The Colors of Grief

A daughter's bright, brief life marks a stark contrast between before and after. Through the lens of grief, creative work and the world look different.

On the twentieth of January, when she was less than twelve hours old, I lost my daughter.

With her went all the colors of my world.

The world had never been as bright as when I held my daughter. With Samarah in my arms, her head in the crook of my elbow, her knee in my palm, the world was so flushed with color. All the shapes and sounds receded. Everything slipped from the room, and I knew only her. Her chest expanding and contracting as her small lungs tasted oxygen, her face moving slightly, arms bopping softly, feet kicking gently. It was the most thoroughly comfortable I have ever been. For these hours, the sadness was banished to its cold corner. We knew what was to happen—the silent, frozen frenzy of the doctors had dragged a shadow over the delivery room—but in these moments, all that fell away. All that mattered was that she was in my arms, and I was desperately and completely in love.

I held perfection. Radiant, beautiful perfection.

Oh, how little I knew of beauty before that day. I discovered, too, through the essence of her, what complete inspiration feels like. I learned what being at one with your partner is like as you embrace your child.

As I sat in the brightness of it all, in the sheer brilliance of her, I felt a happiness I’d never known. What color was floating through? Yellow seems too dull and orange too empty, pink too soft, even an enveloping white too shallow. The most vivid color falls flat. The colors flowing from her were indescribably rich.

I fell asleep that night a father, proud of my wife for being a mother. Proud of this child for being our daughter, for all the beauty and uniqueness and love that she embodied, for each breath she had taken, for each beat of her heart. Each and every beat. We fell asleep exhausted and emptied.

Samarah was gone.

Ever had it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

— Khalil Gibran

Before she was born, I had been moving, over the last several years, to a deeper place in my work, past the considerations of surface detail. I had found much joy in notions pertaining to the bridging and transference of ideas between two minds through a piece of design and how chemical reactions are evoked, adrenalin is pumped, and happiness experienced through our arrangements of pigments and pixels. Perceiving that these pigments and pixels are nothing but the representation of ideas was most intoxicating.

Our internal responses to creative works and how readily we translate them for use in our language and lives is a subject that I found endlessly fascinating. The most obvious element is color; we use it to describe our moods. Do our eyes flash with red when we’re angry? Does a heart contract and turn green with envy? When we’re down, does our blood turn cold, washed with a bluish tint? What about when we’re being creative? What color pulses from us then?

But now—with so much already taken from me—when these intellectual questions and my creative energy slipped quietly into their own coma, I barely noticed.

I remembered colors and their workings; I understood them intellectually. I understood design. But the cord linking emotion and idea had been severed. The well of inspiration into which I’d routinely flung myself—that place of shapes and textures, ideas and questions—had been emptied. No bottom of mud or dirt, nor even dust or grit or grime. Empty.

I woodenly remembered everything, but knew none of it. I was resigned to the idea that I was no longer a designer by thought, no longer a problem solver or communicator. I hollowly resolved to carry on. I will simply be a designer by practice, I thought. I’ll go to work, do what I’m asked without consideration of whether it’s right or wrong. I know the software, that’s all I need. In the evenings I’ll forget of my work and consider it no more. I’ll read of it none, look at it less. It’s just a job, it’ll do, it’ll pay bills. No one will visit my site; it will just expire. Those dreams of mine were silly anyway. Who cares of my ideas? Tasteless and pithless. Bone without marrow.

I was only here to help my wife breathe again. Nothing outside of her mattered anymore.

Shadows of pale gray, icy white, a sallow yellow.

The sadness engulfed me. I sought happiness in old safe havens. They failed to push through the sickening thickness of it all. I avoided Twitter, ignored email. Sleep, an old companion turned foe, was a relentless, heavy drug, and I was listlessly forgetting to eat.

We yearned for distraction, no matter how fleeting, expensive, or superficial. Our mantra was a cheerless whatever we want. Want an iPad? Get an iPad. Want a book? Get a book. Want to rent a few movies? Get fourteen.

The television was turned on and stayed as such for weeks. On it, I found a small diversion by witnessing the making of things—any sort of thing. I thought this interest was sparked by my love of process, of seeing how something comes together. Reflection offered another thought: perhaps I needed to see that things were still being made.

We sensed no healing. Perhaps, though, distraction provided time for some hidden work to happen.

