Psychotherapist and photographer, Susan Mah studied photography at L’Ecole Parsons in Paris and earned a Master of Fine Art in photography at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. In her practice, the artist’s overarching goal is to bring together her interests in clinical social work and photography. She devotes most of her time and energy towards portraits with a special interest in environmental portraiture. Learn more about Susan Mah.
Started in 2014, the Loss Project is a merging of psychology and photography, an artistic exploration of the human condition as it relates to loss. This ongoing project is meant to serve as a form of art therapy on a number of levels. For the artist, it is a manifestation of her own grief experiences. For subjects in the portraits, it is a safe place to process their own thoughts and emotions about death in the act of modeling and in receiving their images. For the audience, it is an opportunity to connect with their own sense of loss and grief in a way that is meaningful.
In seeing the project for the first time, a Facebook follower reported to Susan: “I shared your Loss Project. I love it! So many of them brought joy and sadness. In a weird way, it’s beautiful to know that someone else had felt what you’ve felt…that you’re not alone.”
“In June 2011, I unexpectedly lost my father. My parents finally both retired. We bought a condo in Florida next to their lifelong friends. They were going to travel and enjoy their retirement. One month later, my father passed from a rare variation of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I’ve been going through the classical five stages of grief. My hugely surprising discovery has been that the stages often don’t replace each other, but overlap and get commingled. I often feel that at some deep level I’m still in denial. That urge to pick up the phone and call Dad to discuss something interesting or important is still triggered.
I’ve been making an honest effort to stop feeling sorry for myself, stop looking for excuses to medicate myself with my favorite poison, alcohol, and to commit to the reality that his death was never about me—just like my life is not about him.”
“I lost my middle school music teacher to a car accident in the fall of 2015. It was abrupt. Unexpected. I remember receiving multiple messages on Facebook from a number of people who knew her and knew how much I modeled myself after her.
Dealing with her death was difficult. I did not attend the memorial service because I did not wish to see the unhappy faces of people who appreciated her. I was avoidant and I found myself busier than I needed to be. I was supportive from a distance because I was having a hard time facing the facts.
I know that she would be proud of [my] progress as a music educator. My emotions of disbelief were converted into strength. This strength drives my passion in the classroom since I use it to influence my current students. Just like how she influenced me and made herself a strong figure in my life.”
“My dad died of cancer. It started out as prostate…you know how it spreads. My initial reaction was relief. He laid in bed for six weeks, four of those weeks with no water, no food, pretty much starving to death. He didn’t want to be revived. I don’t blame him; I wouldn’t either. He was just laying there except right before he passed away. I said, ‘It’s okay to go ahead and go. Everything’s good.’ He rose up, just kind of looked at me, and he turned his head and laid back down…poof, gone.
I think about him pretty much every day. Or I say stuff that he said that I find to be funny. Especially when I’m around my siblings. I’m good with it…death in general. We all live and die. We start dying the day we’re born…unfortunately, some before others.”
“The death of my oldest brother, Sammy, has made me aware of my own mortality because we are close in age. Around the time that he died was when I started having
health problems. So in my mind, even though there’s no causal connection between the two, there’s still an emotional connection.
Initially, I thought I didn’t care because we hadn’t been friends in 20 years. We were just very different people. If he hadn’t died, we still would have not spoken this last year because I didn’t like him. I loved him, however. It’s been less of dealing with an emotional loss. My life hasn’t changed because he’s died. But the combination of his death at an early age (he was only 54) and my own declining health has given me a lot of intellectual things to chew on. When you’re young, you think you’ll live forever. But, of course, now I know I won’t live forever.”
“This friend of mine that I knew at church. He was diagnosed with cancer. And in my mind, I was meaning to see him. I thought he had maybe a year or two left. Found out through Facebook he passed on. I feel the regret of not seeing him. And he was really a good guy. How do you deal with that? You have a phone conversation with a guy. We talk; he’s a great storyteller, great family guy. You’re meaning to see him, but you don’t. You forget about it because you get so busy with life. And all the sudden…boom. You regret not seeing him. That’s an additional hurt.
I cocoon myself. Being in my room, watching TV in my bed, whatever; that’s usually what I do. I don’t want to be touched…emotionally touched.”
“Both my grandmothers died within about two weeks of each other. I had travel plans to go to Asia for a few weeks. Not long before I left, I got the news that my paternal grandmother had passed away. Of course, I was upset, but she had specified that she didn’t want a funeral and was an avid world traveller. I knew she wouldn’t approve if I cancelled my trip so I went. Every where I went, I imagined how much she would have enjoyed all the new places.
While I was in Taipei, I got the news that my maternal grandmother passed. I was totally shocked, having just lost my other grandmother; it was doubly hard. Circumstances were such that I could not get to France in time for her funeral, which was very upsetting to me also.
