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Art Therapy: Loss, Grief, & Transformation

When starting out my career as an art therapist I did not seek out work in the field of grief and loss or death and dying, but somehow it found me. The universe works in mysterious ways and after being hired as an art therapist at a nearby hospice I realized that this was the perfect place for my professional identity to blossom. In school I had learned a great deal about how art therapy can benefit those facing emotionally charged, traumatic, and existential experiences. Suddenly the benefits of art therapy came to life when putting my training to use when working with individuals and families facing grief and loss and death and dying. Now working in private practice, at Mind-Body Art Essentials, LLC, I continue to work with many who have experienced a significant death. However, even with the clients’ who have not experienced the death of a loved one there are still elements of grief and loss within the work we do together. This may include grieving a life that once was and beginning to embrace a new life forming; it may be the grief of saying goodbye to unhealthy coping skills, which may be harmful but helped us through difficult times; or it may be the grief we experience as we heal the wounds of our past. Whatever an individual is working through, the art therapy provided often brings with it a process of loss, grief, and transformation.

So how does art therapy help with non-death-related and death-related grief?

Here are 5 ways…

  1. Sensing and Our Emotions

Art therapy allows individuals who are grieving the opportunity to express and process their sensory and emotional experiences. Often when someone has experienced a significant loss they describe the experience as a fog, a heaviness, numbness, despair… These experiences are registered in the sensory/emotional right side of our brain, which is processed and expressed through creative means much more readily then through cognitive conversation.When creating art in art therapy, the art-making process itself is what is most important initially, not the art created.Through the art making process many are able to release their emotions out onto a page or into a sculpture, and many find relief within the art making experience.Once the art is created in the presence of the art therapist the individual and therapist are then able to process the art through discussion, engaging the left cognitive side of the brain.This in turn helps the individual organize and put meaning to their emotional and sensory experiences.This is a full brain process of healing and meaning making, as sensory experiences and emotions are processed, expressed, and explored.

  1. Meaning Making

When we experience grief their can often be a feeling of hopelessness or senseless that comes with the grieving process. What is the meaning of this? Why is this happening? How can I make sense of this all? These are often questions that run through our minds during the process of grief and loss.Unfortunately, these questions have no definitive answer.You cannot Google these questions to find the answer you are looking for.The good news is that you can begin to find answers from within yourself, tapping into your own inner wisdom. In an art therapy session individuals can engage in the art making process and the art created is then explored and discussed.At first glance the art created may look like a meaningless mess but as the client and art therapist explore the artwork together deeper more significant meanings and metaphors emerge.This allows us to tap into our own ability to create meaning and perceive metaphorically within our own lives, which can in turn bring meaning and hope back into our lives.

  1. Existential Exploration

Whether we are grieving the loss of a loved one or the loss of a life we once lived, going through the grieving processes often brings up existential questions. Who am I? What is the point of all of this? Is there something bigger than myself?These are dilemmas that can be discussed but they often fall more within the spiritual realm versus the intellectual realm.The creativity which is fostered within an art therapy sessions offered, allows individuals to express and explore the mysteries of life, which there are many times just no words for.When we get into our own creative flow we are often able to discover new perspectives and insights through the emotional and heart-centered experience of creative self-expression. The creative process itself is something bigger than just one individual and many have found comfort in this as they question their own existential understandings. When creating a piece of art, like a painting for example, we start with a blank canvas and turn it into a piece of art.This process of creating something out of nothing in itself is impactful on an existential level.

  1. Honoring and Remembering

Commemorating a person, a memory, or a moment in time is very important for those experiencing grief and loss and/or death and dying.To create something tangible in honor of what once was is a powerful experience.Art is a great way to commemorate a person and can help individuals continue to feel the presence of that person in their lives.Through making art, which commemorates and honors a loved one or a moment in time, it is often then easier to acknowledge and fully convey the significance and importance of that person or memory.The art created within an art therapy session can allow individuals to share their memories more fully, to feel close to those who are no longer with us, or it can be used let go of what once was.The art created can become a living memory that carries on or it can be a temporary remembrance of what we are leaving behind.

  1. The Transformation Process

When someone we love dies we are changed forever, just as in other life transitions.The art created throughout art therapy sessions become vehicles documenting one’s transformation process, reflecting the changes that occur over time. Throughout an art therapy group or individual art therapy session the art created is kept securely, allowing clients to review previously made art, seeing snapshots of where they were and where they are heading.This can be very significant as often the grieving process can feel very slow and it can be hard to recognize the changes occurring.However, when reflecting on previously made art one can see just how far they have come.Additionally, art is changeable and it can be altered.When feeling powerless and out of control within life it can be helpful to have a vehicle where one can creatively change and alter something within a safe space.It is a reminder that things do change and we do have the ability to create and alter our own lives and perspectives.As an individual and the art therapist reflect on art made and find meaning and purpose within the art, it becomes good practice for finding meaning and purpose within the hardships of our lives. Some things that occur in life truly are senseless, but to acknowledge the strength and understanding that emerges through the hardest of times is what helps us continue on and feel a sense of empowerment.Through the powerful and transformational quality of art therapy we are able to be witness to the changes and transformations we go through.

Grief and loss is a process and there is no set timeline. As one goes through the loss, grief, and transformation process the art therapist is able to accompany the journey, providing art as a metaphoric language and vehicle for change and healing to occur. Through art making and conversation individuals are able to process their emotions, find meaning in their experiences, explore existential questionings, honor and remember what once was and their loved ones, and transform. As an art therapist it is an honor to accompany individuals on their journey.Here is to the journey!

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