Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed

A participatory public art project about loss and the rituals that have provided solace.

Candy Chang & James A. Reeves

Grief is one of the most universal yet most isolating of emotions. After losing people they loved, Candy Chang and James Reeves felt unmoored and unequipped to deal with the existential questions that followed. Displays of mourning and the contemplation of death were once critical components of public life, yet much of modern society has swept these elements from view. Today fewer people belong to a particular faith and many of us are left to confront death alone without the rituals and reassurances of community. How can our public spaces better address our relationship with grief?

Heraklion, Greece

3 x 5.5 m (18 x 10 ft)
Acrylic, paper. Greek translation by Antonis Tsirikoudis.

This project was made possible with support from the Lakkos Artist Residency in Heraklion, Greece, and the Nes Artist Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland.

The mural at Giannikou 37 near Kafeneion O Lakkos in Heraklion, Greece

Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed is a public art project that offers a meditation on loss and invites people to share the rituals, practices, and texts which have provided solace. Inspired by the myth of the Minotaur, which originated in Crete, the first installation was created in Heraklion, Greece in 2017.

A Meditation on Grief

Grief is a beast that will never be tamed, a creature born from broken promises and mistakes. We will always be together. I will never leave you. Everything will be okay. No matter how heartfelt these vows might be, one day they will collapse and leave us pacing the floors in shock, half-thinking we might enter a room to find the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. Instead we discover a new companion, a shadow in the corner.

Although experienced by everyone, grief remains fiercely private. Only we know the textures missing from our lives. The sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall, the heat and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning—a voice never to be heard again. The shadow howls for answers. Infected by phrases like moving on and overcoming, we push this creature back into the darkness where it grows deformed, torturing us with dreams of running through unfamiliar rooms.

Our psyches are such elaborate labyrinths of defensive architecture, cluttered with alleys and walls that prevent grief from baring its teeth. But cracks always emerge. Grief might arrive on a gust of wind or a glimpse at a calendar, but it seems to prefer the night when silence allows it to be heard most clearly. Nails skitter across memories and regret burns like a fever. We try to fight but there is no battle here, no prize to be won. This creature cannot be buried or slain by a hero. One night it comes to you on its knees, asking for mercy, demanding to be seen. Perhaps grief cannot be tamed, but it can be loved.

Further variations of the project have since been displayed in Skagaströnd, Iceland, and Lisbon, Portugal. The collage for the mural was built from pieces of several Renaissance and Baroque paintings, including the works of Caravaggio, Valentin de Boulogne, and Michelangelo.

Skagaströnd, Iceland

Grief is perhaps the most universal yet most isolating of emotions, and we hope sharing our experiences with one another might offer reassurance—or at least help others feel less alone. Below is an ongoing archive of reflections on loss and the rituals that have provided solace, and we invite you to share your own experiences below.

Selected Responses

“I started to thumb through the pages. Inside there was a note I’d never seen before.”

I was standing on the freshman quad on a summer day in August when I got the call from a friend I hadn’t talked to in years. I remember my knees buckling underneath me as I slid to the ground, tears breaking through in a way that I’d never felt them rush before. I couldn’t breathe. She told me she’d heard it was a car crash, but it later turned out that he had just been wandering through Brooklyn, drunk, and somehow ended up near a creek where he fell, hit his head on a rock, and drowned. I still can’t make sense of that—where is there a creek in Brooklyn? It’s as if he couldn’t escape his upstate past, no matter how deep into the city he thrust himself.

It wasn’t until hours later that the memories of the night before came back to me. He had called me. I was drunk, he was drunk, I barely remember the call. I was cranky, so I hung up on him. He called me again. And again. And again. And again. I could see myself tapping that cruel little icon on my phone over and over. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.

There was a voicemail on my phone from 3am. No words. Just the sound of rushing water. I listened to it on repeat until I couldn’t listen anymore.

I think I lay in my bed for three days, but it might have been three hours, or three years. I cried, I slept, I woke. Against the wall, there was a book standing apart from the rest. I pulled it off the shelf. The Picture of Dorian Gray, my favorite book in high school, a copy that he had given me when we were lovers. My first love. He’d lived like Dorian—wild and reckless in a way that aged him prematurely. I started to thumb through the pages. Inside the front cover, a note I’d never seen before: Dear Freckles, it said. From whatever point in the future you may be reading this, know that things are great, and that we know we’ll always be there for each other. Chris.

I didn’t know that night. Now I know, eternally.

Brooklyn, NY

“I scroll through all the messages with a blue circle next to them that indicates ‘unread’.”

I was on a road trip. My mom called and said we should pull over and call her back. She said something happened to him, I asked if he was okay. She said he was dead. My cousin. We grew up together, took baths together as kids, we always sat next to each other at every family event. He was 23. It was hard to feel actually happy for two years after that.

