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How creativity and movement can assist the grieving process

How art therapy can assist in grief and lossAfter the loss of her daughter Arla at 38 weeks, and two subsequent miscarriages, Ami Summers began to work with her emotions through her grieving. As they changed and resurfaced over the months following, Ami found solace in creative outlets and movement, like painting and writing, as well as yoga. After being unable to find a resource to guide her through this harrowing time, she wrote Heart Space – a grief workbook for mothers, partners, and support people who have experienced pregnancy and child loss, which includes creative and movement exercises to help other women during their miscarriage, stillbirth or the loss of a child.

With a sweep of the ultrasound scanner and the whisper of those words we’ll never forget, our hopes and dreams were shattered — our daughter Arla had died in utero at 38 weeks.

What followed almost immediately was an instant crystallization of emotions within the areas of the body that store grief and trauma. Emotions that had once been fluid suddenly seemed to set like concrete, into pockets where hope, optimism, and faith had once resided. A mixture of shock, sorrow, grief, and anger amalgamated into the fascia between my muscles, my veins, and fragments of my soul.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how to release these galvanised emotions from the body, and whether I would ever be able to work out how.

The lifelong impact of storing trauma and grief-related stress is discussed in the book The Body Keeps Score, by acclaimed psychiatrist Bessel Van De Kolk. In trauma survivors (it’s common for miscarriage and child loss to involve trauma), Van der Kolk notes that the parts of the brain that are in charge of surveying the world around us for danger remain on guard and hyper stimulated. To recover from this overactive perspective, the emotional responses attached to this stress must be regulated and escape the body.

After learning about the benefits of creative therapy and movement as a painter and an avid yogi (even before my losses), I began to work through my grieving and the loss of Arla through creative outlets and mindful movement.

I’d spoken openly about Arla’s loss with my friends, my family, and our grief counsellor. However, I’d also become aware there were emotions in the deep recesses that couldn’t be released through talking. It wasn’t until I sat at the easel a year and a half after two subsequent losses following Arla, that I recognised the impact of these emotions on the body.

As my brush touched the easel, and I began to tap into my deeper emotional state – emotions that I’d thought I’d processed verbally began to resurface. And this time, they felt different. Having sat stagnant rather than flowing as part of the creative process, they had lost their intensity, but managed to percolate and shift into something much more enduring. The pure act of vigorously spreading paint onto a surface invited a new way of expression of these long-held feelings and memories. The experience of exhuming these emotions years after the ‘event’ seemed backwards, rather than progressive, and the first few times I tried it, I was left feeling raw. But with each brushstroke, I noticed the emotions were able to slowly leave my body, and I would return to this form of care again and again.

I also applied this theory to physical movement, beginning with walking and yoga, before eventually deepening the experience through yin yoga – a renowned exercise for releasing emotions the body stores by stretching the connective tissues that store our energetic and emotional baggage between the muscles. Van der Kolk’s work also endorses the benefits of yoga and breathing in regulating our emotions and releasing physiological ‘memories’ hidden in the depths of our bodies. He says, “The control of breath, release of energies within our muscles and meridians, and the fitness benefits of yoga provide an effective recovery tool alongside other therapies.”

Especially during the early days of grieving my daughter and our subsequent losses, sitting and checking-in with the thoughts and emotions in my body was so important. Verbal processing of these thoughts and emotions helped, but I also needed alternative different approaches.

Art therapy and movement like yoga are used globally as a powerful modality that allows us to express what might be happening internally in the deeper parts of our grieving experience. By externalising, regulating and expressing our memories and stories, we can begin to rebuild the trust in our own bodies, make sense of our emotions and turn pain into beauty.

Everyone’s journey is different, but creativity and movement are powerful therapies that can help express and manage grief.

Heart Space was created as a guide for mindful thinking and reflection in grief, and includes creative and movement exercises to help you through the loss of your pregnancy or child. Identifying your emotions through journaling, and through the ‘Emotions Wheel’ found within the workbook allows the mind and the soul to understand the feelings being experienced, and then exercises to help you express and release them.

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