Flakes of rust. Grays smudged with barren beige.

The whatever I want attitude carried over well to the content I digested. I had for years avoided so much while focusing on design. Now, I wanted to break through any artificial constraints I had shortsightedly constructed during my studies.

I mostly read, eating hundreds of pages at a time, tasting the words, feeling their texture in my teeth, on my tongue, not moving from my seat, fully absorbing language etched into page. I wanted to be walled in by books and find escape. A safe room made impenetrable to things I did not want to feel. Yet, line by line, I was slowly revived; like a man waking after a long sleep, I was ravenous, starved for content. Only rarely did I waver in my conviction to finish the current so that the next could be experienced. Words made me savor humanity’s ability to find pride of purpose, happiness and energy, insight and thought. Somewhere along the way, I giggled for the first time. I cried and ached too—familiar pursuits of late—but when I did so, it was for the stories of others, not just my own.

I drank in everything I’d ever had a desire to explore, devouring the details that gave form to former inklings. I knew that the strength of stars is immense but not that their gravitational weight could alter the relativity of time. Engulfing myself in ideas about government and the building of nations, astronomy and physics, the struggles of the creatives, the questioning of normality, the lives of the great and the life of the mind, I wanted to know it all.

We spent much time with friends, creative friends, who had become family. One day my wife smiled. It made me drunk.

My own creativity was hidden, distant, still. Yet one day I think I saw

a little blip of blue.

It happened quietly and slowly. First I just wanted to look.

I tentatively stepped back into the comfort of illustration and photography. It was not long before graphic art walked into the room. Then design. Not the Swiss or modernist, minimalist, sparest and barest work I’d normally enjoy. Design with embellishment and a little life on its sleeve—the kind often found in good editorial. I became a design voyeur, still wanting to observe from a distance. I didn’t want to dissect and understand. I had no need to question, define or break apart, to talk about or act.

I imagined I was merely continuing my tender yet determinedly carefree search for whatever I want. But with an almost terrifyingly uncomfortable sense that, once again, I’d lost control of my self, my world, I was struck one day by the realization that a sort of pattern was shaping my path. Was it merely coincidence, or was it my subconscious taking the reins because it knew how to repair some of the damage? All of my lists of interests, all those things I decided to investigate after years of neglect, even the order in which I approached them—or they approached me—seemed deliberate. I discovered that I was traveling through—in a matter of months, not years—all the topics I enjoyed while growing up that had led me to design.

I became aware that this interest in a universe of subjects was funneling me toward the same endpoint at which I’d arrived before: design. But nuances born of my loss, small changes in my path, were ushering me to a destination that was, indeed, design, but design that was continually fed by and embracing much more of the mind, the heart, the things learned by cultures and people—galaxies, spices, rushing rivers, rhythms. An endpoint full and limitless, not narrow, that might make me a wholehearted designer who was better than he had been. But this is saying more than I really knew at that moment. At that moment it was the softest impression, the slightest sensation of light.

Throughout my life, I consider the books that sit untouched on my shelf, bought but not read. Some sit for years before I pull them down and crack the glue. I purchase them sensing the value within. But when they appear at my doorstep, and I leaf through the pages, I see that I’m not yet prepared to glean their secrets or even know where in the rows of text to search.

They keep their place, as I devour books either side, until one day I’m able to read one treatise the way it’s meant to be read. A day when I’ve learned what I must, so I may gain deeper insight than I would have when the parcel of books first arrived. As with good wine or coffee, one must develop a palate before knowing what hints of blueberries and light acidity with tastes of chocolate actually mean.

So, one by one, and day by day, I slid them from their dwelling places.

And day by day, no longer were my eyes a constant sting, nor was the pain inescapable. I’d look at my wife, the only reason I was able to reach this point, and see a smile, or more rarely, a fleeting laugh.

Soft greens and sepias, the quietest of yellows and gentlest of blues. Warm whites and creams.

I want to understand the world into which my daughter was born.

As I explore other fields, I bring new elements from each that I then weave through my creative work. As each idea finds its context in what I make, I realize that this marriage of seemingly disparate ideas is often how original and intriguing new ones are born. The language of graphic design is a collage of its own history and concepts pasted together with stolen and borrowed tongues, syllables collected to express ourselves and our ideas with words that we don’t have.

