Hope – Waves of grief
Hope talks about the loss of her father and how grief comes in waves and how a therapist helped her understand that she had pushed her emotions down
By Sarah Smith DTATI, BFA
Over the last 12 years or so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with those grieving individually and in group settings, which has provided me with experience and insight into how art therapy (and art as therapy) can be beneficial to those dealing with loss.
What is Art Therapy?
“Art therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate,”(CATA, 2022).
There’s no right or wrong in art therapy, it’s a matter of using the art as a vessel for wellness along side a trained professional. There are many benefits one can receive from engaging in the art making process such as: healthy coping strategies, insight, emotional stability/balance, stress /anxiety reduction, grounding of emotions, pleasure/joy, creativity, safe space, expression, control, freedom, and connection among many others!
Art Therapy and Grief
Grief is a very layered and challenging thing that is unique for each individual who experiences loss.
Because there is no “proper” way to grieve, art therapy can make for an excellent coping strategy as it allows for each person to express themselves in the way that’s best for them.
Unlike traditional “talk therapy”, art therapy has the art, so this means that one does not need to speak if they don’t want to or if they cant find the way to articulate how they feel into words. Sometimes, while people are grieving they cant even pin point how they feel and at other times the emotions can just be so overwhelming it can affect one physically and to try and talk about the emotions just exacerbates them.
Creating art in itself can be a healing thing. It can be a fun or relaxing thing to do. Engaging in an art therapy session can allow for so many more benefits. The art therapist can provide the participant with specific art therapy directives and art materials that they feel may be beneficial to your needs. Art therapists are trained to read and assess clients’ artwork. This means they may see things you may have missed that you might benefit from if brought to your attention. This insight makes it a great learning tool for self-discovery. We as art therapists believe that the art work holds the subconscious. What’s great about this for those who are grieving is that people can process however they need to. Some people need more time to process, some people need a more gentle approach where they feel in control, some people refuse to acknowledge things, and some people are just going through the motions and engaging in the art making process. The subconscious is purging and the healing is happening whether they realize it or not.
Art Therapy Directives (examples)
I facilitated a workshop at a hospice a couple years ago and offered it to those who had lost a loved one. The workshop began with a few art therapy warm-up exercises with the intention of helping everyone feel a bit more comfortable in the space and with each other.
The first art therapy directive I had them do was make flowers out of coffee filters, markers, and water. I wanted them to make something symbolic for their loved one. They began by writing whatever they wanted onto the coffee filters. Some people wrote the persons name, poems, a memory, or even drew a picture. They then watered down the filters and the colours began to bleed. Some people cried during this part. They could resonate with the symbolism. The water like tears. The bleeding of the colours representing pain, fuzzy memories, and a distant grasp on the person. When the coffee filters had dried we had turned them into flowers. The transformation of taking what we lost and carrying it forward in a new way was very powerful to witness and a very healing thing to say the least.
The second art therapy directive was focused more on the individual rather than the deceased. I gave everyone a mask. I instructed them to paint the front of the mask how they appear to the world and I asked them to create on the inside of the mask to show how they really feel or how they are actually doing (see figure 1).
They shared their art work from the workshop, but it was heavy. They were feeling sensitive and tired among other feelings so I had them sit and talk for a bit and then had them pull a self-care card for a distraction before letting them and drive home, as it may not have otherwise been safe for anyone overwhelmed after such an engaging session. This is typically how I run a grief workshop. Before they left the hospice asked them to fill out a score sheet to see how they felt about participating in the workshop and everyone said they liked it and for reasons, such as that they felt less anxious, they felt less alone, the felt lighter and more hopeful after the workshop.
At another hospice art therapy workshop, I had them create memory boxes. I provided them with a wooden box along with a variety of art materials, the only thing I asked was that they brought in a picture of the person they had lost. The purpose of this was to give them an opportunity to create something that could hold two energies, a place to honour them deceased, but also something tangible for them to have and hold. From my observations, I remember them taking a lot of time on these boxes and they were very quiet while making them. When they shared them, they were emotional, of course, but pride came through, it was like they made them for their people and wanted to make them well, so that their loved one would really like the box. This made them feel good for reasons such as honouring the person still while they are gone. Some people felt that their guilt had been eased a bit because they were physically doing something for that person who was no longer here. To see an example, see figure 2 and 2b.
