24 Sep Processing Grief Through Art by Sarah M. Frank
The impact of losing a loved one is beyond measure. The experience of loss is unique and personal, and can be influenced by different psychological, cultural, and environmental factors. Generally speaking, it is normal to experience a series of emotions, referred to as the Stages of Grief, a concept first introduced by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross based on her studies with terminally ill patients. She was later joined by David Kessler who helped apply the five stages of grief to those impacted by grief and loss. These stages are not experienced in any particular order, or even in their entirety, but knowing about them can be helpful and normalize the range of feelings death brings up. These five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
In my own experiences with loss I have naturally gravitated towards the use of art-making to help make sense of painful thoughts and feelings. I would like to share some of my own personal experiences with grief and loss for the purpose of demonstrating how using creative expression has helped me to acknowledge, process, and ultimately keep living around the certainty of death as well as the uncertainty of its timing.
I started working in the field of addiction and recovery in 2008, at an adolescent treatment center near Santa Cruz. I was already practicing recovery in my own life at that time but had yet to experience direct losses associated with addiction. I remember the first boy, 18 years old, who passed from an overdose shortly after leaving the treatment center. He played guitar and had a beautiful singing voice reminiscent of 60s Folk singer Nick Drake. This, unfortunately, was the first of many more tragic and premature deaths I would come to experience.
Two years in, working with young adults battling the deadly disease of addiction, I began questioning my purpose, faith, and ability to maintain as a buoy for others in seemingly endless and stormy seas. It was around this time that I felt compelled to look inward, at my own experiences and associations with death, as well as at my avoidance of it. I’m not sure exactly what came first but I drew from personal interests in art, cultural anthropology, and spirituality to create an approachable space for processing my grief. I had already been in the practice of using creative expression (painting, photography, writing, and music) to explore and process various struggles. And I wanted to share this with others.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I had fallen in love with the festive celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, through which I felt a connection to my own Hispanic heritage and witnessed a colorful, playful, and positive celebration of life, rather than a dismal, dreary, fixation on mortality. In Mexico and many other parts of Central and South America, Día de los Muertos is a holiday where the souls of the dead are believed to return to visit their families on November 1st and 2nd. Typically families set up ofrendas, or altars, in their homes dedicated to the deceased, covered in bright orange marigolds, candles, sugar skulls, food, papel picado (inticately-cut paper banners), and framed photographs. Graves are cleaned and decorated as well, musicians play and homage is paid to the departed.
I brought my ideas to the treatment center, where I worked as a counselor and art instructor, of making a collaborative altar to both acknowledge losses in the community and invite clients and staff to honor and celebrate the memories of those they had lost. I ran concurrent groups for the clients in which we made a variety of traditional crafts and expressive art, processing feelings of grief verbally, visually, and kinesthetically. I was amazed by the response and continued to host it annually until I moved into private practice.
One of my favorite projects is to make small assemblages to honor the life and memory of particular people or other sentient beings who have passed*. I started making these as a teenager, mostly for beloved pets, some famous and personally inspiring people, and my grandparents. I find it cathartic to arrange mementos, photos, apply paint and other decorative embellishments, light candles or incense, and listen to music. This multi-sensory process brings me in contact with my own special memories of those I miss and helps me to make meaning of their everlasting impact. If something I’ve shared here speaks to you, I encourage you to consider ways you might include creative expression as a part of your own healing process. This is but one example of an infinite number of ways creativity can promote healing and contribute to psychological resilience.
*As a disclaimer, this project may not be helpful to do as an initial response to a loss or as a stand-alone practice. It is very important to seek out professional support if questioning your ability to function or take care of yourself or any dependents.