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Local Photographer Talks About Grief Healing Through Art

Professional photographer Sue Abramson, whose husband died five years ago, gave a timely discussion on June 13th at the Good Grief Center for Bereavement Support in Squirrel Hill about how she combined grief healing work with art for her latest series of images.   The presentation includes a slide show of  photos taken over the last 20 years that have been formed and motivated by death and loss in her life.

Marilyn Chapla, associate director of the Good Grief Center, said Ms. Abramson’s story is a wonderful example of how someone who is grieving can turn their pain into something positive that can help others.

“The grief healing process is very personal for every individual. Not everyone is a painter, writer or photographer, but when any type of creativity is involved, it’s often therapeutic. Sue’s healing journey is remarkable and we are thrilled that she wants to share it,” Ms. Chapla said. 

Ms. Abramson knows loss all too well.

In December 1973, her brother, Eric Abramson, 23, was murdered in Berkeley, Calif.; his death was one of the “Zebra Killings,” a string of more than 70 racially motivated–black on white–murders in the San Francisco area. In April 2006, her husband and “soul mate,” Kevin Kelly, 56, died of a massive heart attack; they were married for 25 years and have one son, Alex Abramson, now 21. In September 2010, her father, Arthur Abramson, 86, died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

The deaths left Ms. Abramson “completely and totally in shock” each time. She spent the last few decades in and out of grief, rebuilding herself emotionally and using her camera as a 24/7 therapist along the way. 

“Photography allows me to concentrate completely on something different even though the work comes out of the grief. I get so focused on creating that I forget about myself,” she said.

Many of the images she showed combine her experience of death and grief with nature–both in garden and wooded settings. For example, she said one image of a large tree trunk surrounded by vines metaphorically represents how she physically felt being strangled by grief-related anxiety.

In another series called “Grief Work,” an image of lettuce leaves and mold depicts artwork “created in cooperation with Kevin.” She said in March 2006, the month before her husband died, he planted lettuce seeds. In May—which would have been their 25th anniversary–she pressed a few of the lettuce leaves in a paper pad and saved them. She forgot about the leaves until a year later and found that some had grown mold that left beautiful designs on the paper, making for a meaningful photo. 

In her latest photographic series, she documents the “stuff” her husband, a science teacher, left behind as she navigates through the process of deciding what to keep or purge.

Ms. Abramson said she hopes that audience members who might be grieving will benefit from her presentation by realizing they’re not alone and what they’re going through is normal.

“Shortly after Kevin died I talked about wanting to ‘fast forward five years’ because I was sure the pain would be much easier to handle. And, thankfully, it is. But I still find that the topics of death and grief are very taboo in our culture and I’d like to be one of the people who try to change that. I want to keep the conversation going,” she said.

Ms. Abramson is an associate professor of photography at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where she has been teaching for 20 years. Her work is displayed in numerous collections including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Allentown Art Museum and the Polaroid Collection. Her photos have appeared in exhibits and publications regionally and nationally. Currently her work can be seen at the Gestures 15 exhibit at the Mattress Factory.

The Good Grief Center, located at 2717 Murray Ave., assists individuals and families in Western Pennsylvania and beyond as they work through the grieving process. Services are offered free of charge and include compassionate listening, grief education, referrals to community resources, and access to a lending library of grief-related materials. Clients can receive emotional support in person or over the phone.

For more information, call the center (412-224-4700) or visit www.goodgriefcenter.com.

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