Grief is a central part of my NYC art therapy practice. The word, “grief” typically elicits images of death or a breakup, but it is much broader and far-reaching than that. Grief touches us all in different ways and many people who enter our doors at Tribeca Therapy are grieving and don’t even realize it. Art therapy is one of the languages I use to connect and help heal this grief.
Grief looks like a person who will never have the type of relationship with an emotionally distant parent that he or she wants. It looks like a parent coming to terms with a child’s diagnosis and taking in the day-to-day demands of raising a kid with special needs. Grief looks like a gay couple’s desire to have a child, the pain in that process and the disappointment that they are not able to conceive a kid the “old fashioned way.” It looks like a child of color learning the ways in which he is treated and looked at differently than his white peers.
Loss, mourning and the impact of grief are as individual as the person experiencing them. Whatever someone’s grief looks like, it is helpful to have a partner and a guide in this process. Therapy for grief can help to ensure a person does not get lost or stuck in the process and can help them begin to imagine their life after loss.
Boy, is grief messy
Grieving–the act of dealing with grief–is very much a process. And like any other process, it is messy, amorphous and is not always definable. An often discussed and helpful frame for grief is the concept of grief as happening in stages, codified as the the five stages of grief by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. This framework can be a meaningful guide though therapy for grief seeks to help a person understand and create their own process–our own process.
Art therapy can help someone gain footing after a loss. When an image is created, it is a snapshot of where the artist is emotionally in the moment in time. Art pieces can help to inform the process and show what is needed and it can also show growth and the passing of time. Not to mention that the creative process itself is messy and open-ended, which lends itself well to work around grief.
Loss captured in art
Although I saw the show over a decade ago, images from Annie Leibovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005” at the Brooklyn Museum stay with me, especially when I think about the power of art in grieving. Among Ms. Leibovitz’s images of celebrities and musicians are deeply personal images of her children, her parents, and her partner–writer Susan Sontag–who died from cancer in 2001. There are images of a younger, healthy Sontag sitting on a beach, sharply contrasted with images of her in her hospital bed, clearly dying.
Within this period of 15 years, Ms. Leibovitz’s father also passed away and he and her bereaved mother, Marilyn, are also present in the show. In a New York Times interview in 2006, Ms. Leibovitz speaks of a photo after her dad’s death of her mom and sisters sitting together in Rhineback, NY. She states, “It’s just, life goes on. She’s gone back to the support of her sisters.” These photos are so compelling and clearly stand out amongst the rest, but it is so interesting that Ms. Leibovitz did not decide to make the show’s focus or title about her family or death. Instead, it is about her life and the life of those around her during this period of time.
The power of storytelling
Loss and mourning are part of life and Annie Leibovitz allows us to come painfully close to it. This proximity to her life during this time is so human and relatable–it is her story but also a universal one. Her images are filled with horror and pain, love and affection, and also the day-to-day life of someone bereft with grief. And somehow life keeps going. That’s the amazing thing about loss is that the clock keeps ticking, jobs continues to have deadlines and demands, kids continues to have needs and schedules–somehow the world keep spinning.
Creating an image as a physical representation of pain and having a witness can be even more of a validating experience than just words. And the “having a witness” part is important; art therapy is not just art-making, it is creating a relationship with someone else who can see and support you through this process.
Survivors of loss often have a desire to tell their stories and therapy is a great space for that. A person goes through this incredibly painful journey, but has learned some things and has found a renewed ability to see the road ahead. Art and other creative modalities offers the opportunity to truly share your story–your pain, your growth, what you have learned along the way and what your hopes are for the future.