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Here’s How Making Art can Help you Process Grief

By Art Therapist and Fraser Mental Health Professional Briana Colton and Pam Dewey • art making and grief, art and grief, processing grief, processing loss with art, grieving help, art helps with grieving, making art to help with loss, making art to process grief • January 26, 2023

Loss is a part of life, but it doesn’t make it any less painful. At some point, everyone loses someone they love, whether a parent, friend, partner or pet. Even the loss of a celebrity you admire can cause grief.

“Grief is universal, but it’s so personal,” says Briana Colton, Art Therapist and Fraser Mental Health Professional. “All relationships are unique, and each person who is grieving has a different capacity for processing and will experience it differently.”

Art-making is one way to help you process grief. Here’s what you need to know. 

Grief isn’t just in your head

When someone you love dies, you feel sadness and likely miss them. You may also experience other emotions like anger or fear. But grief isn’t something you just experience in your head.

“Grief and loss is a whole-body experience,” says Colton. “Emotions can get trapped in your body, and the act of creating can discharge some of those feelings.”

Creates ownership over emotions

Since feelings are an abstract concept, Colton says, she often has those grieving create art about their feelings first. She might encourage them to make a feelings chart, where a client explores what emotions like sadness, fear and anger look like to them. One way to do that is by creating a wheel, where each piece of the wheel represents a different emotion. You could color your wheel with markers, crayons, pencils or paints, whatever feels like the right medium to you. Maybe your feelings chart will have buckets that represent your feelings, so each bucket you draw shows the level of that that feeling.

“Sometimes, a feeling chart is more freeform, where a person just makes an image of what the feeling looks like, and label it. Other times, an individual may want to draw the outline of a human body, and add colors and textures to different parts of the body to connect to different feelings felt there,” says Colton. “By creating this art, people can start pulling their emotions out of their bodies and gain more ownership over what they’re feeling.”

Processing grief is like processing trauma

Processing grief is similar to processing trauma, and it can also involve processing trauma, depending on your relationship with the person who passed away. Like trauma, you may have difficulty talking about it, which is why making art can be helpful.

“Art allows you to create an external expression of things you can’t say,” says Colton.

Create a container for your grief

Another way to process grief is by creating a memory box. Colton says this can be particularly helpful for children because they don’t understand grief and loss yet. She suggests finding a small box, like a shoebox. The box will represent the person they’ve lost. Your child can then decorate or collage the shoebox, and put things inside the box that remind them of the person they’ve lost. When they’re missing the person, they can take out the mementos from the box. If your child starts to feel overwhelmed, they can put the items back in the box.

“It helps to have a container for these big feelings,” says Colton.

Try collage

Creating a collage is another way to process grief. You might want to make a collage of all the deceased’s favorite things, so you have a memorial of things that gave them joy. You could also put together a collage of photos of your loved one. This can be a good activity for teens, who may be more hesitant to talk about their feelings. Teens might also find it helpful to create a collage with friends or family, depending on the person who passed away.

Create a piece that honors your loved one

Many art-making activities can honor a lost loved one. Make a painting or drawing of your loved one. Create an art piece that reminds you of them. For example, if they really enjoyed tulips, paint a field of tulips to honor their memory.

“The piece you create can be a beautiful memory holder,” says Colton. “Making art is an external reminder of the person you lost, and then you feel this person isn’t lost to the ether.”

Remembering a pet

Pets become a part of the family, and the loss of one can be devastating. Making a plaster cast of their paw print is a good way to remember them. You could also create a shadowbox, which is a deep frame that allows you to put objects inside, like photos, a collar and other items that remind you of your beloved pet. 

Missing their physical presence can be hard, too, particularly if your pet was a cuddler. You may want to knit a blanket or order a photo blanket with their picture to provide that warm sensation.

Carry on their legacy

Another way to process grief is doing the same kind of art-making that your loved one enjoyed. Maybe your best friend liked to paint with watercolors, so using watercolors helps you work through your feelings of grief and loss, while also feeling connected to them. Or, perhaps your grandmother enjoyed crocheting or knitting, so you knit something in her memory. You can even use your loved one’s favorite colors, so the piece feels more strongly bound to them.

Design a ritual

Creating a ritual to remember a loved one can be healing. You can paint memory rocks to remind you of your loved one, and then place these in a space they cherished. You can also make a ritual around anniversaries like their birthday, the day of their death or Father or Mother’s Day. On these days, you could bake their favorite cookies, create a scrapbook of memories or put together an online photo collage. You could also take your journal or sketchpad to one of their favorite places and connect to their memory there. 

“Making art helps access those subconscious feelings. When you don’t have words, sometimes an image says it better,” says Colton.