Grief and bereavement impact nearly every individual at some point in their lives; this experience can often be recurring, leaving the grief-stricken at high risk of adverse psychological consequences (Weiskittle & Gramling, 2018; Nelson et al., 2022). While traditional and vocal therapy can be effective, it is not the only treatment to address grief; not all people, especially children and teenagers, can express their sorrow through language. Employing an expressive art practice has many advantages, including how information is given and received. It is an opportunity to rely on something other than words (Haen & Boyd Webb, 2018). Creative expression can be a powerful tool in developing skills to manage the trauma and vulnerable emotions of grief and bereavement by providing a safe nonverbal place to assist in expressing emotions, building resilience to ease the duration of pain felt by grief and comprehending the experience of the occurred loss.
The implementation of art therapy through creative expression allows people suffering from the trauma of grief to communicate their emotions without verbalising their pain through traditional therapy. Children and teens are often described as disadvantaged mourners; they tend to take things literally, which means traumatic grief and the death of a loved one can interfere with normal development (Torbic, 2011). Although language develops rapidly in young children, nonverbal communication remains their primary way to communicate, such as drawing and play (Christ, 2010). Children, especially teenagers, also act out when suffering from grief because they do not always know how to communicate what they need or feel on the inside (Torbic, 2011). According to Zambelli & DeRosa (1992), art therapists asked children to draw their response to the death of their mothers after shutting down when they were asked direct questions about how they were feeling. The results of all the artworks varied; however, the common theme was that all the children could better articulate their feelings through imagery. They also understood by looking at each other’s artworks that they were not alone in their sadness. Not being able to articulate emotions is not exclusive to children as, according to dE Willoughby (2017), where many clients suffering from grief often claim that finding words to express their loss is hard except to say it hurts or that they feel overwhelmed by the constant pain. dE Willoughby (2017) also points out that the evidence of tears that never end from someone grieving is the body expressing this pain, which is challenging to communicate with words. “Art therapy is for when you cannot grasp the words to explain outwardly the feelings you have, the art speaks for you.” (HW’s AT Participant as cited in Nelson, K et al., 2020, p 7). The creative process can mentally transport the bereaved into a mindful flow where they lose track of time and grief, alleviating sorrow (Arnold, 2023). Being able to communicate through art indicates that expressing emotions and grief this way is more comfortable for the bereaved to communicate than through traditional therapies.
Using creative expression as a therapeutic tool has proven to help individuals process their grief in a healthy manner and build resilience which Firestone, S. P (2013) defines as being able to recover by creating character strengthening adaptability, flexibility, and ultimately reducing the time it takes to mourn, “If you give yourself time to grieve the healing will be accomplished sooner than if you ignore it.” (Coeren. C, 2018, p138). Goleman (1995 as cited in Anderson, 2001) makes the point that brain research shows that trauma imprints within the emotional part of the brain and that it is through repetitive art-making that traumatic images can be revisualised. Being able to “story tell” or depict the narrative of loss through art making can also restore the emotion of hope and bring back a balance to the world during mourning (Arnold, 2023). People expressing themselves through art places them into a self-care, relaxed and mindful state where they can gain control over these images and adjust them so healing can begin, alleviating sorrow and loss (Anderson, 2001). Beneficial aspects of this also include finding joy and releasing emotional tension, assisting in the shortened bereavement duration. dE Willoughby (2017) emphasises that “distraction” has an impressive ability to provide relief from grief, so utilising mindfully creative expressive therapies allows the bereaved to be less focused on their pain and more open to varied information that can help them to explore other methods to make them more empowered over their emotions and build resilience. Conducting art therapy and art discussions is also a profound way to influence feelings of aliveness and elevate spirits (Arnold, 2023), informing us that artistic expression practices successfully enhance the mood and resilience of people suffering from grief and allow the bereaved to tap into one’s inner healing resource, offering a sense of balance in the world. (Arnold, 2023).
A significant part of grieving is trying to comprehend the feelings of loss and the void that is left behind; making sense of this absence is difficult while feeling extreme levels of emotions (Arnold, 2023), particularly as relationships do not end when a person dies (dE Willoughby, 2017), understanding this loss is imperative. Arnold (2023) suggests that the utilisation of art-making provided a ritual experience that offered a restorative place of mourning and healing reflection. According to Arnold (2023), in a study exploring grieving artists, most participants who had suffered significant loss often used symbolic imagery to represent the deceased. The below artwork depicts imagery that metaphorically represents lost loved ones, a flower to symbolise the mother and a pipe and sweet potato that represents the deceased father. The art becomes a symbolic connection to the deceased, helping to create positive emotions to support healing and to depict a record of progress and hope that moves towards health and acceptance (Firestone, S. P, 2013).
Using creative therapy to express these emotions visually, develops a legacy for the deceased, and an understanding of their relationship by creating a narrative or story to make sense of a problematic situation (Weiskittle & Gramling, 2018; Nelson et al., 2022) while also accepting the reality of the death (dE Willoughby, 2017). Studies show that the art created from grief can often memorialise and create symbolic relationships as well as honouring a lost one, which helps keep the departed close (Arnold, 2023) and assisting in creating autonomy over the grieving process. The artworks often celebrate the deceased, appreciating the relationships that existed with the person, which changes how grief is experienced (Weiskittle & Gramling, 2018; Nelson et al., 2022). It helps the bereaved remember essential people and express their shared memories (Arnold, 2023) while continuing bonds with the departed, alleviating negative grief symptoms such as distress, anxiety and depression (Weiskittle & Gramling, 2018). As shown in the artwork below, a participant in a survey conducted on the experiences of personal loss due to the death of a loved one has memorialised his father in imagery and name. Having this artwork visible helps keep the departed close in a way that is not possible physically (Arnold, 2023).
It is evident through research and case studies that employing an expressive art practice either through professional art therapist or individual creativity has positive impacts on the mental health of people suffering from the symptoms of grief. The emotion of grief perpetuates a sense of vulnerability; therefore, the bereaved can be more open to discovering healing properties and beauty through mindful creativite practices such as art therapy, which reduces the symptoms of grief (dE Willoughby, 2017). This creative thinking fosters resilience, humour, imagination, insight, and meaning in our lives, which helps fill the void the deceased has left behind (Vaičekauskaitė Grubliauskienė Babarskienė, 2021, as cited by Lev, 2022). Art therapy and expression have a solid healing element that alleviates sorrow and loss and helps the bereaved navigate the grief experience. It can give a voice to those who cannot articulate their pain, provide coping mechanisms to identify their emotions post-loss, and build resilience. Creative expression provides the optimum environment to reflect and express emotions creating the space to heal and reduce the time of mourning.
Anderson, F. (2001). Commentary. In Judith A. Rubin (Ed.), Approaches to Art Therapy: Theory and Technique (2nd ed., pp. 254-255). New York: Routledge.
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Sydney based mixed media artist.