“The wound is the place where the light enters you” Rumi
What is Kintsugi?
The Japanese word literally translates as ‘golden joinery’. It is the art of repairing broken pottery with seams of gold. Metallic powder is added to adhesive and when the object is repaired, it becomes unique and more beautiful. Instead of the scars being hidden, they become a feature of the whole.
Kintsugi is not a new fad or trend. It dates from the fifteenth century when a Shogun broke one of his favourite tea bowls. He was unimpressed by the shoddy mending and as a result he commissioned his workers to improve on what had been done. Kintsugi was the result.
Kintsugi can be a metaphor for life; it is a philosophy which embraces beauty and imperfections and is easy to take on board. The tenets are simple enough:
Though you are broken, you can be mended. People are like ceramics: strong, fragile and beautiful all at once. Kintsugi is evidence that you can heal your wounds. You can rebuild your life around the breaks and wear the scars with pride. They become part of you and you become stronger and more resilient in the process.
Kintsugi is tangible, visible proof that your wounds eventually become scars that enhance you, rather than diminish. They may be tender to touch, but the wounds are no longer bleeding.
Kintsugi gives a gift of optimism characterised by a broken item that has been mended with something precious.
Kintsugi represents commendable, measurable strength and persistence in the face of adversity.
Kintsugi is beautifying rather than self-damaging.
Thirteen years since James died I do not feel mended … I don’t think I will ever feel mended. But I feel that my golden scars have been created with a certain amount of combative pride. This pride comes from the ability to embrace my loss with resilience, and to seek out, find and live within the mourning light.
The mourning light is slowly and gradually dawned out of the darkness of grief and loss. For anyone who is newly bereaved this will be a hard concept to take on board. But you must trust in your own ability to heal, which takes patience and a proactive attitude. Throughout the process, you are gradually transformed by your hurts, just as the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly.
My individual Kintsugi represents a fair amount (or unfair, depending on your perspective!) of grief and trauma; this is not said to engender pity but to underline how applying the principles embodied by Kintsugi can enrich, enhance and beautify your life.
Where do you find the gold for your own Kintsugi seams? You may find you need to adopt a new perspective that allows you to analyse the pain, trauma, difficulties and grief that you are living through. Then you use your knowledge to transform, as far as possible, negative into positive. Of course, not all scars are visible, for example your psychological scars from the trauma of loss. But, you may be sharing your realisation that something has been taken from you that you can never get back, through the visual aid of Kintsugi.
When you apply Kintsugi principles to grief you are embracing a challenge. You meet it head on and you acknowledge the scars which are a testament to how you continue to live your life despite what has befallen you. You wear, bare and share these with fortitude and pride
You should try to mend what has been broken because the resultant creation is individual and more valuable for its flawed appearance. In a similar way, the post bereavement mourning light is slightly opaque and diffuse compared to the light that went before. But it is powerful, and it undoubtedly reflects your new, normal way of living.
One of the best examples of Kintsugi I have seen is that of cancer survivors who are photographed with their visible scars, bravely sharing their transformation with the world. Their inner beauty shines through their physical imperfections. The scars cease to be what you see first.
Kintsugi is not simply about positivity. It is also to do with the choice of your response to whatever is broken. Loss through death breaks your relationship with your loved one as you knew it; and it is up to you how you reclaim it. The beauty of Kintsugi is that the way you do that is entirely your choice.
When I broke two small ceramic bowls recently, in the act of carelessly pulling a plate from the cupboard, I wish I had known about Kintsugi. Instead of regretfully throwing the pieces into the bin, I would have carefully repaired the bowls and displayed them proudly with their golden scars.
It is an important lesson learned.
Having researched the principles of Kintsugi I decided to put them into practice to epitomise the fractures of the heartache of losing my dearly loved son James to accidental drowning in 2005.
I bought a small bowl from a charity shop and carefully, rather than carelessly, broke it by putting a cloth over it and tapping it with a hammer. This ensured it would be repairable rather than shattered into myriad pieces which wouldn’t glue together.
I created my own Kintsugi repair kit by using PVA glue and a combination of glittery nail varnish and some gold spray to represent gold lacquer. (Incidentally, you can buy Kintsugi kits on the net but I wanted to create my own homespun version).
I held together the pieces of the bowl with some masking tape on the inside to stabilise them before creating the artwork on the outside. I photographed the stages as I went along.
As I worked, I examined my emotions. The broken bowl represented the utterly fragmented feelings of early grief, when my emotions were ‘all over the place’ and I never knew how I would feel from day to day. Then, I felt as though I had been blasted to pieces by shock, totally bereft of my normal cohesion and composure.
As I brought the bowl back together over a couple of sessions, allowing the glue to dry and taking time over the process, I remembered how it felt to begin to re-acquire some semblance of normality in life again. I reflected on the value of my family and friends who bore with me whilst I knitted together. They did their best to comprehend my grief and to ‘be there’ for me whatever was happening. With the wisdom that comes from being 13 years on, I know how hard that must have been.
Finally, once the bowl was fixed to my satisfaction, I looked at it from all angles and admired what I had accomplished. The bowl is not the same as it was to begin with – how could it be? Its planes have been reshaped, its existence now represents something that has been restored to the best of my ability.
My Kintsugi experiment embraces many facets of my grief process over the past thirteen years; from our campaign in Kingston to improve riverside safety at the start, to writing Into the Mourning Light, and my resultant involvement with the RNLI, Respect the Water campaign and Fire and Rescue service.
The effects continue to reverberate, not least with proof that the latest RNLI initiative, training bar and restaurant staff in the use of throwlines at establishments near water is actively saving people from drowning.
The collaboration of all the organisations involved in the National Water Safety Forum and the Thames Tidal Safety Forum is producing positive, forward-moving strategies that all have the same aim; to reduce the incidence of drowning.
All this has woven itself into my own personal representation of Kintsugi.
Over the past thirteen years, a variety of individuals have become known to me. Connections have been made that I could never have imagined.
Doors have opened to me that would otherwise have remained closed.
Perhaps most importantly, friendships have developed which perhaps would not otherwise have existed.
My personal growth and development, knowledge of my own trinity of mind, body and spirit and how they work together – and against each other – in the grief process – all of these evolved from the truly awful loss that I experienced.
Nothing can ever fully mend or compensate for the absence of James but the ongoing efforts – not just mine, but of everyone who knew him, and many others who did not, contribute to the prevention of future loss. My support comes from many and varied sources, each having their own place in uplifting me in my heartbreak.
There is no denying that the death of a loved one is shattering in every sense of the word. But the importance of piecing life together again is paramount. Something destructive can, and does, lead to something productive if you can use the building blocks garnered from all different directions. I speak often of the grief toolbox. Kintsugi is the latest in a long line of aids for me. I was reminded the other day of how it feels to heal from loss when I was struggling to climb a steep slope of sand dunes. For every step up that I took, the sand shifted beneath my feet and I slid back. It was a long, hard, hot climb. How like the grief path, which represents an exaggeration of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.
If you are someone who is working through grief’s non-linear, supremely challenging stages you should feel a huge amount of pride at what you achieve and how you present to the world, scars and all.
Grief is after all, like wounds. After a while they heal but they leave scars.
You can try Kintsugi yourself, whether or not you decide to break and mend a bowl – though I must confess I found it quite cathartic and therapeutic.
Look to your own wounds. Think about your personal healing process. Find the beauty in your scars and wear them with pride.
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark
11 September 1985 – 28 July 2005
Always missed, forever in our hearts.