For years I could not mention either of my grandmothers without crying. Sometimes even now I still tear up. I think of them often and treasure the things they taught me: one taught me how to play solitaire and shuffle cards like a proper card dealer. My other grandmother taught me how to make real, French-style chocolate mousse.”
“I lost my grandmother in March 2017 due to complications in dementia and pneumonia; she would have been 91 in April. It felt like some great binding light had been turned off and unplugged. My grandmother had an ability to keep people close, to create parties and gatherings for no other reason than that she wanted to have them. She pulled the best out of everyone she knew.
The week after she passed, my aunt sold her house and the only other family I’ve ever had in the same area moved two states away. My grief manifested in loneliness and longing. I missed her, of course, but I also missed that fastening energy that she had.
I’ve started playing her old accordion. I’m still getting the hang of it, but when I practice, it feels like she’s right there beside me. She had hundreds of pages of sheet music and chord books. She used to tell my brother and I that she could have been a professional player if she’d stayed in Europe. I still miss her every day, but the music helps. It’s a language that she and I have in common and, these days, I’m not lonely anymore.”
“My grandfather on my dad’s side died at the end of 2015 of a heart attack and head injury. He was alone in his home in Mexico at the time, and it was a huge shock to everyone. At first, I didn’t know how to react. He and I had never been close, but accepting that he was gone was hard. I cried for my grandma and the rest of our family, but have not found myself missing him. The hardest part for me to reconcile with is that he ended up dying alone…no one should have that in the end.”
“My beloved grandfather, Ed Thompson, died in February of 1996. I was pregnant with my first
child at the time. Initially, it was somewhat of a relief. Granddaddy had been in failing health for
years, physically and mentally. We were told one day he likely wouldn’t make it through the
night. He made it two more months. We all loved him so much; we didn’t want him to suffer
anymore. We all knew he was at peace, at home with his Lord. My baby ended up being born on
his birthday that September.
Not many days go by without me thinking of him. He was truly one of I kind. I frequently hope
to be the kind of person he was. Kind, loving, devoted to God and his family. I’m sad sometimes
that he wasn’t able to meet my kids.”
“In the beautiful sunny morning, [my husband] preferred to remain in bed and developed a weak-toned cough. For once, he acquiesced in the suggestion to see his MD who, after several x-rays, directed emergency to receive him immediately. He had surgery the day after admittance. In two and three quarter weeks, he endured three surgeries. We veiled our fears. He succumbed to respiratory failure, sepsis, and pneumonia.
That loss was sudden and unexpected. His family kept me grounded. A friend’s counsel: ‘Slow down.’ However, I increased my physical exercise, including tai chi for peace of mind. I’ve accepted the notion he’s not returning, but strongly believe he is with family and friends now, and safe and happy in God’s hands. My sustenance: We shall meet again someday.”
“My mom died from pancreatic cancer in 2010. I cried about it a lot and talked about it ad nauseam. I met with a grief counselor. That was helpful. I exercised a lot. I went to the cemetery a lot. I became responsible for caring for my elderly dad. He was a World War Two veteran and didn’t emote much about his feelings, but just pressed on. Observing that approach was somewhat helpful.
The loss of my mom is always in the background and frequently in the foreground. It’s like chronic pain. You get used to it. I never went back to normal. I went back to something different. That time with her in my life seems distant and long ago. I don’t like that feeling. I sometimes get this feeling in which I want to stop doing whatever I’m doing and just stop; remember and reflect.”
“Dana the cat got hit by a car and killed when I was out of town. I felt devastation. Helplessness because I was not there, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Just shock…numb. Followed by all the stages…like, oh maybe it’s not her? Then acceptance and grief.
She was a rescue cat so she had a long life on a very busy street. I feel like she had a good life. She had a run at it. She never would go out on the street before so maybe she knew she was…sometimes cats do that. When they are ready to go, they either take off or…I want to think she went for it. Ran across the street in one blaze of glory. I know that’s not really true, but it’s life.”
“My younger brother passed away from a brain tumor. It will be actually be three years this February 9th so it’s still fairly fresh. My initial reaction, surprisingly…I went into a mental shock.
I didn’t feel anything. It was almost like I was numb to all emotions. I actually didn’t cry. And when I went and saw him, it was almost like I was having an out of body experience. And I remember thinking to myself, why am I not sad? I literally feel nothing.
I took on the role of ‘I need to do everything.’ I was in charge of a video montage of his photos with music. One of the things he and I had in common was music. I couldn’t find music [for the video]. I was so angry and frustrated. I was crying, just balling. All of the sudden, the TV got really loud. And it was a song by Carrie Underwood, ‘ll See You Again.’ I started listening to it, and it made me feel like my brother was there, saying ‘hey, it’s okay; everything is going to be fine.’ That was the song that I chose for him, and it worked out perfectly.”
