Art Can Be Therapeutic in Coping With Grief

For Jennifer Rodgers, creating art  in the aftermath of her father’s death was “a physical release of emotion.” Rodgers described her process of working through her pain in a recent interview with  Her techniques are fascinating. Rodgers mapped out the paths she remembered pacing in hospital corridors, and blocked out her drawings with colors that she remembered from the last days of her father’s life, like the yellow of the ICU unit walls and visitor gowns.

Coping through Art

Creative outlets—  like art, journaling, or music —  are just one way to work through grief, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The Society’s “Coping with Grief” article includes other suggestions like maintaining a routine, and being patient with yourself while you grieve. The bulk of the Society’s suggestions involve expression and talking, such as therapy, counseling, talking with a friend, or joining a support group. But the article also mentions physical expressions, such as walking, running, or hitting a golf ball.

The Artistic Process

Rodgers’ artistic process is very physical as well as creative and expressive. It involves tearing paper, splattering paint, and remembering and documenting the movements of her physical body during those dark days. “My maps,” she told NPR, “have become a way to get from a point in my life where I was very much grieving to another point where I came to a resolution with some of it.” Others might find this combination of physicality and expression through dance, or by hiking to a remote spot to sit with a journal, or going for a run with a friend who will listen if you want to stop and talk. Many people escape for long walks with their iPod, finding relief in the combination of music and activity. 

Stages of Grief

Knowing what to expect during the grief process can help a  person to know that his feelings are “normal.” The “Five Stages of Grief” that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross laid out in her book “On Death and Dying” is the most widely known model of the grief process. The stages can occur in any order, and a person may not move through them in a linear fashion. The stages are:

  1. Denial: The loss seems unimaginable, unreal; there is a sense that everything will return to normal soon
  2. Anger: At the deceased person, at God, at the doctor, at the unfairness of it all. Anger might also feel like abandonment.
  3. Bargaining: Usually bargaining with God or a higher power; “what can I do to bring them back”
  4. Depression: Pain, sadness, guilt; changes in sleep or eating habits; uncontrollable crying; withdrawal from activities
  5. Acceptance: The ability to begin letting go and moving forward.

The UK’s National Health Service describes the stages of healing this way, using the point of view of the grieving person:

  1. Accepting that your loss is real
  2. Experiencing the pain of grief
  3. Adjusting to life without the person who has died 
  4. Putting less emotional energy into grieving and putting it into something new (in other words, moving on)

Most people can expect to zigzag gradually through the stages rather than progressing in a straight line. Halfway through the process of adjusting, for instance, a person could find himself suddenly hit with the pain of grief, or even the dreamlike sense that the loss can’t be real. It’s also normal to feel guilty, angry at God or at your deceased love one, or just plain numb. This is why it’s important to be patient with yourself throughout the process.

Anyone could benefit from a support group or a grief counselor during the grief process. A person who is not moving forward, feels suicidal, or is unable to function should seek professional help immediately.