’d prefer to ignore, but this can have a long-term impact on our mental health.
Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, a city in perpetual forward motion, Maya Moumne hasn’t always been interested in indulging in the act of reflection. But, she did experience an intense feeling of creative grief following the completion of a personal photography project she’d worked on for a year. “This project explored the idea of collective memory and collective identity. I’d spent a year researching, thinking and creating these photographic works, and when it was done, there was this void. I had a very palpable feeling of creative grief. After being so hyper-focused on something, it was gone, and I had this sense of panic.” Maya felt this loss of purpose that Natasha talked about and moved quickly to fill the void by diving into a new project with the person who would eventually become her partner in Studio Safar, Hatem Imam. “At that age, it didn’t feel good to have this emptiness and in a way I distracted myself from the discomfort with more ideas and ambition, and for a while that was great because it led to starting the studio and the magazine.”
Having moved to Montréal after the devastating blast that destroyed vast areas of Beirut in 2020, Maya has found the quieter pace of life in this new city has allowed her the space to explore difficult emotions and experiences, which has contributed to a more productive and creatively rich period in her life. “My work is rooted in discussing my home region and, for a while, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to talk about it from here. But actually, in Montréal I have the time and the space to confront my past issues. I'm experiencing a whole new creative process in Montréal.”
Today, she’s more comfortable sitting with this grief and exploring what it has to teach her. Now, she looks at these quiet times, or more complex emotions, as opportunities to learn and grow professionally alongside the relatively new practice of embracing self-compassion. As she explains, “A very big realisation for me has been that extending kindness to yourself goes a really long way. And acknowledging one's past, something that I would have previously seen as a weakness, has been really life-changing.”
“I often struggle with the pressure to replicate success and feel a grief or disappointment when something perhaps doesn’t do as well as a previous project. This can leave me feeling like I’m blowing up a balloon – constantly having to puff and prove myself to keep the balloon full.“Freddy Taylor
Freddy Taylor is a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy London. He’s one of the people responsible for the little plug that launched itself into the socket in the widely successful Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, and his team created the award-winning Nike World Cup campaign that saw the word ‘Home’ paired with the iconic Nike swoosh. Alongside his creative partner, Philippa Beaumont, he’s objectively at the top of his game, so it was interesting to hear his experience of creative grief; “I often struggle with the pressure to replicate success and feel a grief or disappointment when something perhaps doesn’t do as well as a previous project. This can leave me feeling like I’m blowing up a balloon – constantly having to puff and prove myself to keep the balloon full.“
This is something psychologist Natasha Frome expanded on, “In the afterglow of success, we might feel like the best has passed us by, that we’ll never be able to recreate what we’ve just produced, that it was a fluke, and this can lead to feelings of grief for what has passed and a projected fear about the future.” She also touches on the fact that the end of a project can open us up to criticism, “We fear not meeting expectations and the judgement of others, all of which contribute to a sense of grief.” In the often-referenced The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about how some (not all) criticism acts as a shaming device, and it makes us feel foolish for even having tried. She writes, “The criticism that damages is that which disparages, dismisses, ridicules, or condemns.” In response to this, she advises that while we can’t control the criticism we might receive, we can seek out support and control how much negativity we allow to take hold of our thoughts. And most importantly, she advises that we nurture ourselves and make an immediate commitment to do something creative. “Creativity is the only cure for criticism.”
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Wieden+Kennedy: Nike - Home (Copyright © Nike/Wieden+Kennedy)
In the context of an advertising agency, the highs and lows of any one project never lie solely on the shoulders of one individual, as there are so many people involved at every stage. On the one hand, this can be a positive as there’s support and hopefully a sounding board when things don’t go as planned, but it can also lead to the frustration of ideas being diluted. “The best feeling is when the final work is as close as possible to the core idea,” says Freddy. “Sometimes this isn’t possible, and it’s worth figuring out what hill you’re prepared to die on and what you’re happy to let go.”
