White Coat, Black Art·Personal Essay

Painting through the pandemic: How art helped me through grief and loss

Amid the pandemic and while mourning the death of her older sister, author Manjushree Thapa picked up a brush and reconnected with a hobby that brought joy in her youth.

Author Manjushree Thapa picked up a paint brush and reconnected with the joy she had in her youth

Amid the pandemic and dealing with loss and grief, author Manjushree Thapa picked up a brush and reconnected with a hobby that brought joy in her youth. (Daniel Lak)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

When COVID-19 began to shut down the world in February 2020, I was startling awake every night in a panic about my future as my parents' only remaining child.

My sister Tej had died the previous year, when she was 52, and I was 50 years old. She was the person I loved most in the world.

Though we rarely lived in the same city as adults, we spoke most days, she calling me from her home in The Hague, where she lived with her daughter, or I calling her from my home in Toronto, where I live with my Canadian partner. 

Her death was not my family's first experience of grief.

Childhood photo of Manjushree Thapa, middle, with her brother Bhaskar and sister Tej in their Ottawa home in the 1970s. (Rita Thapa)

Six years previously, my brother Bhaskar had died of a heart attack, leaving behind his wife and their two sons in California. He was 49 years old — the eldest of our parents' three children.

At that time, I had channelled my energies into ensuring that our parents, who had retired in our home country, Nepal, would survive the loss. 

This time around, I knew I was in trouble. I might not survive my sister's loss. 

I concentrated on holding my broken self together so that I might eventually mend.- Manjushree Thapa

It is customary in Nepal to take a year off to mourn for our loved ones. I let myself put aside my novel-in-progress and turn down new professional commitments.

In between organizing my sister's memorial and settling her estate, I concentrated on holding my broken self together so that I might eventually mend.

Seeking solace

I sought help through therapy, Buddhist meditation, yoga, journaling — but mainly, I spent time with family in the Netherlands, Nepal, the United States, and of course Canada.

En route, I splurged on trips to Lisbon, Naples, and London in search of relief. My partner and I camped often, and trekked through the foothills of Mount Everest.

Thapa says she dabbled in a few 'pandemic projects' to steady her nerves, before settling on one she'd put off for decades: reacquiring her lost art skills. (Daniel Lak)

Along the way, I resumed writing in fits and starts, and had tentatively completed a draft of my novel. My partner and I were in the United Kingdom then, housesitting for friends in Oxford in order to spend time with my niece, who had started her first year of college shortly after losing her mother.  

We returned to Toronto and settled into our new reality of quarantine, isolation, and heightened anxiety about ourselves and our scattered family.  

I dabbled in a few "pandemic projects" to steady my nerves, listening to classical music, cooking tofu, trying out mocktail recipes, and reading Proust, before settling on one I'd put off for decades: to reacquire my lost art skills. 

Returning to art

I had attended the Rhode Island School of Design in my youth, but had switched to writing afterwards, finding this discursive form of expression more suited to social and political subjects.

I'd always wanted to return to art — for love, not money — and had been stockpiling art supplies for years. But it took the pandemic for me to pick up a paintbrush. 

I began by sketching simple household objects. The results were mixed, so I abandoned all hope of making "good" art and focused, instead, on keeping a visual journal of whatever was in front of me, or on my mind. 

Thapa kept a visual journal of whatever was in front of her — or on her mind. (Manjushree Thapa)

I played around with pencils and acrylics and gouache watercolour through our springtime isolation, painting the mundane: our last precious container of disinfectant; a houseplant; my shaggy, overgrown hair. I regained my grasp of colour theory over safe, socially-distanced summertime outings, painting on camping trips and a road trip to Lake of the Woods, where my partner gave me a crash course in sailing.

I could sit with my emotions, dark and light, as I painted.- Manjushree Thapa

Something powerful happened when I painted: my discursive mind — the overactive thinking mind — gave way to image, sensation, free-association, and feeling. I could sit with my emotions, dark and light, as I painted.

And I could reconnect with my younger self: the person I had been before my brother drifted away, in adulthood, into science and engineering, and my sister into philosophy and law.

I could appreciate how I — the impressionable youngest — had been formed by my siblings. I could feel their presence in my life.

I also experienced serenity while painting, and something else besides: joy. 

"I love painting. I'm not sure why I ever stopped," I wrote under a sketch of a dragonfly. 

Thapa's sketch of a dragonfly accompanied by a note: 'I love painting. I'm not sure why I ever stopped.' (Manjushree Thapa)

When I said as much to my mother, she replied, "Even as a child, you'd stop crying as soon as I handed you crayons." 

Painting through the pandemic has reminded me, mid-life, who I've always been. It has brought joy back into my days. 

And that joy is mending me now. I would even venture to say I'm happy. I miss my siblings keenly, of course, but I'm grateful that I ever had their love. 

Manjushree Thapa is a Canadian essayist, fiction writer (All Of Us in Our Own Lives), translator and editor of Nepali descent. She lives in Toronto.

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