When I finally saw his body, his eyelids weren’t completely closed. It appeared as if he was looking at me, giving me side-eye. I recognized his stern impression and I found that I couldn’t cry. It seemed as if he was saying to me, “You know what you have to do.” He was always so concerned with personal responsibility. I interpreted this last regard as his wish for me to take care of our family. When he was alive he told me to get my life together, but I wasn’t interested. Screw personal responsibility, I thought, I’m young. I had been living a dirtbag lifestyle out of a car. After he died I went to grad school and got engaged. It felt like the right time and it feels good now to have his approval. These days, I write him messages on Facebook, because that’s how we communicated when he died. When I’m thinking of him, I scroll through all the messages with an empty blue circle next to them that indicate ‘unread’. I scroll up all the way until I can see the last message from me he read, and the last message he wrote. It feels like I’m collecting unread letters to no one. But I’m comforted by their sheer number.


“I am part of his lasting mark on this earth. This keeps me going.”

I’ve lost dear pets. I’ve lost my grandmother. But the grief that has stayed with me the longest is losing my father. We found out he had stage 4 cancer in July and he was in a hospital every day until September. I became engaged less than a week after we found out. I was married the year after. A year after that, I bought a house. I was promoted at work. All big changes that he would have been so proud to see me accomplish. All moments that I would have loved to share with him. The grief still comes around, nudging me at times while I’m driving. Nudging me at times when I’m alone at home.

I find solace when I react, do, or say things that remind me that I am indeed my father’s daughter. I am glad I get to carry that with me, and I hope he is aware of the impression he made on me. He helped me become the strong and independent woman that I am. I am part of his lasting mark on this earth. This keeps me going.

Connecticut, USA

“Moments of tenderness from memories of loving and being loved help me treasure what was.”

I have lost my sweetheart and my health. I keep trying to let go, but memories overwhelm me like an ocean wave crashing over me. Moments of tenderness from memories of loving and being loved help me treasure what was.

Reno, Nevada

“The moments I want to share something, I just say it out loud and in my mind I hear her response.”

It’s been three years since I lost her but there are moments that I turn to tell her something funny and I find her place on the sofa empty. I think these moments are the most difficult. The moments I think about her, the moments I want to share something. I just say it out loud and in my mind I hear her response, what she would tell me, how she would react. This fills me with relief because I can feel her next to me.

Athens, Greece

“Love is the most important thing for a human being, but part of the price is grief and pain when you face losing it.”

I have lost the love of my life. I thought we were fine. I didn’t know what was going on inside her. It took me a year to overcome this in some way; I tried to kill myself, and a lot in my life has been declining ever since. September 15 marks the day she left me to escape our tiny city, her troubled family, and the man who loved her the most. Sometimes I hope she suffers, but I loved her so much that the feeling doesn’t last long.

I have tried to move on with my life. Sometimes I believe I’ll have to carry an open wound of this grief for the rest of my life. Nearly every day I wish she will come back, but recently I didn’t so maybe, just maybe, I can be happy again in some way. Love is the most important thing for a human being, but part of the price is grief and pain when you face losing it.


“When I die, I’ll leave behind a journal I’ve kept about our children.”

I lost my dad and then ten months later my dad. “Lost” sounds strange to me—it’s not as if they were a set of keys. Or maybe they were. Two keys to a door that no longer exists.

Do the dead really still live inside the living? I was adopted, so I can’t look in the mirror to see a semblance of them. And photos of them seem cruel. They are and are not there in the picture.

When I die, I’ll leave behind a journal I’ve kept about our children. I don’t know whether they will feel that I am less dead when they read it, but maybe they will feel more alive because the journal details their childhoods from my point of view. The journal is my grief work for the children they will no longer be.

New Orleans, Louisiana

“I don’t recognize myself anymore.”

I lost myself after I was raped during a seizure in my own home. I don’t recognize myself anymore. I am grieving for the person I used to be all the time and nothing helps. I now live in a tent in state parks. I stay a few days and move on because no one can hurt me if no one can follow me. I go to work and then drive around in circles for hours until I need to seek my tent and sleep. Grief is a constant battle. I grieve every day. Memories of flying kites and seeing museums when I was younger have brought me comfort. Believing that I can travel the world, see new things, and meet kind people have brought me hope.

Kansas City, Missouri

“It’s a mixture of trying to distract from the pain yet also offering comfort and remembrance.”

My partner just lost his aunt. She was like a mother and best friend to him. We’re in a different city so there has been lots of traveling before and after the death. As it only just happened, we are in shock and survival mode. Finding comfort is tricky as I was not close to her but he was. I guess it’s a mixture of trying to distract from the pain yet also offering comfort and remembrance—very difficult in a world where you don’t get much time to reflect.