Following the memory boxes, I had them paint a step by step painting for their loved one. This was more of an art as therapy approach. This means they were literally using the art itself for wellness. They followed along with me and painted a whole painting. By following me, they were able to safely let go and get lost in the art making process. The intention was to enjoy the process while also giving them a healthy mental and emotional escape for however long it took us to paint the picture. I selected a picture of trees that had no leaves, purposely to symbolize letting go, loss, and reflection but the painting had an element of hope to it, the tress were pointing up to the sky, facing the light and there was lots of colour (see figure 3).
The photos below are some examples of art from some of my sessions with clients around grief. They speak for themselves.
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
When we experience significant, on-going symptoms of grief that interfere with our adjustment to the reality of our loss, it can be time to seek professional help. It can be difficult to know where to find help and what grief support options are available.
Begin by asking for a referral. Maybe your family or friends have received good grief support they would recommend. Your doctor can typically provide a referral or you can conduct an internet search. When you find a grief support program on the internet, take time to examine the website thoroughly then connect by email or telephone to ask any questions you have before deciding which support might be the best fit for you.
Types of Grief Support:
Individual counselling with a therapist. A professional who has experience and knowledge in the area of dying, death and grief will listen to your story without judgment and then co-create a plan for healing that feels comfortable for you. The time you spend in counselling should be dedicated to your grief, with a focus on helping you find your way through your experience using information, insights and skill of the therapist to help you through the complex feelings and tasks.
Group therapy. This type of support may be led by a professional, or may be offered by peers who have experienced a similar loss. Groups can offer a rich support experience that lets you know you are not alone, and offers you the opportunity to learn from several others living with a similar loss. The time you spend in group will be shared and with a focus on topics relevant to the group’s purpose rather than any one group member’s situation. It’s important to learn about how the group works and what types of activities you’ll experience as you decide whether to try attending a group. If the group is run by peers, ask what type of training and support they received to ensure they’re delivering quality care.
On-line forums. There are many groups and forums focused on grief education and support on the internet. These are easy to access and allow you to participate at your own comfort level, either by simply reading posts or actively sharing your own situation, seeking support and offering support to others. A forum can create a sense of community among its membership, providing a great source of information and support from others who have a similar experience of loss who share what they have learned. In public internet forums there is always a risk of interference by people who post to cause trouble, but private, members-only, moderated forums can significantly reduce this risk.
Remember, whatever type of grief support you try beyond family and friends, don’t be afraid to quit if the style or structure of the support doesn’t feel comfortable or helpful. If you’re still experiencing the symptoms that led to your decision to seek additional help, please don’t stop trying to find the kind of support that can meet your needs. There are many different types of counsellors, groups and forums and it can take some time to find the one that’s right for you. Your healing is worth it!
By Taylor Bourassa, RP & Professional Art Therapist.
Losing a loved one –whether through death or the end of a relationship, brings up complex emotions, some of which are hard to process. The first major loss I can remember experiencing was when I was quite young and my grandfather died. I barely knew the man, but to this day we still share stories of his impact on my father, his son, my mother, his daughter-in-law, and us, his grandchildren. The memories bubble up slowly and play in my mind like a distorted movie playing on the television screen. It is part of my life I can’t quite recollect without the input of others. Then in my middle teen years I attended a funeral for my grandmother’s sister, and I remember watching the grief flood my grandmother’s face as she dissolved into tears and I wondered: how can I, or any one else hold this grief in the “right” way? How can any of us help ease that pain?
When I was 16 or 17, my cat, who I still recognize as my earliest best friend, developed cancer and needed to be put down. This was the hardest thing I had had to face at that point in my young life. I was faced with what seemed to be inconsolable grief. That same thought bubbled up: how can anyone ease this unbearable pain?
A few years ago I was faced again with the reality of our mortality on this planet Earth when my dog, Roxy, had to be put down due to ailing health and decline. That same question flitted through my mind. Now, at 29, and having faced multiple losses and deaths I finally have some semblance of an answer to that question. It isn’t straightforward, and it probably isn’t universal. But it feels appropriate for me: remember, honour and celebrate. The pain of these losses will more than likely be with me my entire life, until the day I die and pass the pain onto my loved ones left behind. So long as I remember the lives of those I have lost, honour their presence and impact on me and celebrate their spirit, they will continue to live with me and the pain will feel bearable. It will no longer stop me in my tracks. Instead, it will encourage me and propel me forward through the transmutation of that grief into something different, something more nuanced and fluid. I’d like to share a practice for processing grief which I have found to be especially helpful.
Reflect on person or pet that has passed on and write a letter to them. Use recycled, bio-degradable paper to write this letter, so that when you get to the end of this invitation and you plant your letter it will be taken back into the earth and soil.