On the web, we’ve passively stood by as the profession and role of graphic design has been splintered into areas of specialization until the life blood has been sapped, and principles have become lifeless facts, limply memorized. It has been pigeonholed and marginalized when, in truth, it is the overarching language of our communication. This new diversity of my studies not only invigorates me, it is a transfusion resuscitating the living thing that is graphic design. I take snippets of language, and they become part of my design’s native tongue. Whether from history or art or comedy or film or science, they will help lend contrast and expose me to new ways of solving problems, expressing answers, and thus speaking to the world.

Design is artfully realized communication. Style alone is merely an elegant fool, an eloquent speaker of meaningless words, perfectly pronouncing broken sentences.

Artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, and others have noted throughout the centuries that our work is replete with the homage, the remix, the redesign, the intentional or subconscious appropriation, the impact of all that surrounds us or that we unearth in our days. Then why not cast our intellectual and experiential nets wide—and wider still? If the design process coalesces these influences to provide novel solutions, then it’s only logical to look outside of design as much as possible. The richness of our studies takes our ability to communicate to an entirely new level where we can speak in multileveled ways, reaching the minds, the hearts of those who look and experience.

We are not simply stylists or specialists but expert practitioners who can translate an organization’s abstract concept into a meaningful message that evokes the desired response. It’s curiosity, then, that makes for the magnificent creative.

So yes, I want to know of many things.

Reds and blacks and whites, so clean, so sharp. Vibrant blues and rich greens. Yellow, what a wonderful color.

My daughter was born and loved, then lost in a measure of hours. Not days or weeks or months or years. Just hours. Sixty minutes multiplied so very few times.

A life measured in hours spotlights how we use the relative abundance of time most of us receive and how well we earn our keep. I’m driven not merely to try, but to honestly earn each tick of the clock, each pulse of my heart that I have been allotted.

And so, more and more, I think of quality: the quality of my life, of what’s left of it, of how I choose to spend my time. I want to do the kind of work that somehow matters, that isn’t just a trade or a job but is based on that hard-won body of knowledge and principles that is part of who I am.

Not all of us have a choice, all of the time, to avoid that lesser kind of work, that kind that we aren’t proud of but that we produce solely, sometimes soullessly, for a paycheck. We must be vigilant lest we be branded by it, and not only feel our reputation sliding downward but also grow to loathe this part of ourselves that generates work that is quickly forgotten by us, our clients, the audience. In these times, we’re fortunate to have any kind of work. But if daylight brings only going through the motions and never diving too deep, relying on superficiality and being just good enough, then weekends or nights will be our only chance for work that fulfills us, takes us forward, flexes our creative muscles.

This sense of being a wholehearted, wholeminded designer that I discovered in my journey back, is something I now carry from job to job, as 9-to-5s pay my way through the 5-to-9s—those projects I stay up so late to labor through, or rise so early to beat the sun. How odd that as I sacrifice myself to do them, they feel like an indulgence or reward.

When we work on a project that is ours, that has its genesis in that internal library curated from what we absorbed every minute, every hour of our lives—then there is potential for the expression of thoughts that can change us and the thoughts and lives of others.

I now know that it is through love and passion and happiness that anything of worth is brought into being. A fulfilled and accomplished life of good relationships and craftsmanship is how I will earn my keep. To do any less with my time, time which my daughter goes without, is a wretched, unthinkable thing.

Creativity has, at its core, thoughts of the future, of something lasting. I live, now, hoping to create so that the world can taste a bit of the beauty plucked from the universe as she faded from our arms.

I’m here to catch the slightest whisper of the colors my daughter showed me—the ones I lost that day.

Time does not heal all wounds. Each sunrise picks away at any scab that starts to form. But through the journey of my days, the path now lit not just by losing Samarah but by knowing her, the anemic grays and jaundiced yellows of dawn are slowly transmuting to the colors of life.

Tendrils of tender green at the horizon, fingers of indigos and violets above, majestic swirls of rose and gold and pulsing crimson, soaring across the cerulean blue.

Alex charchar

Alex Charchar is a full-time graphic designer and a letterpress enthusiast who dreams of using his Heidelberg Windmill printing press. Formerly the editor of the typography section for Smashing Magazine, he lives in Queensland, Australia, and writes at Retinart.

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Illustration by Jon Mc Naught · Portrait by Paul Blow