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- author Jackie French

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Guest Post: Ryan Abramowitz on Creating Elegy For An Elephant

Join author illustrator, Ryan Abramowitz as he unpacks the artistic shapes of loss and love through animal allegory with the creating Elegy for an Elephant. We recommend you first read Elizabeth Vercoe's stirring review of this incredible new picture book release. 

How does the passing of my father catalyse the migration of an elephant crossing picture book plains? 

Views of the world outside windows have always framed elements of authoring and illustrating my debut picture book Elegy for an Elephant (EFAE). I was staring at the sad fog outside the courtyard of my Copenhagen dormitory studying abroad when my sister called to tell me our father had ended his life. 

Her words, like the whiteout outside were heavy and surreal. Seven years later, I have folded this lived experience into EFAE which is aimed at readers (aged 7+) navigating grief, and for the families and communities supporting them in their mourning.

I was staring out the night sky from the airplane windows when I was returning home to my dad's funeral in Sydney.  As I was flying parallel to the earth on a horizontal axis, his soul was ascending vertically to heaven and we said our goodbye in the clouds. And during those long nights in lockdown, in the stillness and silence I called out to my dad again. Across the constellations he appeared in elephant form. Since then I started imagining the world through an anthropomorphic lens, and so as flippers fold into feathers EFAE chronicles the journey of a whale and two birds (based on my sisters and I). Perhaps interpreting this life event through animal allegories makes something so heart-achingly devastating, somewhat more digestible. To me, this is also the magic of picture books.

Understanding the sensitivities and triggers of addressing such subject matter, I felt it was important and responsible to collaborate with esteemed organisations like Roses in the Ocean and Jesuit Support after Suicide services, which offer crucial support to those grappling with suicide loss. Similarly, opening up a dialogue and frequently engaging with mental health experts, child psychologists, suicide bereavement researchers, and grief counselors gave me invaluable feedback that ensured the book treads as gently and delicately as possible. As such EFAE is designed to facilitate safe discussions surrounding loss. 

This made the process of creating the picture book an even more complex undertaking. In addition to working with the editor and art director (Margrete Lamond), every third or four draft of the manuscript was shared with these mental health reviewers to gather their insights. These were then baked back into the revisions. In tandem, I was also learning about how to harness the elements of visual neuroscience (such as voids and masses, horizon lines) to establish narrative mood while working on the storyboarding of the artwork.

The profound weight of grief that follows a parent's suicide is imbued with unique textures of grief such as abandonment, guilt and confusion.  It's not just mourning a loss, but untangling a web of emotions rooted in the circumstances of the death itself.  Haunted by the questions of 'Why did they leave?' or 'Could I have done anything differently?' inspired me to consider a plot in which those left behind are given the opportunity to ask the departed soul these burning questions. 

As such EFAE prompts such important conversations between children and caregivers or teachers, acting as a catalyst for healing discussions. Artistically, these pages show the cycles of the moon as markers of time, while each child is illuminated by the soul of our father (whose embrace is expressed as a starry and luminous trunk).

Children thrust into the realm of suicide loss undergo what's known as ‘traumatic complex grieving’ and conflicting emotional processes.  A blanket stigma often isolates survivors, inhibiting access to vital support, while there are currently few resources in the suicide bereavement space.  It is into this literature shortfall that I believe Elegy for an Elephant can make a meaningful difference.  Transparent conversations about suicide empower children to process their emotions without shouldering blame. Amidst my own journey of healing, I also realised that embracing the memories of our lost loved ones allows them to feel present and accessible, even in the void of their physical absence.

As animals drawn from of the land, sea and sky the characters can be anyone, making EFAE feel timeless and relevant. Through the resounding message that our loved ones live on within us and through our living, I hope that EFAE is a testament to enduring love and a comforting companion in times of sorrow. 

It is my wish that this elegy for my father inspires readers to imagine their own. So that in the stars readers may also see the loved lost crossing the starry firmament. This can transform pain into empowering a sense of healing and connection, because grief is love.  My wish is that this book helps those in grief to feel seen, soothed and supported, reassured that love surrounds us like the ocean, and is forever, like the stars.

Ryan Abramowitz is a Melbourne based artist and writer. Learn more about his debut picture book, Elegy for an Elephant online at www.narrativesofnature.com  Or follow the artistic journey on Narratives Of Nature's Insta account and Facebook

Disclaimer: "Elegy for an Elephant" is a fictional work by Ryan Abramowitz and is not intended as a substitute for professional mental health advice.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice. For guidance on supporting children through grief and mental health challenges, consult with qualified professionals.