Art Therapy as a Means of Coping with Child Loss and Grief

Art therapy is a valuable tool that helps people cope with trauma. In particular, parents suffering from child loss find art therapy useful to express painful emotions they can’t otherwise communicate. How does creating art help parents cope with such tragedy? To fully understand the benefits of art therapy as a means of coping with child loss and grief, we must examine how art affects the brain, a study called neuroesthetics.

Jump to 8 Art Therapy Activities for Coping with Grief

How Art Affects the Brain 

colorful illustration of the brain

Viewing and creating art affects the brain, which affects how we feel.

What is Neuroesthetics?

Semir Zeki, a researcher and neurobiologist, originated the word neuroesthetics as the study of the chemical functions of the brain resulting from the contemplation and creation of a work of art. Neuroesthetics attempts to discover and understand aesthetic experiences affecting the brain. 

Professor Zeki found that when people viewed art they thought pleasant, blood flow increased by as much as ten percent to the area of the brain connected with pleasure. For the participants, the feeling elicited was like looking at a loved one. Subsequent research indicates significant links between the brain and viewing and creating art.

Neuroesthetics is a recognized field of neuroscience which utilizes principles from neurology, psychology, and biology to establish links between particular areas of the brain and creative activity. This study is especially useful as we try to figure out ways to help parents cope with the loss of a child.

Benefits of Art Therapy to Cope with Child Loss and Grief

Entering the Flow State of the Brain by Creating Art

colorful waves illustrating brain thought

The flow state is characterized by complete concentration on a task and the exclusion of outside thoughts.

Engaging in art enhances concentration and facilitates total immersion in the creative activity. This is referred to as entering the flow state of the brain. A person may be so focused on whatever it is they’re creating, they lose track of time. They might defer eating a meal, or forget an appointment, because the creative process is so pleasurable and calming.

Because creating art is such an immersive activity, a grieving parent now thinks about something other than their child. This in turn allows the brain and emotions to relax, reducing stress and anxiety.

Art and the Visual Expression of Emotions 

eggs with different emotions faces

Art says a lot about our feelings.

Art allows visual expression of emotions when a person finds it difficult to convey thoughts and feelings verbally. This results in enhanced communication skills and promotes self expression. Sometimes parents suffering from child loss are unable, or unwilling, to voice their deepest thoughts because the emotional pain is too great. More often, the words just don’t come out. Drawing, painting, or collaging gives vent to feelings and emotions that would otherwise remain unexpressed.

Creating Art and Decision Making

woman deciding what to draw

What should I make, how should I make it, what colors should I use…? Lots of decisions to make when creating art.

Creating art requires decision making in a non-threatening, non-stressful way. One must think about the artwork they’re creating, how to create it, and give it meaning. These thought processes enables the grieving parent to make positive choices as to how they will live life without their child. After the loss of a child, art helps a parent face the future in a hopeful and positive way.

What is Art Therapy

Art therapy uses various artistic media together with a person’s creativity to express and understand feelings and emotions while engaging in art. Popular art therapy activities include:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Coloring books 
  • Working with clay
  • Journaling
  • Scrapbooking

A person need not be an artist to benefit from art therapy. It’s just a matter of creating what you want, in a way that you want. The purpose is not to create a great work of art, but to express feelings in a comfortable way. You need not show anyone your artwork if you don’t want to.

What is an Art Therapist?

art therapy class with therapist, people painting

Some people prefer working with a licensed art therapist. Others choose to do art activities on their own. Both methods are fine. 

A licensed art therapist is an individual with master’s-level or higher degree trained in art and therapy. Most art therapists also have degrees in psychology or social work. The American Art Therapy Association sets educational and professional standards for art therapists. The Art Therapy Credentials Board oversees art therapy’s professional standards and is the only nationally recognized credentialing organization for art therapists in the United States.

My Experience with Art Therapy for Grief

I’ve always loved to create art, and now that I’m retired, art is my full-time hobby. So it was only natural that after my son Jacob passed away, I turned to art as a form of emotional expression, in particular, drawing. 

Those Bad, Ugly Feelings

Before Jacob died, I felt that art should always be pleasant to look at. But now, my drawings weren’t so pleasant. Instead of drawing tranquil nature scenes and serene still lifes, I drew harsh scribblings of graves, demons, and ugly faces. The pictures mirrored the anger and pain inside me. I never showed those drawings to anyone. As time went by, my initial shock and grief over my son’s passing lessened a bit, and I looked at what I had drawn months earlier. I decided to keep a few of the drawings I made back then, and ripped up the really ugly ones. I wanted to view the future positively. 

Art’s Pleasant Surprises

When I’m working on a drawing, I’m very absorbed in what I’m doing. My anxiety diminishes. I don’t think about my loss when I’m thinking about drawing. Drawing actually removes a lot of my emotional pain while I’m engaged in the activity.

Recently, I was drawing portrait sketches of the family. I wanted to draw a portrait of Jacob. I had already drawn portraits of his brothers, why not him? But I was hesitant to draw a likeness of my son. Ever since he passed away, looking at a photograph of him makes me want to cry. Since I’d be drawing his portrait from a photo, I didn’t know if I had the emotional strength to look at his picture.

I spent a whole week drawing my son’s portrait, and surprisingly, I didn’t cry or feel sad. I had to make so many aesthetic decisions about how to render his likeness. The mechanics of drawing forced me to look at the photograph and resulting the drawing from the perspective of an artist rather than a grieving parent. The portrait is beautiful. I think it’s even better than the ones I drew of his brothers. 

The framed drawing currently sits in the living room, but I rarely look at it. When I see Jacob’s portrait now, I see it as a parent, and it hurts. See my drawing of Jacob here.

Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy is not a one-stop solution to coping with grief, but is one of several methods a bereaved parent should explore to express feelings and emotions. Although the pain of child loss never goes away, it’s possible that creating art provides a partial relief from this pain, even if only for a while.

As mentioned above, any creative activity demands a person be thoroughly engaged. Bereaved parents need an outlet to divert their mind from the child who’s no longer here to something else. Is art therapy merely a distraction? Perhaps. But it’s a diversion necessary for our mental and physical health. 

For ideas on art therapy activities, see 8 Art Therapy Activities for Coping with Grief

How To Start a Drawing – a guide for the beginning artist

If you’re a beginning artist, visit my website The Drawing Process in Art , a guide on how to start a successful drawing, including a blog with useful tips on the practical aspects of drawing and art history.

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