Imagine the things you appreciate about this person, the memories you two share, the impact they have had on you, and anything you feel has been left unsaid or unexpressed while they were still living. Before you close and seal the letter, read it back to yourself and sit with whatever memories, feelings and thoughts come up. Allow the energy of this person to show up and sit with that felt sense of who they were. When you are ready, fill the envelope with your letter and the seeds of your choice: flowers, fruits or vegetables. Use the seeds which you feel best honours the person. Find a location that is both accessible to you and reflects a space of honouring and celebration. This may be a favourite shared space between the two of you, or a new spot you would like to crop out as a way to honour and remember them. Once you have found your spot, take your letter and your seeds and bury them in this spot. Eventually, the seeds you have planted will sprout and grow, changing the spot into a new gravesite garden. Soon, the biodegradable letter will also be gone, subsumed back into the womb of the earth and soil, feeding the land for the growth and propagation of the flowers you have planted. Maybe these flowers will remain only in the space you created, or, what is more likely, they will be spread on the wind and the legs of bees, and the beaks of birds until the grass beneath is forever changed, peppered with new and continuing growth.
What a beautiful way to honour the deceased: recognizing their continued impact on you and the world around you as they and their memory connects with and returns to the earth. I find this to be a helpful way to process my own grief because it allows me an embodied, tangible and somatic way of addressing, honouring and processing the grief held inside my body. The grief will always be there in some capacity, and now there is a space which I can visit and reflect. The heaviness and weight of the grief is no longer mine alone – the whole earth helps me to carry it. Grief is such a unique, yet universal experience. My own experiencing of grief is all I know for certain, and so I keep searching for answers. I hope that as you navigate your own grief, you can alleviate some of the weight by sharing the load with the natural world around you.
Sarah K – Therapy helps
Sarah talks about how grief and trauma therapy has helped her in grief for her husbands death and how much trauma she was experiencing from his substance use disorders and entail health challenges
Sarah K – Trauma therapy
Sarah explains how she felt broken after her husband’s death to overdose and how grief therapy helped her untangle all the feelings that came from such an unexpected death
Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW
When Grief Therapy Can Help
Death is a natural part of life, and grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one. It makes sense that we might be able to move independently through the experience of grief as we adapt to the reality of life after loss. Sometimes, all we need is the gentle understanding and acceptance of those in our circles as we adjust to the absence of a loved one.
There are times when grief feels overwhelming, and begins to interfere with our ability to function. We can be caught in painful patterns of grief that are beyond the support our family and friends can offer us. Some signs that we might benefit from professional help include:
Suicidal thoughts. If you’re actively thinking about suicide, with a plan to die, please call a crisis line to talk with someone who understands and can give you the non-judgmental support you need when your loved ones are too worried to remain calm as you express your thoughts and feelings to work through them.
On-going, uncontrollable symptoms of distress including crying, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks or depression. These symptoms are all very common in grief, especially in the early days and weeks after a loss. As you adjust to the absence of your loved one, you should find that these symptoms decrease. Counselling can help if they continue, and if they interfere with your ability to work or take part in typical activities such as grocery shopping.
You’re relying on substances like drugs or alcohol to help you avoid your thoughts and feelings. This behaviour can cause additional difficulties with your health and your ability to function in life, and while it’s a common coping mechanism it can quickly escalate with negative consequences.
You don’t have family or friends who are able or willing to support you. It may be that you’re alone in the world after your loved one has died. Alternatively, it may be that the people in your life can’t support you in the ways you need. Maybe they don’t understand, or maybe they are too deep in their own grief.
You blame yourself, or you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts of reliving your loved one’s death. These symptoms of grief are associated with trauma and can benefit from professional support in your recovery.
Remember that while it’s natural to grieve, and grieving takes time, if you find yourself experiencing some of these more difficult situations as you try to cope with the loss of a loved one, there is help available. You can find supportive grief therapy that works for you through a referral by family and friends, your doctor or an internet search for grief therapy in your geographic region. Your grief has a real impact and you’re worthy of good support.
Adrianna – Therapy and loss
Adrianna talks about how different kinds of therapy helps
Maureen – “Group therapy vs individual therapy”
Maureen talks about what kind of counselling may work for you.
Margaux – “It never really hit me at one moment”
Margaux describes the experience of gradually processing her grief through individual and group therapy. Margaux continues to grieve the death of her mother from breast cancer.
Janice – “More to deal with than death when someone dies”
Janice explains that when somebody dies it’s not just the death that you are dealing with but the entire relationship.