Heraklion, Greece

“Photographic memories are comforting. Remember the good times.”

I watched my dad die. He was only 58. Then cancer took my mum and two sisters. My mum was old but it was hard to see her deteriorate in such an unkind way. My sisters died within nine months of each other, a few years ago. Being far from home, I always hear the news by phone or internet. Today grief feels like a huge part of my life. I deal with it because I must. Photographic memories are comforting. Remember the good times.

“My mother had this saying about having the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.”

I lost my mother one week ago. She suffered from cancer but died from bacterial meningitis. I feel sad but also very angry about her loss; I cry and still have not realized that she’s gone. I feel angry about the injustice of losing good people who have things to offer for more years but for some reason they have to go. I need to protect my father who lost his wife. My mother had this saying about having the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Heraklion, Greece

“I have learned not to fear death because I watched the grace and dignity with which she faced hers.”

My wife died in the summer of 2011. Her last words to me were help me die. Not in an assisted suicide way, but rather to help her on her way. Her body was full of cancer and she was trying so hard to die that the adrenaline was keeping her body going. I spoke to her, encouraging her to relax and let go, to not fight it. After about twenty minutes she gently drew her last breath. I don’t remember most of the next two and a half years. Grief is still my constant companion. I don’t cry much anymore. I walk around with what I can only describe as an emptiness. I enjoy many things today and the emptiness is still there lurking in the background. I was never angry about her death. The emptiness swallows the sadness, anger, and all the other feelings that could have resulted from her death. There is nothing to strike back at and alone at night is still difficult.

‘Comfort’ is a funny word. There is nothing that comforts me. Friends help. I used to say that I hoped I would die first. After living through her death, I am glad I didn’t die first because she didn’t have to go through what I did. I’m old enough now to know that more of life is behind me than ahead of me, and I hold fast in the belief that there is an afterlife and we will be reunited. In some way still unknown to me, we will be together again. I have learned not to fear death because I watched the grace and dignity with which she faced hers. This is my solace.


“She gave me a $100 note with good luck messages written on it. I’ll never spend it.”

I lost a close friend and mentor, my fairy godmother. I was on the other side of the world when I got the call. It still feels raw and I often pretend the loss isn’t real, that she will be there when I get back home. I wore heavy liquid eyeliner in mourning; she always wore a full face with sixties sex-kitten eyes. She gave me a $100 note with good luck messages written on it before I went away traveling, saying it would help bring me home. I’ll never spend it. I’m making a performance piece about her, probably for closure, about the places we used to go. It is here that her absence is most palpable. Changing, becoming voids as well.

Skagaströnd, Iceland

“I find doing things in her memory and honor bring me purpose and comfort to continue her legacy.”

I lost my mother to cancer in November 16, 2016. She was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s few years prior. I was aware the cancer was aggressive and our only recourse at the time was pain management. I was adamant to keep my mother home until she crossed over, and so I was there in our home holding her hand singing ‘Like my Mother Does’ when she took her last breath. It was the most excruciating and difficult thing I have ever had to do, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I just wanted my mom to know I was there and she was not alone. Grief to me is an imaginary friend who follows me everywhere. Not always present to others yet I know it is there. In every conversation, every thing I do the absence is always very evident to me.

I often referred to my mother and I as ‘Thelma & Louise’. I watch it when I am feeling very sad and alone, and I laugh and remember all of our good times and the adventures we had. I am currently in the process of becoming an Advocate for the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada in hopes to honor my mother and help others. I find doing things in her memory and honor bring me purpose and comfort to continue her legacy. So that everyone who meets me will also know her. My greatest inspiration and my hero.


“I lost my lover. He’s alive—he only left me, but it still aches like someone has passed away.”

I lost my lover. He’s alive—he only left me, but it still aches like someone has passed away. Something died inside me, something important exited my life without notice. I want to say if someone is heartbroken, in a state of deep grief after a break up, you are not alone. It only shows that you have the ability to deeply love someone. I feel the pain of rejection and regret, but at the same time I also feel that I continue to receive gifts of growth and strength by overcoming the grief day by day. I do not have religious faith, but some prayers did help me overcome the difficult times. I pray so that I would be pardoned by giving pardon, that I would be consoled by giving consolation. I pray that I will become part of something bigger than myself, and that the universe will help me positively influence another person’s life. I always try to have love.


“I had the life support removed and he died while we sang and held him.”

My husband went out in the morning one day to buy his first really nice piano. I left to go away with friends for part of the weekend. He did not call me like he usually does during the day. I had a friend go check our house as he was not answering his phone. I knew something was wrong. We found out he was in the hospital five hours away. I fell to my knees and hung onto the legs of my friends. He’d had a major stroke and was dying.