“My god-brother was murdered by a drug dealer in 2012. His brother came to tell me he was dead, and I went to school because I didn’t know what to do. I continued to try and put on a strong face so that other people wouldn’t see that I was suffering, but I broke down weeping in class in front of a bunch of people. I also had my acting final the day of his funeral and had to go perform right afterward. I fell into depression and developed anxiety and panic attacks. So I dealt with it badly.
I am still deeply saddened by his death, but time and counseling have offered me some relief. I still occasionally cry when I think about him, but I feel like now I am mostly remembering the happy times that we shared.”
“I remember distinctly when he was given the [cancer] diagnosis. We went and ate lunch at some place, and for a while, there was total silence because neither one of us realized what the situation was. And then as he took the treatments, and it was then obvious that his time was limited, I didn’t know how I would cope by myself–not only
with his death, but with a life without him.
It’s a reality that you face, but the loss is still here. I have to be honest..what I’m coping with now….that is a fact…death happens. Now I am facing my own. And unfortunately, I would love to think that there is a life after death, but I don’t. In my view, I would love to think the other way, but I can’t. It’s just not a reality for me.”
“My adopted grandmother died when I was in my final year of high school, about 20 years ago. She was in the hospital for the year and wasn’t lucid. It helped me that she was still around physically, although not mentally, as it gave me time to get used to her being gone. I still get teary over the last time I spoke to her. We left her house, and I said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ And I thought in my head, I should say ‘I love you’. But I was already in the car and thought…no, I will see her tomorrow. She had a stroke that night and never fully recovered. I know she knew I loved her, but it still pains me deeply that I didn’t tell her that last time I saw her before her
I say ‘I love you’ to family, and even friends, way too often, just in case it’s my last time. I have dreams about her still. I miss her deeply. She wasn’t just an adopted grandmother. She was my second mom. It’s so hard for me to write about; the loss still pains me.”
“My wife died in April 2010 after battling a rare form of cancer for almost a year. She was just 53. I threw myself into dealing with all things you need to do when a loved one dies: the paperwork, the death certificates, closing accounts. And I went back to work almost immediately. I don’t think I truly felt the impact of her passing until the days right after her memorial service.
It is still hard. I miss her everyday…every time I see a piece of art she would have liked; every time I think of the places she loved: Paris and Zihuatanejo and Disneyland; every holiday, particularly at Christmas when I trim the tree. I try to honor her with what I do in the community, working with the groups she supported. I have now come to grips with the fact I will always live with her loss.”
“My dad’s partner of 24 years (my other dad) was hit by a train while jogging. He was on the track with headphones in his ears, and he never heard the train. I was in total shock. I was crying. But I went straight to my dad, and I held it together for him. He was hysterical. It was the most upset I had ever seen anyone. I had just given birth to my son a month before so I would cry when he and my husband went to sleep. I didn’t know what to do. I was extremely distraught and in disbelief. I felt like I didn’t know how to continue my life without him.
I think about and miss him everyday. I’m not always sad, but happy that I had such an amazing person in my life who loved me and knew I loved him. I still get angry sometimes about how unfair it is and how he’s not here anymore. I remind myself about how he lived his life and how he would want me to live mine. He lives in my heart, and he will ALWAYS be a part of me.”
“I lost my dad at the age of 90 from a long-time illness. Upon returning home from his memorial service, I lost my brother unexpectedly. We expected my father to pass, and I was with him just prior to his death. My brother’s passing was a shock. Initially, I just went about the business of taking care of his body, funeral affairs, and business affairs. I just felt numb. My sister was very shook up so I had to stay strong and reassuring.
Once everything was done, it really hit me. [My brother] had been homeless for sometime until a couple of years before his death. I can no longer look at a homeless person without seeing him. I grieve for him and them. There is a homeless tent city that I drive by a couple of times a week. Now, I always try to give them some money if I have any.”
“About 7 years ago, my first dog, Remington, started having seizures, and we took him to the vet. They were thinking it might be a brain tumor. I didn’t want to do anything invasive to him, so they gave him phenobarbital. Once we got the dosage right, he didn’t have any more for about a year. But then he had a major seizure, and this time he couldn’t [function]. So we had to make that decision to put him down.
We loved him so much, and we felt like: did we make the right decision or not? And we second guessed ourselves. We literally would come home from work and just cry and drink. We didn’t do anything. We didn’t see anybody. Finally, we just said: we’ve got to move on. We can’t do this any longer. We waited two or three months, and then we started looking at pictures of [dogs online]. And then this whole thing happened with Hank. Turned out he was like the perfect dog. But we still miss Remington.”
