Learning to Live: How Creating Through the Arts Can Help Us Through Grief

MAY 23, 2021 07:00 AM

Experiencing a loss can leave us feeling lost — fragmented until we find ways to recreate our lives and to feel whole again. Creating through the arts can help us to find a source of energy within ourselves to help us be present with our grief and to find a way through the grief.

The very act of engagement in an art form can allow for expression of feelings, honoring of losses and the discovery of meaning. Grief is unique to each person. You might already be engaging in art this way — looking through pictures, listening to music which may be soothing or perhaps allows you to cry, reading a poem, writing, or drawing about memories. Everyone has the capacity to be creative.

The process of creating can parallel our emotions. For example, making a collage from ripped and torn paper can be a way for our hands to express our feelings, as well as a way to discover how to form a new whole from the parts, similar to how one can find a new kind of wholeness in oneself. Creativity through the arts may function as a relaxing diversion, a chance to allow the mind to quiet itself and the body to calm. Art can provide moments of reflection and stillness, while at other times creating energy and movement.

The art product itself provides an opportunity to communicate with ourselves, as well as with others. The art product can help us to sustain bonds with the deceased and to make meaning of the loss. For example, a memorial clay bowl, made by oneself or with others, can help us to contain our grief.

The arts allow us to respond and be present, whether it be through a trip to a museum, attending a concert, or watching a movie. Reading a poem, such as “Talking to Grief” by Denise Levertov or “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, can be helpful. Listening to music can feel difficult at first, but when ready, singing or listening to songs can help tears to flow and allow forward movement in life. Some examples of songs include “Dance with My Father” by Luther Vandross and “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan.

The arts can involve an entire community, such as the Aids Quilt or a group mural, and become a way to remember that we are not alone. Also, art can be a way to communicate and share across the generations, allowing the youngest in a family or group to fully participate with the oldest.

Finding a form through which to express thoughts and feelings can offer a way to discover meaning and make sense of loss. An example from my own life involves the loss of my beloved uncle. Soon after he died, I painted a watercolor picture. I didn’t plan any particular image. What emerged surprised me — I painted a boat crossing a river, with a tombstone high above, on a hill on the other side of the river toward which the boat was traveling. I had tapped into a shared universal theme, that of death as “crossing the river,” and was inwardly soothed.

One of my favorite quotes about the arts comes from Carl Jung in his book, “Memories, Dreams and Reflections”: “To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images — that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions, I was inwardly calmed and reassured.”

We grieve not only for ourselves, for our losses and our loved one’s losses, but for suffering people around the world, for lives ended prematurely. Sometimes we react with numbness and avoidance because it can feel like too much. When overwhelmed, the arts can bring us back to ourselves, providing for communication that is often beyond words, and allow for a sense of shared humanity.

Rhonda Stern is a registered, board-certified art therapist and licensed counselor with a private practice in State College. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on May 23, 2021.