Daryll Hall

Coming Home: Grief Healing through Art

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Transformation by Fire: Each year the Burning Man Festival culminates with the burning of a temple which participants have filled with symbols of love, life and loss that they are ready to let the fire transform. (Photo (c) Tristan Savatier – www.loupiote.com -used by permission)

by Nicolina Cahouette, M.A., MFTI

Human relationships are profoundly changing experiences. They are euphoric in their infancy, and can take us to the darkest lows when they fall apart. Remember the Daryll Hall song “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you” popularized by Paul Young?   When an important relationship ends or changes, we experience a loss that can be emotionally akin to the death of a love one.   Therapists often hear that people feel lost or incomplete when a relationship transforms or ends.  This is a normal stage of the grief process and the duration of this stage can vary from person to person.

As Barbara Ganim discusses in her work, artistic expression is another experience that profoundly alters the human landscape.  Art connects us experientially through our senses, which is similar to what occurs in important relationships. Art has the power to emotionally transport us through the past. All of our senses are engaged through artistic expression. When we lose time in a project, performance, or exhibit, we are actively connected with our emotional system, experiencing a sort of time travel that takes us through the many sensory levels of processing and integrating the experience in different ways. This process allows us to see beyond the primary filter of pain we may use to describe an event and understand that many emotional components are part of the equation, thereby releasing the ideology that the event or a relationship ending was “only painful”.

The value of losing one’s self in time creatively is eloquently outlined in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on Flow Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi describes how creative process or Flow increases human happiness. The following exercise is an artistic journey that calls back that piece of you that went with the other person when the relationship ended.

The Coming Home Exercise

This activity is inspired by Gestalt therapy, an experiential approach “fathered” by Fritz Perls.  You’re going to make a collage of the relationship experience.  This powerful piece will culminate with a representation of you taking back your energy. The materials are entirely up to you: The only requirement is that the elements of the project should be powerful reminders of the relationship’s emotional impact on you. The elements could be a picture of your favorite place, food, or unique mannerisms that you shared only with that person. The  piece should include a representation of you calling that lost piece of yourself back to you. Let that image or description resonate with you on an emotional level. For example, a strong calling back image could be hands reaching out and pulling towards you. How you decide to visually represent the act is up to your creative discretion.

Once the project is finished, display it prominently where you will see it during the grieving process. As time goes on, you may notice it less and less. When you feel you are ready, you may choose to do a letting go exercise where you burn the piece, bury it, or let it flow down a river. You may also choose to put it away or if positive feelings are experienced by looking at it, leave it where it is. The power of this exercise opens the mind’s experience to the fact that more than one emotion can exist in the same space when recalling an experience. This expands our ability to assimilate information from the experiences and primary relationships in our lives.

Healing Pathways offers our condolences to those affected by the Isla Vista tragedy this week in Santa Barbara.

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