Kat Westley, a former art teacher, has seen first-hand the impact art can have on helping those who are grieving to understand their feelings. When she started a family, she reduced her teaching hours and started writing, looking at how art can help in different kind of ways. Kat has taken time out of her busy schedule to help you understand how art could help you. 


How Can Art Be A Helpful Tool During Bereavement?

The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory lists the death of a spouse as the most stressful life event, with the death of a close family member taking fifth place. Sometimes, grief can be complicated or prolonged. That is, a person may find that they are feeling intense sorrow or pain, to the extent they are unable to focus on anything else, feel a sense of numbness or detachment, or feel like life no longer holds any purpose. If you are experiencing severe or complex grief, then seeing a professional may be needed  for cognitive-behavioral therapy (or another type of therapy recommended by a therapist). In addition to ‘gold standard’ or traditional therapies like this, you may find that complementary therapies - like art therapy or artistic creation - are uniquely helpful during this tough time.

The Benefits Of Creating Art During Bereavement

Many therapists embrace art as a tool during bereavement, with studies showing that creation can have many benefits. Art enables people to express and process their emotional experiences. As they release pent-up emotions or those which are too difficult to express, they enable their therapist to broach subjects that may be difficult but necessary. For instance, the person who is grieving a loss may have had conflicts with the person they have lost, or they may not have had the chance to say goodbye. Art can help them express emotions such as ambiguity, guilt and shame - all of which can stand in the way of their progress to a more positive state.

Honouring A Loved One’s Legacy

Art can also enable the bereaved to express (figuratively or symbolically) the legacy left behind by the person they loved; this is a way for the artistic creator to shift negative rumination into positive meaning, and it can be achieved through various activities. Typical activities in art therapy include collage creation and story-telling via photos. Through their creative work, clients can fully comprehend the value that their loved one brought to their lives, and find ways to continue their legacy. The therapist may also ask their client to directly draw their loved one - once again in realistic, abstract, or symbolic fashion. Usually, the therapist provides resources that teach beginners to draw features like eyes, mouths, and other parts of the face and body. Ultimately, though, getting aspects like proportion and lighting right are not as important as relaying meaning.

Art Therapy: A Case Study

Each art therapist has his or her own preferences when it comes to activities undertaken, but the work of specialists Gershman and Braddeley is a useful case study of how the therapy works. These academics use a technique called ‘prescriptive photomontage’ to help clients revise their bonds with the person they have lost and to give their life greater value. The therapist first asks their client to tell their life story through existing photos with the deceased person. Next, the client is asked to brainstorm (alongside the therapist) about a desired story in which the client sees a future life that includes a different, yet strong bond with the departed person. Gershman (who is an artist-therapist) then creates a digital photo montage displaying this new, ideal story. She calls it a ‘Healing Dreamscape’: a way for clients to continue to feel a sense of hope, continuity, and connection.

Art therapy is just one of many complementary therapies often recommended for complicated grief. It involves many activities - including drawing, collages, sculptures, and indeed just about any art form you could imagine. The idea of this therapy is to enable those in grief to express emotions that surpass words, and to shift negative thought patterns into more positive ones. The aim is also to create a sense of connection with a lost family member or friend, focusing on the meaning they have brought to the grieving person’s life and to the continued legacy that can be carried out.

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