In response to potential disappointments, Freddy wisely suggests acknowledging the wider factors at play that go into making something a success or not, “maybe the campaign had all the right components – a good idea, brilliantly executed, but the reality is it’s getting harder and harder to make work that gets real, mass attention. It’s not to make excuses but acknowledging that there are bigger factors at play in any industry is important.” He also sees the importance of developing a value system outside of work, where your identity isn’t as intrinsically linked to the highs and lows of your career. He suggests creating a solid support network of people in and out of your industry who can help give you perspective, and he also puts importance on defining what success looks like for yourself outside of the traditional metrics of likes, shares and money.
“Now I accept that this is going to happen, and when it does, I acknowledge it and then look for something else to get absorbed in, something new to learn. I seek out my support network and try to let it all go.”Vivek Vadoliya
For photographer Vivek Vadoliya, one of the most essential strategies in dealing with creative grief is to go back to the beginning and have a clear idea of your purpose. His ability to really drill down into his own ethics, purpose and direction means that he’s able to avoid work or situations that leave him feeling drained, disappointed or grief-stricken, as he explains. “It’s important to develop a deep acceptance of who you really are and remove yourself from the spaces where we are solely the consumer, where you’re being heavily influenced by what other people think.” This deeper understanding can help guide decisions in the creative process that will lead to a more rewarding experience and outcome.
Easier said than done, but Vivek has advice, “The key is to keep making work, keep making mistakes, and learn from them. A painter makes hundreds of sketches before they make the final piece, there’s so much beauty in the process of creating and working out what is meaningful to us, but too often, we only focus on the final product.”
That said, he isn’t immune to struggle and has certainly experienced his fair share of creative grief following the wrap of a project. In the past, he has learned to accept that sometimes ideas and projects involving wider groups of people can and must evolve into something other than what was originally planned, as was the case with a documentary he shot in Bradford for The Guardian. “Some of the people we interviewed weren’t able to be involved in the end, and the documentary became something different to what we’d set out to make. I was disappointed, but I fully respect their decisions, and I had to come to terms with that.”
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Vivek Vadoliya: Art Club (Copyright © Vivek Vadoliya, 2023)
For Vivek, sometimes a project is followed by an inevitable adrenaline crash or anxieties about money, but wisdom has taught him how to deal with these feelings when they come around, “Now I accept that this is going to happen, and when it does, I acknowledge it and then look for something else to get absorbed in, something new to learn. I seek out my support network and try to let it all go.”
He’s also keen not to shy away from struggle; as for Vivek, this is a by-product of being deeply involved with your work. “I think [this grief] shows that the work is resonating with you. It shows that you care. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow, to reflect on what went right and what could be better.” But this isn’t a puritanical demand that to be good, you must work hard and struggle. Vivek’s point goes back to the beginning that we can’t always avoid discomfort, nor should we.
“I think [this grief] shows that the work is resonating with you. It shows that you care. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow, to reflect on what went right and what could be better.”Vivek Vadoliya
On reflection, my own creative grief came about because I missed having something to lose myself in. I missed the characters I’d spent months developing and, once the book was out, I felt the withering impact of feeling judged. It also meant that there were no more opportunities to tinker or correct the things I wanted to change. Since that period, I’ve come to appreciate that an end is just the beginning of something new. I've started writing a new novel and, with the experience of the first book in mind, I’m now really focusing on enjoying the process of writing and creating as best I can because I have no control over anything beyond that. I’ve also become a lot more comfortable with the imperfect end product; there’ll always be something we’d want to change about a creative endeavour we’ve put out into the world, but at some point you just have to let go.
Today it’s so easy to numb ourselves with any amount of distractions, but if we shine a light into the darkest corners of our lives, we can find some of the most profound lessons there. This deep hurt or pain can really help us locate what is important to us if we have the bravery and support to look at it in the cold light of day and be honest about what we find. Sometimes this forced hiatus and break in normal programming is exactly what we need to move forward in our lives in a more sustainable and rewarding way.
Dealing with creative grief can be a personal and individual process. Everyone's experience is unique, and finding what works best for you may involve trying different strategies or seeking professional support if needed. Here’s a recap of strategies that may help:
- Recognise and acknowledge difficult emotions.
- Define success on your own terms.
- Have a clear understanding of your purpose and who you are as a creative.
- Embrace the learning process.
- Seek support in and outside of your industry or discipline.
- Engage in continuous learning and set new goals or challenges.
- Recognise that an end is also a new beginning and an opportunity to do it differently the next time.