Kintsugi and grief: Two common misunderstandings

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Kintsugi (kintsukuroi) orange and red striped agate stone heart pendant with gold repair on black cotton cord

The art form of kintsugi can offer hope to those who are in the midst of grief, but its message of hope is not one that agrees with many of the common messages I hear in our culture about grief. In fact, it often is in complete contradiction to those ubiquitous messages.

The problem is that it can be easy to misuse the metaphor of kintsugi to reinforce our culture's ideas about grief instead of taking the time to truly hear what it has to say to us. When that happens, this message of hope often becomes another burden for the grieving person to carry instead of a hopeful goal to work for.

Here are two common ways that I hear the story of kintsugi being misused.

The gold as the reason why

It's easy to use the idea of the gold that comes out of the healing process as an explanation for why the original loss or trauma happened in the first place.

We desperately want there to be a reason for why we (or those we love) suffer, and this metaphor offers a tempting one to latch onto. After all, if we wind up with gold in those cracks of our heart, isn't that a benefit worth having?

The problem with this idea is that it is not only that it claims a causation that is unknowable, but that it turns it into a transaction that can compound one's grief.

It says that there was some lesson we needed to learn so badly that we (or those we love) had to be punished in some awful way in order for us to learn that lesson. It subtly makes us responsible for our own loss.

The truth is that just because our healing from a loss or trauma can become gold that we value does not make it the cause of what happened.

I have learned a great deal from the death of my best friend several years ago now, but it would be enormously self-centered of me to believe that she died just so that I could learn those things. To believe that it did would compound my suffering rather than help move me toward healing.

Claiming that gold in our healing does not require any claim about why something happened or acceptance of any blame that is not ours to carry. Doing so (or trying to push others to do so) takes away from the hope kintsugi has to offer instead of adding to it.

Focusing too quickly on the gold

As a culture, we are deeply uncomfortable with grief—our own and that of others around us. We are quick to push people to look for the silver lining, to focus on gratitude, or to move on quickly from what they've lost.

Sometimes kintsugi is held up before grieving people as yet another way to push them to move beyond their grief too soon by encouraging them to look for the gold before it's had time to form.

But that's not actually what kintsugi tells us. In the art form, the gold is added near the very end of the repair process, not at the initial point of brokenness. There is a great deal of work that must be done to repair the breaks before the gold is introduced.

So it is with us.

Healing comes by going through the grief, not by trying to circumvent it by aiming for the (not yet existent) gold from the outset.

What kintsugi actually illustrates for us is that taking that long, painful journey through the depths of our grief will ultimately be worth more than trying to avoid (or numb) our pain. Knowing that gold is possible gives us the motivation we need to do the hard work of healing, not a reason to avoid it altogether.

A better hope

These common misunderstandings about the message kintsugi has for us can inadvertently do more damage to ourselves or those we are trying to comfort in a time of grief, but this doesn't mean that the metaphor of kintsugi has no hope to offer.

Rather, it means that we need to make sure that we use this metaphor in ways that focus on the hope it offers that healing will come when we face our grief and work through it and that there will be value in that healing no matter how challenging it is to get there.

Offering this as a challenge to the common cultural reactions to grief of our time instead of a support of them is a much greater boost to the hope of healing.

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