Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mapping the Trail of Grief

After the Fall, H.Hunter ©2007
Last night was the third meeting of our young adult bereavement group. It's an evening where we spend time thinking, talking and drawing out how grief manifests in our bodies. It is one of the most fascinating and potentially powerful nights of the group.

It's typical after the death of someone you love to experience a variety of physical symptoms; lethargy, stomach aches, headaches, exhaustion, lack of appetite, sleeplessness, the list goes on. For me, a particularly powerful moment is when I pass out a list of words, "feeling words", we call them and I ask group members to circle all the words that apply for them at the time. I caution them that many of the feelings may be contradictory and that's o.k.

This circling of the words is a cognitive exercise--it's not too hard, the words are provided, they just have to circle them. Then we take it a step further. I ask them to mark the 4 or 5 strongest feelings. That takes some consideration, but it's somewhat of a relief to circle them. Putting words to feelings makes them more concrete, less nebulous.  I take it one step deeper then, handing them a page with an body outline drawn on it, asking them to chose a color to correspond with each of the feelings--as if they were making the key of a map. Here's where it picks up emotional speed.

After people have selected colors for their feelings, I begin to explain what a metaphor is and how we can use symbols to express feelings. Everyone knows about butterflies in the stomach, how a headache can feel like a hammer and how a heart can be broken. With these simple suggestions, the group takes off.

I never cease to be amazed by the variety of symbols that people come up with; locks on mouths, fire streaming red and hot from out of a pair of hands, gray clouds that encompass the whole body. I become silent in the face of these symbols, which open up doors soundlessly so that people can speak about their grief in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

I have a tendency to want to talk and help. Drawing does the work instead.

"The body weeps the tears the eyes refuse to shed." William Osler


  1. how wonderful Hannah...I have to introduce my friend Viv to your blog...she is a therapist who works with people with addictions...and her daughter is studying at Leslie to be an expressive arts guys would all just love each other!!!

  2. I am fascinated by the steps you take in your class. I believe this could be used in other situations where people are feeling grief even if it isn't in the passing of a loved one. I have heard,"Where do you feel it?" when describing an emotional event. Thank you for the insight.

  3. Great insight: "I have a tendency to want to talk and help. Drawing does the work instead." Being there, supportive and guiding...a gift for sure.

  4. Laura, I'd love to "meet" your friend and daughter. It is indeed a small world when it comes to art and healing...

    Beth-absolutely, the body map can be used in a variety of contexts--because it helps us to localize our feelings--making us one step closer to accepting and expressing them in a safe way.

    Thank you Blue Sky--its a constant practice for me to be quiet and as they say, trust the process!

  5. The art I have seen in bereavement groups always blows me away. In fact, it was my own art about my grieving that led me to art therapy...

  6. Thank you Phoenix--I am touched to hear that. It's funny how that happens isn't it?

  7. Very powerful work. To sit quietly with someone and their grief is a deep gift. I salute you Hannah.

  8. Leslie--thank you--being able to offer the group and then to travel with them for a ways along their collective path is indeed a gift.

  9. Hi Hannah
    I powerful post to sit with...a wonderful process to share.
    It reminds me of a circle that took place in my studio when I was AIR for the Center for Therapy through the Arts located in my studio working with a group Francis, a retired educator who had not done art before, created a large oil pastel painting of a tree in full leaf with a pair of what now remind me of Buddha eye's looking out through the foliage. I asked her who the eyes belonged to. She said "Those are God's eyes. He's watching over me."
    The next week Francis wasn't there. She had died peacefully in her sleep three days after she had made the drawing.
    The fact that she made such a powerful visual connection to her God so near to the time of her passing has always given me a light heart.

  10. What an amazing and inspiring story Donna. I'm guessing that the artwork allowed her to create a bridge between this life and whatever the next step reveals. Thank you for sharing this story with us.