“My grandmother died on Mother’s Day about 20 years ago from a long bout with cancer. I was shocked and devastated because I kept thinking she was going to pull through and be okay.
Over time it has been a painful road. We had a difficult relationship although we loved each other very much. I went through very difficult times as an adolescent and young adult, and she worried, disapproved, and was disappointed in me. A couple of years after her death, I got clean and sober and began a journey of healing and recovery.
I wished she’d been at my wedding, seen my beautiful daughters. I live with the memories of her disappointment and am left with no chance to make amends and show her how I’ve changed. I like to imagine she sees how I’ve changed, and she has forgiven me and no longer worries and disapproves. Forgiveness and unconditional love are things I try to give myself and to give others. I try to learn from this relationship—what I want to emulate and what I don’t want to do in my relationships in the future. I want to be forgiven so I forgive.”
“My son, who was 20 years old, was driving home on a really windy road, notorious for accidents. Either an animal went out in front of him or there was a third party; we’ll never know. And he went head on to the opposite lane. Actually, it was driver to driver, and he was killed instantly.
I felt total numbness. At that time, I was taking prescription medications for chronic pain so I just started taking more. I just wanted to numb myself, just get away, get out of my head. And it worked for two years.
I’m still in a bubble, but it takes years. It’s been four years, and how I deal with it…because I’m not ready to deal with it…is pretending like he’s still in boot camp. Because he was in boot camp the year before and got out, so I kind of just play head games with myself that he’s still in the military. Until somebody raises [the issue]. And it’s almost unbearable.”
“About a month ago, a friend of mine committed suicide. When I found out, I was in complete shock. He just got married! He has two kids, one being his little girl less than 6 months old! He has an incredible family! I’ve known him for years, and I would never ever have thought he’d do this. He never once showed any sign of depression or suicidal behavior. No one knew about or understood his demons. I mostly just felt sad and frustrated.
I have a shirt with his photo on it hanging in my room. The shirts were made and sold to give all the proceeds to his wife and kids. I see his face everyday. I have to believe that he didn’t mean to, that if he had the chance to go back, he wouldn’t have done it. It may be cliche, but at every opportunity, I tell those I love that I love them. It goes a long way. It’s just that little piece of grace that we can bless each other with. It could be that little pick-me-up someone may need after a day from hell.”
“When I was about 9 or 10, I had my first major loss: my grandmother. No other person has used the words, I love you, in a more perfect way. Her energy, her aura made a person believe they could do anything. Two years later, my aunt was lost. Then there was my greatest loss: my father died when I was 18. It was something akin to watching a train charge through a tunnel, except that when a train charges through the tunnel, it comes out the other end. This time, the train just didn’t make it.
Yes, family is a support system, but everyone is hurting. Everyone is trying to find their way back to a reality they never wanted. There is loss of that person’s essence, like the smell from the clothes they wore. Slowly, these things start vanishing. It’s not until these life prints are gone that a person is truly no longer with us.
Why cope? We cope because we need to live. I coped by refusing to allow myself to be lost. I cope because no matter the length of time that passes, I was there before these losses were.”
“My mother died in 1986 after living with me for seven years. Since this was the first time I had lived alone, loneliness was a huge factor for a while. But gradually, I realized that those seven years were a blessing to me since we had learned to live together as roommates and friends.
Since it has been 31 years since her death, only pleasant memories remain. Only a little sadness now and then because I can’t call her on the phone. Right inside my pantry, I keep three things that belonged to my mother—a box of matches, a small container of toothpicks, and a box of straws. So every time I got into the pantry, I think of her.”
“My father died in 1998 due to cancer of the esophagus. I think I was in shock for a long time. It was probably about 4 years after he died that I first realized I would NEVER see him again. I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house when it occurred to me…I will never see his face; I will never hear his voice again; he will not be at my wedding; he will never know my children.
My dad wanted us to play Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” at his memorial service, which we did. When the string quartet started playing, I completely broke down and sobbed for the first time after his death. For years, whenever that piece would come on the radio, I would immediately change the channel. I just couldn’t listen to it. Finally, about 10 years later, I was able to.”
As you journey with grief, you may feel a variety of emotions, such as shock, denial, anger, depression, guilt, or acceptance. At HealGrief, we want you to know that such feelings are normal, change over time, and are ripe for artistic expression. As part of the healing process, these feelings can be shared in your artwork, whether or not you consider yourself an artist. We invite you to take advantage of this opportunity for art therapy by submitting a photo of your own. Simply click on “upload your image” and tell us the story behind the image. You are welcome to submit more than one image.