Someone painting with blue watercolour

How to process grief through art

Posted by AK Lander | On April 29, 2019 14:24

People process grief in different ways but for many, art can help contain and understand their feelings. Learn more about how you could use art when grieving.

When a loved one passes away the grief can be overwhelming. For many, planning the funeral helps channel their emotions and keeps them busy, from picking gravestone designs to the funeral flowers. However, after a while, people are just left with trying to process their grief. Everyone copes with grief in different ways, one way that has helped many people is through art.

For thousands of years, art has been used to portray emotions. The world’s most famous painters have created masterpieces whilst they’ve been grieving. Whether they are good or bad emotions, creating art has helped people to acknowledge and cope with their feelings. There’s no quick fix to grief, it’s an up and down journey which is different for everyone, but art can be a way to help make sense of the process.

“Art therapy acts as an anchor.”

Pot of paintbrushes

Charlotte Jane Kessler is an artist who creates meaningful pieces of art, from portraits to landscapes, she explores themes of disconnection, deep emotions, grief and empowerment. Charlotte, who has a background as an Art Psychotherapist, believes that art has the capacity to bring healing. When dealing with the loss of her Father, Charlotte regularly used a sketchbook to express her feelings.

We spoke to Charlotte to find out her thoughts on how art can be used to help with grief: “Art can help a person experiencing grief and loss in many ways. I don’t consider that grief is something to ‘get over’ as grief is an expression of love, instead, it needs to be given space; loving and nurturing care. It is not a comfortable experience in life however listening and tending to one’s grief actually keeps us more connected to ourselves and to love.”

When experiencing grief, you will feel a lot of different emotions including anger, sadness and anxiousness, and these can feel overwhelming. It can be hard to put into words what you are going through, which is where art may be able to help. By expressing your feelings onto a page, it can be a way to ‘contain’ those emotions.

Charlotte continues: “After my father died, I used my sketchbook regularly to express my feelings. It helped me to simply stay with myself when there was an urge to escape difficult feelings. Not only did it help pass the time, but it also felt like my grief had a home in my sketchbook. I had a home there too. Parts of me that weren’t ready to speak out, or feelings that I couldn’t put into words.”

“I could look back over the things I had drawn and seen my feelings in a more manageable way. I also found that it helped me to realise when I was recovering from the grief because when I looked back at the images, I understood them differently.”

When creating art to help with the process of grief, you don’t need to worry about anyone else seeing it or whether it even looks like anything. Charlotte says: “Sitting with some art materials and a sketchbook, simply doodling, drawing and sketching out thoughts and feelings is hugely beneficial in all stages of grief. The ‘making’ activity helps to fill a space in time where a person may feel lost and unable to do much and it also acts as a container in which to safely put feelings and thoughts that might otherwise be overwhelming.”

“If a person needs any kind of top tip, I would suggest they allow what comes up and stay with it using the art making. Let go of any judgement about what is considered good or bad art. Also, seek professional help from an art therapist who can support you in the therapeutic process of image making.”

“It allows me to feel calm and connected”

Paintbrush on a sketchbook

Carol L Myers is a retired nurse who put herself through art school whilst working at a hospital. Carol works with mixed media and has a mission to promote art as a life-enhancing activity. Carol has experienced the loss of her daughter and believes that art does help heal. We asked Carol to share her thoughts on processing grief through art and her advice to others.

“The creative process is the birthright of every human. Doing something creative, be it art, music, off-key singing, dancing, the list goes on, allows one to drop down out of the left, worrying brain. They can go into an intuitive, connected space where they can be more in the moment and feel not only sadness but also wonder and connection. I have found that drawing enables me to tap into deep body wisdom. In the flow of creative work, the mind is silenced, and intuition and memories can float to the surface. You can surrender to the feelings rather than fight against them.”

To try and use art to process grief, you don’t need to have an art degree or even know how to draw, just by using a pen to make shapes and draw lines may show some benefits. We asked Carol to recommend what people can do if they decide to try using art to help: “Doodling and journaling are good starts, or maybe a class on a new technique that sounds like fun. Art therapy can be wonderful, and a group session can create lasting friendships and minimize feelings of isolation. It helps if whatever one chooses to do feels like play, without pressure to create a masterpiece. Even colouring pages can be a joy. I love to doodle and draw.”

“I started using pencil doodles as a meditation and centring process. This practice morphed into my Pencil Prayers. These are small drawings or doodles where I imagine that I am stroking the energetic web that connects us all and mending and stitching it back to wholeness. I have found that this meditation allows me to feel calm and connected and ready to send that healing energy out into the world. Insights and intuitions often come to me during my drawing. I also give these Pencil Prayers away, often sharing the loss of my daughter. I am always amazed by how many people respond with their own stories of loss, eager to tell me about their loved one.”

“Both grief and art are parts of our nature.”

Person painting blue lines

Jackie Morris is an artist who specialises in creating beautiful paintings of birds. We asked Jackie to share her thoughts on how art can be used in the process of grief: “I feel that art can help us to understand and live with grief so that it doesn't overwhelm.”

“Many of my books have been used to help to open up discussions about grief, to help people, especially children, to find a safe place in which to talk about their feelings. Because grief often does overwhelm and rip and tear at us, and somehow society seems to want it closed and shut away. To open to it, to talk, to feel it, to endure it and accept the myriad of feelings that make up its parts, from dark anger to deep sorrow.”

“Art can help to open up parts of ourselves that we try to lock down, to suppress. Sometimes there can be massive feelings of fear associated with the overwhelming power of grief. Art can help us to make sense of this and help others to catch a glimpse of how we feel.”

If you are struggling with grief and want to try using art to help, a good place to start is by attending an art therapy group and you will meet others going through a similar experience. Or, just pick up a pen and start doodling.