Using the Expressive Arts for Healing
By Nora Swan-Foster, MA, ATR
In everyday life there is light and there is shadow. If there is no light, there is no shadow. If we focus only on the light in our life, then the shadow gets larger, wanting our attention. Grief is shadow. When we turn to shine a light on our shadow, it is transformed. For centuries the creative process has offered people a way to express the inexpressible, to integrate the shadowy parts of life. Many of us say we “are not creative,” but we are all born creative. Every time I facilitate an art therapy group, I hear people apologize for their artmaking, and by the end, they have created something that speaks from their heart. They no longer apologize; they celebrate. It is a natural need and craving, but, by now, it may be shut away in a deep dark room within our hearts. If anything can unlock this door, it is our grief.
When we are grieving around the loss of a baby, we often feel that there is no way out of the darkness, no way to make shifts within our grief. The experience is such a personal, bodily experience. We were growing a baby that represented our hopes and dreams and suddenly that part of us is gone. Not only are we affected by our hearts and minds, but our bodies are thrust into confusion. A decision was made. Our bodies remember. We feel a deep raw emptiness. We are left in the dark. Engaging in the creative process through artmaking, writing, dancing, music, dreams, and meditation offers us the opportunity to shift our bodily energy and attend to our grief, for grief is our new friend.
Getting started can be difficult. It demands our courage. The empty paper or the lack of a formed product or idea can instantly remind us of our inner pain and emptiness. This is normal and healthy. We may feel a heightened lack of (pro)creative ability that is felt both within our body and reflected in our external world where there is no baby. Everywhere we look, we are reminded of our loss. After time, support from friends and family dwindles. We are left feeling even more lonely and sad. This is where a ritual can be extremely helpful.
A simple ritual can shift our focus and stimulate our courage to engage in the difficult work that awaits us. The sooner the better. I suggest starting small, with perhaps just being with the materials, whatever they may be for us, and lighting a single candle. Lighting a candle can bring forth some symbolic light within our lonely darkness. Surrounding ourselves with a light of love and acceptance can keep us centered as we make our descent. We may want to have a warm or refreshing drink to treat and stimulate our senses. Through the expressive arts, we focus on our grief work, stirring our hearts and mixing our senses.
It will take time for our eyes to adjust to the dimness. The darkness. At first carving out ten minutes to get comfortable with the ritual is time is enough. Be gentle. This is a time without expectation, without stress. Simply be with the chaos of our pain and grief. Our grief demands our attention, respect, and honor. With time we will reflect back and understand better where we have been and where we are going. For now, it is time to be friendly with our grief in whatever form it arrives. It may come in anger and we need loud music to which we dance, drums to play or clay to work through. It may come in tears and music to hold the space of our work. We may need pillows to scream into or to pound. Use materials around us to build and create collages that represent our new chaotic world. And then there is the act of tearing apart something that we have beautifully created. Our daily ritual can rebuild our sense of structure, safety, and boundaries within ourselves during a time when our whole world feels like an earthquake. Chaos. Adjustment. Pain. Through the art modalities, we can enter the backdoor of grief’s home, and learn what we need to learn.
When we are finished, we can return to the external world that depends on us, (whether it be an older child, our partner, or our animals), with a bit more clarity and love that will hold us until our next creative time. By taking time to listen and accept the shadowy parts of ourselves, we will feel more connected to our external world.
The creative process offers us a chance to engage with the polarity of feelings. So many women will say, “I feel so angry, but also sad,” or “I’m relieved not to have a handicapped child, but why do I still feel sad and confused? Am I going crazy?” No! It is very normal and healthy for women to feel such conflicted feelings with such intensity. You are alive! The expressive arts offers us a way to combine and express the total emotional experience that is difficult to express through talking. Our experience needs to be put into form. Our grief needs to manifest itself into new understandings. When we are stuck in our talk, we need to change our walk. The creative process offers us this structure whether it be the materials of artmaking, the structure of a poem, the pages of our journal, the storylines from our dreams, the sound from various instruments or CDs, or the movement of our body in response to feelings. With these art modalities available for reaching deeper parts of ourselves, the polarity of feelings can be represented in concrete forms outside of our bodies. We can release them rather than holding them tight. We are able to make structure out of chaos, explore new options, and experience new understandings. We are able to birth parts of ourselves while staying in touch with our lost baby.
Artmaking of any sort is a reflection of the maker. While we are grieving and feeling our feelings and staying in contact with the lost baby, we can document our unique journey. Yes, others have experienced what we are going through, but our story is our own and deserves to be remembered and retold. Our inner journey is like a clothesline where we can hang parts of our story, looking back when necessary to see where we have been. Our past is a foundation for our future. How well we live the moment and attend to our emotions, will be reflected in our future. Through establishing a ritual for ourselves using the expressive arts, we can reconnect with our creative and playful energy while honoring our grief. We are gradually, piece by piece, incorporating the loss into our lives. But if we ignore our painful feelings, push them away, and deny the impact of whatever we have experienced, our grief and pain will track us down, surge forward when least expected. Mixing or matching the arts offers us a way to bridge our worlds between the concrete reality and our imaginary, spiritual world. Through the various modalities, our energy is shifted, we are connected with the symbolic world. Through symbolic representation, we discover a clarity of meaning and our own creative powers.
In our world we are driven by technology, computer screens, and mobile telephones, we are threatened by deeper isolation yet with less time to focus on our deeper self or to connect with the symbolic and spiritual aspects of life. Through using the expressive arts for grief work, there is always the chance for surprises to surface. Personal material can come forward quickly and easily. Sometimes too quickly. Like with any challenging time, if we feel overwhelmed with our feelings, we need to find a support group, a therapist, or both. Our grief leads us on our search into ourselves. It also can lead us into a supportive community. Asking for help is a strength. Trusting our instincts and getting the external support we need gets us through the rocky crest of our journey. Although our loss will stay with us, the pain and struggle can be transformed through the expressive arts by trusting and loving our own grieving style, our creative process, and the candle. So, let us gather our materials and courage and go forth into the shadow world of grief.
Blessings and enjoy.
Nora Swan-Foster, MA, ATR, is a Registered Art Therapist, prenatal consultant, artist and writer. She lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado. Along with her private practice, she is also on the faculty at The Naropa Institute, teaching art therapy classes within the Transpersonal Counseling Program. Nora specializes with women experiencing various childbearing related issues and her work has been published internationally. She is available for presentations, workshops, and consultations.
Reprinted With Permission From the Spring 1995 issue of A Heartbreaking Choice. Copyright 1995 Pineapple Press. All rights reserved.