Art: The Missing Key to Your Grief Recovery

I live with my husband and young son in Boise, Idaho, where life is a beautiful dance between my roles as momma, artist and therapeutic art coach. I’m passionate about bringing light and life to dark places, and one of my favorite ways to do that is in my position as the art ministry director at our local church. I created Project Grief so I could help others learn the power of art to heal after experiencing a loss. Find my Project Grief workbook here and my Project Grief YouTube playlist here.

I was twelve years old when I experienced mortality in full force for the first time. I had woken up around midnight to find all the lights on in the house. So I walked into my parent’s room to ask what was going on. That’s were I saw my dad’s lifeless body on the floor, EKG cords still attached. The grown-ups were all downstairs signing the papers.

I never could walk on that spot of the carpet where was dad was laid. Instead, I only walked the perimeter of that room. Eight years later, we had moved from that house, but the memory was still overpowering. That’s when I realized that in order to move forward, I had to get that memory out.

So I set up my easel and began to paint.

I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. My painting journey really took off when I was a high school student struggling with depression. I began painting as a way to express the darkness inside and to find the light again.

The day I had felt an overwhelming burden to get that old memory out, I pictured myself laying on the couch after everyone had finally left that night. I had laid there thinking over and over how life as I knew it had completely changed.

Then I glued parts of an old clock onto the canvas to allude to the human capacity for mechanical expiration. I painted and painted and the emotions rose up as if I was experiencing them afresh: terror, confusion, denial, despair.

But something else happened too.

As I finished painting, I got up to look at it from a distance. Something was different inside of me. I burst into tears.

I realized that in the process of painting it out, I didn’t feel like the little girl lying on the couch anymore. Suddenly, I felt free to leave my painting on the table and walk away.

Using art, I had unknowingly turned a gravestone into a milestone.

Therapeutic art isn’t just for artists

While my journey combining art with emotion and faith began for my personal benefit, I became a peer mentor as a college student and began to use art to help a few of my students struggling with grief, stress, and other issues.

When words failed, I’d take out a pack of Crayola crayons from my backpack and grab a spare napkin and gently ask them to “draw it out” for me. Even when they just drew scribbles or stick figures, the marks were significant to them, and allowed for us to push past whatever was blocking them emotionally.

Watching their breakthroughs, I realized there was something here for me. I could teach art as a tool for self-expression, and walk with people through their own darkness to find light again.

When someone says, “I’m not an artist,” what they mean is “I’m not a fine artist.” They don’t paint in oils, have pictures in galleries, or wear a beret. The thing is, you don’t have to be a fine artist in order to experience the benefits of art as a tool in your own grief recovery.

“Fine Art” is about the quality of the final PRODUCT, but Grief Art is all about the PROCESS. That’s why anyone can learn to use art to express their grief. I like to tell people I work with that if what they create turns out messy or ugly, they’ve done a good job! They’ve just expressed something profound that you needed to get out, and it truly was messy or ugly. And that’s OK.

Why art works for grief recovery

Loss takes us beyond comfort and our words often fall short of expressing the pain we feel inside. That’s WHY it’s so helpful to use art as a tool for our grief recovery.

ART takes us beyond words, to express deep, painful, overwhelming, and abstract thoughts and feelings surrounding our losses.

Here are just a few reasons why I think that art is so helpful for those who are grieving, illustrated by my own stick figure drawings:

1.) Grief and Art are both abstract.

This is the reason why we can go to art (beyond words!) in order to express our deep emotional pain. Try describing grief in words and you’ll end up describing a collection of symptoms that you’re currently experiencing. Try drawing or painting what grief looks or feels like, and you’ll end up with something that’s likely abstract and ugly, but that’s also undoubtably true.

2.) Art helps you externalize and evaluate your thoughts and feelings.

If you dare to let yourself draw or paint how you feel, your artwork can then act as a mirror for seeing what’s going on inside. You can then ask questions of yourself Why does my grief look like that right now? Is that actually true? What about this is beyond my control? What is within my power to change?

3.) Grief and Art are both processes.

There’s no set step 1, step 2, step 3, when working through a difficult drawing, or painting a masterpiece. The artist (child, amateur or professional) moves all over the paper or canvas, adding a little paint here and there, correcting one place, emphasizing another. Grief is also a process that unfolds over time. There’s no set steps on your way to healing.

4.) Art can help us begin to imagine and reconstruct our lives post-loss.

The “painting” of our lives before loss was beautiful and familiar. We liked it! When loss happened, it totally destroyed that image we had of how our lives would look. While it is good to mourn that old life, after a while we begin to recognize that in order to keep on living, we must make a new painting on top of the old one. Art helps us imagine into the destruction and begin making something different, as well as new and beautiful.

You can try it for yourself  – start small.

Anyone and everyone regardless of skill level can learn to use art as a tool for personal self-expression. You don’t need an expensive therapist or professional art supplies to begin. As an artist and also a Creative Life Coach, I recommend starting small. Here are two simple ideas:

  1. Grab a Post-It note and a pen. In 10 seconds, fill the small square with one long scribble. Do you notice any parallels between that scribble and what you’re feeling inside?
  2. Set up a canvas and choose one or two colors of paint. Set a timer for five minutes and make it your goal to simply cover up all the white. When you look at the colors, how do they make you feel? Which “colors” would you like to feel instead? What if you painted these colors on next?

Here’s a resource to help:

Project Grief is a series of therapeutic art projects I created with the goal of helping a griever express and ultimately transform their thoughts and feelings through art. As each griever learns to embrace the process, let the tears come, and face the “blank canvas” of their loss, they become more and more like what I call a “Grief Artist”.

“Grief Artists” are people who take the pain of life & transform it into tools and lessons that help them to continually discover a new identity, to love deeper, be more present, and to better work through difficulties as they come. It all begins with a change in mindset from seeing yourself as a passive “victim” of grief, to approaching thoughts and feelings as a “grief artist”. You, yes you, can be a grief artist, too.

Project Grief began as an online school, and transformed over the years into workshops, virtual coaching, YouTube videos, and most recently, a digital workbook. One of my goals is to make grief recovery as accessible as possible. You can try Project Grief out for yourself for FREE here.

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