Creativity and Grief: Holistic Companions
By Claudia Coenen
When I was growing up, creative expression was as natural as breathing. The arts guided me through whatever happened. The darkest times found expression in dance pieces that explored those events and theater, poetry and music awakened in me a love of storytelling and the possibility of creating a better world.
For millennia, the arts have been a rich ground for emotional experience, stimulating thought and non-verbal discovery. We express ourselves creatively without realizing it, using example and metaphor when we tell someone about our lives. The written word, sculpture, painting, symbol, all art connects the different realms of being, joining together the physical, emotional, spiritual which makes us whole. If living is a holistic experience, grief is one as well. By approaching grief creatively, we have an opportunity to repair what is broken, celebrate what has been lost and look towards learning how to live again.
When death strikes someone close to us, it is important to talk about it. The story is often related many times, as if the grieving person needs this repetition to believe what happened. But talking alone often does not move grief as one can get stuck inside the story itself. Creative retelling reshapes the story, moving it from the last moments of loss to the story of the relationship, how it has influenced and shaped the life of the person who is still alive.
The death of my husband at age 50 shattered my life. In the compulsion to put myself back together, I reached for my personal creative toolkit. As a dancer, I knew how to move stuck emotion and release it through shape, gesture and stillness. As a journaler, I wrote my way through, using color, line drawings or writing in diagonals or circles, especially when I felt as if I was stuck inside a whirlpool that I could not escape. These notebooks contained musings and unruly feelings and after writing, I could close the book and set it aside for a while. This enabled me to get through a bad day; by pouring what was inside my body, heart and mind into the books, I was freed up to address some daily tasks. By delving into and expressing the pain, I could take a pause and accomplish one or two ordinary things.
I offer creative techniques to my clients in many ways. If a client uses a metaphor, I invite them to draw this image. One woman said that she felt as if a dark cloud was above her head, following her everywhere. When she drew this image, I asked her what was behind the cloud and she drew a sun. She said it was her father, shining down on her. After she completed this childlike drawing, she said she had lifted the cloud.
Collage is another expressive technique that is helpful in grief. When life feels broken, pasting bits of images into a whole can be reparative. A client with cancer was coping with a lot of fear as well as fending off unsupportive family members that she felt were interfering with her focus on healing. I gave her a large cardboard circle, magazine images and words and invited her to make a Shield of Protection. She used images that were empowering and grounding for her and words to remind herself to breathe and be grateful. She took the Shield to each chemotherapy treatment, propping it up where she could see it.
I use images of trees and ask clients to fill the branches with the names of people who support them. A wheel allows them to identify aspects of themselves that express their own skills and resilience. Imagining an open palm allows a griever to place a difficult emotion in their hand in order to investigate its energy and discover its message. When a client is hunched over, trying to contain their sorrow, simply rolling their shoulders and opening their heart shifts how they feel.
Expressive modalities help weave a person back together. Creativity offers different ways to imagine meaning and purpose and how it might feel to become whole again, even after the shattering of grief. Creative expression does not have to produce a piece of art; the process itself is where the healing is found.
Claudia Coenen is a certified grief counselor in private practice at The Karuna Project in Hudson, New York. She presents workshops on grief processing, fear, and uncertainty in complex situations and vicarious trauma in the workplace. Claudia is a fellow in thanatology through the Association of Death Education and Counseling and holds a Masters in transpersonal psychology, with a focus on creativity and innovation. More