We were at the hospital with him for four days. I had the life support removed and he died while we sang and held him, and poems were spoken. He looked beautiful, like a god. It was peaceful. It was the worst moment of my life. It is two years later now. I am in Spain studying Spanish. I am trying to find a new life. I am lost. I follow threads. I don’t miss him, as much as I miss the life we had, that dissolved when he left his body. That body was our home. Grief today is quieter but comes like a trap door unexpectedly opening under my feet. I have times of great joy now, and I am glad the deepest sorrow has passed. But I don’t know what my life will become.

Magic. The universe sends me magic. A favorite song will begin playing out a window as I pass by. A book will fall into my lap with an inscription in it at the right moment. The hope and belief that life can be bigger and better, and that I survived this, sustains me.

Santa Rosa, California

“He was a musician and I listen to his voice whenever I need to.”

I was at home in Iceland when my daughter rang me with the news that my son died in Australia. I am forever changed. I see my life as before and after the event, a greyer lens on my existence. He was a musician and I listen to his voice whenever I need to.

Skagaströnd, Iceland

“I try to recreate some of her favorite meals, wear her grey turtleneck sweater.”

I lost my mom on May 5 of 2015. After a long battle with cancer, she died in a hospice room. We watched her take her last breath. She seemed to fight the end until it seemed her body reminded her there was no other way out. Grief feels heavy. It broke apart a family that, in my eyes, wasn’t entirely together. I try so hard to forgive others because she was so giving. It has proven to be very hard to do. Cancer and the cost of fighting it—plus being let go from a job she had worked at since before my birth in 2005 just a handful of months from lung surgery to remove a tumor—robbed her of the chance to retire in peace.

Grief feels heavy and dark. I try to eat many of her favorite foods, recreate some of her favorite meals (perfect homemade flour tortillas elude me still), visit the library (she loved James Patterson novels), wear her grey turtleneck sweater, keep in touch with my sister and send her texts my mother might send, even though she was terrible at texting. I kept the last voicemail that she sent one week before she died. I spend time in the house she tried so hard to save.


“Sometimes I grieve for the person I have become without her.”

Grief is not something that I have entirely felt in my life but something for which I am getting prepared. Due to the bad condition of a beloved person, I feel that I grieve every day more or less. I grieve for the moments I can’t share with her anymore, for the moments I can’t help but missing her. Sometimes I grieve for the person I have become without her and at the same time I feel blessed for the time she dedicated to helping me become the person I am today.

Heraklion, Greece

“I dedicated my degree to him. I told him this at his grave.”

My uncle died by suicide. My mom told us he was missing when she was sure he was dead. She told me on the way home from my dancing lesson, and I burrowed my head a little lower in my scarf and asked if there was anything to eat at home—to break the tension of my brothers standing around the table. He wasn’t in my life enough to really miss him, but I think I’m scared of what we have in common. I dedicated my degree to him because was very intelligent but never got the chance to pursue academia in working class England in the 1950s. I told him this at his grave.

Skagaströnd, Iceland

“Feathers, he gives me feathers.”

I lost my first born son to the needle just over a year ago—and yes, grief is a beast that will never be tamed. Feathers, he gives me feathers.

Melbourne, Australia

“I keep my grandfather’s pirate lamp on my desk and each time I switch it on, I think of him.”

I found out my grandfather was dying while I stood in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant somewhere in Utah. I drove two thousand miles to reach him before he died. I did not make it in time. He had a peculiar old brass lamp shaped like a pirate that used to frighten me as a child. Now I keep it on my desk and each time I switch it on, I think of him.


“I burn ghost money every morning.”

In Taiwan my uncle took me to a Taoist temple and we burned “ghost money”, a symbolic paper money to honor and send prosperity to my elder uncle and grandparents. It helped me feel connected to them after many years apart and I found comfort in a ritual for devotion. Now I burn one bill of ghost money every morning to honor my ancestors and other loved ones who have died. To send them my love, to remember they are in me, that I can call upon their love and wisdom whenever I need to, and to remember that I will be an ancestor one day too.

New Orleans, Louisiana

“I carry a stone from Rockaway Beach, where he taught me how to surf.”

I carry a stone from Rockaway Beach, where he taught me how to surf. No matter how bad I was at it, he was always so encouraging. It reminds me of him and to be brave like he was.

New York, New York

Share Your Experience

We hope sharing our experiences in public—both the darkness as well as the light—might offer reassurance to others or at least help someone feel less alone. The two questions below are difficult ones, so please take your time and feel free to fill out only one of them.

Who or what have you lost? Where were you? How does grief feel to you today?
Are there certain rituals, memories, texts, or beliefs that have offered comfort?

Tell us about yourself

This is optional, but we would like to credit you if your response appears on the website or future projects. Enter your information as you would like it to appear. Comments may be edited for clarity.

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