Three Healing Benefits I Found Using Art to Travel with Grief
By Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe
1. If you get the bad feelings out, the good feelings can come in.
This is what they used to say at my son’s preschool. Obviously, as a psychologist, I am going to say there are no bad feelings. But let’s be real: grief has a lot of bad feelings: anger, sadness, despair, numbness, loneliness, to name a few. If you don’t get those feelings out, they can destroy you inside. Depression is anger turned inward. And when regret, anger, and sadness are left to fester, they turn to bitter resentment. As one of my colleagues in substance abuse recovery used to say “Better out than in.” Art provides that out. The blank paper, canvas, journal provides a non-judgment space in which you can rage, despair, and get the bad feelings out — without hurting yourself or anyone else.
In the early grief after my husband died, I experienced so much anger. It was hard to know what to do with it. I wanted to cut it off, bypass it, or have it not be there. But it was there. And it didn’t go away. Art provided a safe place for me to rage on paper. I ripped up journals, letters I had written to God, and letters to family members with whom I felt angry. (If you need to write an angry letter, best to write it on real paper, NOT email, and don’t send it. Just get the bad feelings out. You can always write a more eloquent letter later…once you have gotten the anger out.) I piled these letters into a heap of paper. Then I painted brown over them, literally making them into a compost heap. I painted a tiny sprout emerging. I needed to know something would grow from the anger. I needed to know I could get it out and it wasn’t bad; I wasn’t bad. (Like many women, I was socialized from a young age to learn the false belief that “good girls don’t get angry.”) I wasn’t “an angry person.” I was grieving. I was a human being experiencing grief. Anger is a normal part of grief.
2. Art provides a place when words aren’t enough.
People are often at a loss for what to say to a grieving person. And grieving people are often in such a state of lostness in grief, they can’t identify what they need when asked by loved ones “What can I do to support you?” This is partly because we don’t live in a death- and grief-literate culture. We live in a culture that compartmentalizes death and grief as something to avoid at all costs. We live in a culture that encourages trying to be (or look) young/happy/thin (as far away from the discomfort of mortality) for as long as possible. Grief—especially grief that is disenfranchised or not seen—is a Grand Canyon of vastness that can be hard to even find words to describe.
Art provides a place that can hold that vastness. Art, like nature, holds space for many seemingly conflicting emotions and perspectives all at the same time. Art can hold not only the chasms of anger, regret, and despair, but also the broken open beauty, awe, and deep connection with life and love that grief invites. Grief is often described as love that has lost its landing place.
In the first year after my husband died, I painted the stages of grief, as articulated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. (No, they are not linear. Or prescriptive. Or ever “completed.”) As I was painting these, it helped me experience and articulate, in a way I couldn’t with words, what denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance felt like. David recently added a sixth stage to the original five stages: Finding meaning. One of the most profound ways to find meaning is through the language of symbols.
3. Art creates new meaning and opens the world of symbols-as-medicine.
When my husband was sick with pancreatic cancer and going through treatment, he would look out in the garden and watch a hummingbird visitor. As he was needing to conserve his energy from seeing visitors, but so many people wanted to send him love, I asked them to make origami hummingbirds for us. I then hung them from the ceiling, in the window, on the Christmas tree. I needed symbols of hope. I needed messages from family and friends, and the spirit world, that we were not alone on this journey. Once I opened this symbolic door, hummingbirds began appearing everywhere. I went to the chapel in the hospital where he was having surgery, and the journal to write prayers in had hummingbirds on it. I looked for a grief support group for my kiddo, and the logo was a hummingbird. After my husband died, I was searching for poems by Mary Oliver (one of our favorite poets) and one I’d never read before about a hummingbird popped up. A colleague of mine calls these synchronicities “God winks.”
These symbols and synchronicities can mean different things at different times in your life, as you carry them with you. Originally, the hummingbird represented hope for healing and a cure for my husband. They now represent an ongoing connection with him, from the other side. When I see one, I know he is still with us, telling me to remember love, and that it is possible to carry grief with grace.
Linda Shanti McCabe is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified grief counselor, and author of “After Your Person Dies: Affirmations for traveling with grief, making meaning, and going on.” Follow her on Instagram at @griefandart.