Photogrief: Cycles of Growth and Decay

Photogrief / Photogrief : Litsa

For further articles on these topics:

It’s been a while since we’ve had a new photogrief post around here. I can’t fully say why, but I think it's in part because both Eleanor and I have been feeling a bit less connected to our creativity these days.

In an effort to reconnect, I signed up for an online course that is way outside of my comfort zone. It is a grief course, but one grounded in plants, flowers, and folklore. It's a little more woo-woo than my usual style. But you've got to push your own boundaries sometimes, don't you?  

Once upon a time, nature was a huge part of my coping - in life and in grief. So it stood to reason that this class might help me get back to that.

And when things are stagnant, sometimes you just need to shake things up.

I’ll start with the bad news first.

The class has reminded me of the human tendency to both judge and “other” ourselves. As I read through the introductions of others in the course, I immediately found myself inventorying the ways I was different – the ways I didn’t fit.

I know that it is a survival mechanism. Any new place we enter, our brains start scanning and asking the safety questions: do I fit here? Am I safe? Am I part of this tribe? Are these people friend or foe? Will they like me? Will we keep each other safe?

Humans are champions at spotting and fearing differences.

So I had to push through that discomfort.

Each month of the courses has a theme and in month one I struggled to connect with that theme. I had even less motivation to create. I cycled through ‘othering’ myself for not feeling engaged. I wondered if some past version of myself would have felt differently, and would have been able to feel more connected.

The class was well taught with beautifully assembled complementary content, after all. What was MY problem?


The first glimmer of hope came in a reflection on rot.

Though the theme of the first month didn't resonate with me, a single writing prompt encouraging reflection on 'rot' grabbed something in me. Freewriting poured out of me.

It wasn't much, but it wasn't nothing.

In the supplemental reading instructor referenced the writer Sophie Strand, who celebrates the presence of “fallow periods” in her life and creative work.

What are fallow periods? She describes them as “Time to rot. Time to compost. Time to integrate and recompose”.

This I could understand.

In the course reading, the instructor wrote of recognizing creativity "as we might recognize in the ecosystems around us: creating in attunement to ourselves and others, with seasons and cycles of growth and decay”.

I read that sentence and my mind populated a timeline of my own life, with stretches of lush, colorful growth interwoven with intervals of dry dormancy, compost, and decay. I'd always known these phases existed. I'd just never considered their interdependence before, neither period fully existing without the other.

We're taught to celebrate growth, creation, and expansion while ignoring the simple reality that those periods cannot exist without time to integrate and recompose.

As someone who has found myself in a place of constant creation in recent years, I feel both deeply connected and disconnected from these cycles. I feel them in my mind and my body, whisper-screaming, “slow down” or “speed up”. But, like many, I've fought to ignore them, trying to achieve some sort of consistent rate of productivity and beating myself up for fallow periods. Ironically, I've also beaten myself up for the most fruitful periods of productivity, when all I want is to throw myself wholeheartedly into creation.

When we constantly live within the cycles of nature, why would linear consistency be the goal?

Seasonal cycles.

Circadian rhythms.

Migration cycles.

Ultradian rhythms 

Plant cycles.

"We can sprout new stories, new love, new growth, only if we surrender to the transformative magic of rot."

Sophie Strand

Remember when I promised that this was a photogrief post?

We're getting there.

This autumn, I've spent a lot of time thinking about cycles. I looked around at growth and decay, at rot and transformation. I've thought of animals that hibernate and plants that cycle through dormancy.

When I walked through fields, which I was lucky enough to make time to do, I thought of fallow periods - the time when land is intentionally left uncultivated and unplanted, so the soil can restore or replenish all that has been depleted during cycles of active cultivation and productivity.

Even dirt needs to rest. We understand that.

We don’t judge apple trees for creating no fruit most of the year, and then heaving them out at once.

And yet somehow we often don't grant ourselves the same grace. We're so pressured by the schedules of work and school and life that we struggle to tune in to our natural cycles of growth and decay, our own cultivation periods and fallow periods.

Society is so out of touch with the rhythms of grief that we fight for something linear. We criticize ourselves for dormancy, though it may be exactly what is allowing us the strength to grieve. We also judge ourselves if grief brings productivity and creativity, worrying it is avoidant or inappropriate.

Wouldn't we all be kinder to ourselves (and one another) if we embraced these cycles - the periods of composting, the fallow periods, the cultivation periods?

I think so.

I hope so.

I'm trying.

Don't worry, it really is a photogrief post.

Here is your photogrief prompt: Cycles of growth and decay. Or grief compost. Or the transformative magic of rot. Or whatever variation of this calls your name. If you'd like to submit your work, you can find the submission guidelines here.

And if you don’t want to create, then rest. Sink into your fallow period with reckless abandon.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

Related Blog Posts

Related Blog Posts

See More

3 Comments on "Photogrief: Cycles of Growth and Decay"

Click here to leave a Comment
  1. Lizzylou  November 24, 2023 at 5:37 pm Reply

    Enlightening and thoughtful article, really supportive to me. I am nearly 2.5 years from my seismic grief but this piece has opened my eyes to the life long process of grief and grieving. Thank you for taking the time to write and support everyone here.

  2. Elva L Philp  November 9, 2023 at 12:58 pm Reply

    “How are pearls made in oysters step by step?
    How Do Oysters Make Pearls? | HowStuffWorks
    The formation of a pearl starts when a foreign substance slips into the oyster between the mantle and shell. This irritation causes the oyster to attempt to protect itself, producing nacre to cover the foreign substance. Over time, these layers form a pearl.”

    Recently, I was reading about the “grief” in our lives. One author, described the grief as staying the same size; but that our lives grow around it. Suddenly, my mind went to the oyster and the grain of sand (the irritant). For us, the grain of sand is grief. An we too, want to protect ourselves from the irritant. So over time, we rebuild our lives covering and protecting ourselves from the grief within. Like the oyster, may our lives produce something beauty… pearls of compassion, wisdom, love and joy.

    • Litsa  November 9, 2023 at 10:12 pm Reply

      Ahh this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing — I know the growing around grief idea and I love the oyster/pearl analogy.


Leave a Comment

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.