Can the Arts Help Us Heal Our Grief?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide, there is no running tally of the millions left behind to grieve for their loved ones. The weight and scale of this kind of loss in such a short period of time is difficult to fathom, but palpable. The world is collectively mourning.

Grief is the human response to an actual or anticipated loss—be it a missed graduation, a layoff, a break-up, or death. It’s a natural process and a way of healing emotionally, even if it feels painful and awful as you are wading through it. Bereavement, the period of grief and mourning after a death, may cause us to experience depression or anxiety or manifest itself as physical illness and disorganized thinking.

This kind of loss and our resulting grief may feel especially traumatic during the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing orders in place, we may be deprived of human contact that tends to carry us through a period of mourning. Many might not be able to say goodbye to their loved ones properly because of travel, quarantine or restrictions on hospital visits. Others won’t be able to gather in person and console each other while memorializing lost family and friends. Stuck at home, we may feel very alone with our thoughts, which can exacerbate our grief.

But creating art—on our own and together—can help us process our emotions as we grieve those we’ve lost.

Inside the Bereaved Brain

Grief is a highly personal experience that activates several brain areas involved with emotional processing, memory, and cognition including the cerebellum, frontal cortex and amygdala.

The intensity of our sadness during bereavement is tied to activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain region important for processing and remembering emotions, particularly fear. The stronger the connections between our amygdala and our regulatory prefrontal cortex, the better our capacity to manage our grief and any unhelpful symptoms, like intrusive thoughts. Weaker connections between these brain regions are associated with a deteriorating mood. In cases of grief persisting over a year, or complicated grief, the brain’s reward system may kick in, albeit in an unhealthy way. The result is an ongoing craving or yearning for the deceased that interferes with a healthy adaptation to their loss.

Why the Arts Are a Salve for Grief

Because grief is unique to the individual, there is no one way to get through it. In fact, you don’t really get through it in a nice and neat linear fashion. You evolve and adapt to the loss over time. But along with the appropriate counseling and medications, there are creative tools to help support the bereavement process, that may help offset some of the complications caused by the pandemic.

Engaging in creative activities during bereavement may improve mindful attention, which has been found to improve our capacity to regulate our moods by boosting those all-important connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Creative activities may also help regulate the highs and lows of grief by bringing feelings that are repressed or difficult to express out in the open and making them more accessible for processing.

Writing about a loss or trauma helps the writer to tell a story about their grief and has been found to improve unhealthy symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness, an inability to trust others, and suicidal ideation, in children and adolescents. Music is also healing: research shows that music therapy and songwriting can help the bereaved process their grief. Visual arts therapy—anything from photographic essays and abstract drawings to the making of tile mosaics and memorial quilts—may also have a modest effect alleviating grief symptoms such as general distress, reduced job or academic performance, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The arts can also help the bereaved sustain their bonds with the deceased and make meaning of the loss. In fact, meaning-making is now considered a sixth stage of grief. Research shows that those who find meaning in loss have greater subjective well-being and even immune system functioning than those who don’t find meaning. Redefining one’s relationship with the deceased—by, for example, actively incorporating the memory of the person into one’s life going forward—can ease the transition to a future without the physical presence of a loved one. The key is not to relegate the person to the past, but to keep him or her as a part of your ongoing life

Creative Ways to Cope with and Process Loss

Healing from loss is not about talent or choice of modality—it comes from the act of creative engagement itself. As the noted author and holistic healer Rachel Naomi Remen [Recover from Grief] tells us, “At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source.”

Here are ideas to help you and your loved ones cope during loss:

  • Make memory boxes: Placing objects that remind you of your lost loved one in a decorated box will provide a treasure chest of cherished, nourishing memories.
  • Keep a grief journal: Writing about your experience brings feelings about a loss up to the surface, where you can better reflect on them.
  • Make a sculptured memory: With clay or Play-Doh, sculpt something special that reminds you of something special you enjoyed doing with your loved one.
  • Draw or doodle: Art with Heart has therapeutic art books to help children and caretakers express emotions and heal from loss.

Other Grief Resources

More Resources for Those in Distress

  • In an emergency, call 911.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline:
    • Call 1-800-985-5990 (TTY 1-800-846-8517)
    • Text TalkWithUs to 66746
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    • Call 1-800-273-8255. Available 24/7.

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope? 

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at Be well and stay safe.

Lead Image: Unsplash / Karim Manjra

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