How Can Art Therapy Support Bereaved Children to Tell Their Story?

‘The therapeutic power of the arts rests not in its elimination of suffering but rather in its capacity to hold us in the midst of that suffering so that we can bear the chaos without denial or flight.’ (Levine&Levine 1999)

Working with a group of bereaved children at a local hospice felt like a huge privilege for me. I worked with an evolving group between the ages of 6–17 years old over a period of five years and as you would imagine there was immense sadness and tears, but also beautiful memories and profound life affirming joy. The workshops that we facilitated were largely run by a group of volunteers called ‘The Rainbow Ripples’, each having their own individual story for their work. One of my lasting memories of this work was being asked to create a huge piece of artwork with the children, the theme for this workshop was ‘Its Okay to be Angry’ and we created a huge storm:

I was able to collaborate with a wonderful storyteller during this workshop, which brought a magical element to the work. It took a huge amount of planning from us, the careful and sensitive work of all of those amazing volunteers and a lot of containing.
There were several layers to the art making, including the storytelling and sounds but also metaphorically. Towards the end of the creating we wondered with the children about how it felt to be in that storm, how it made them feel, what it looked like. They spoke about how, ‘Storms sometimes make you fall over’. ‘It was big’, ‘It looked scary’. ‘There were so many colours’, ‘Some of it was beautiful but it was messy too’. ‘It felt a bit scary’. ‘It might make you fall over’, ‘You bounce and get up’ ‘They are huge’ ‘It so big, you have to look at it’. ‘The storm doesn’t last forever, but you remember it forever.’

These children, and bereaved children in general, tell us that they value the support of the group, helping them to feel less isolated and alone, the group helps to normalise their grief responses and provide much needed support after such a traumatic life event. Parents also need support at this time and the workshops I was involved within tried to do this too.

It feels important to give our young people the skills to enable them to find a vocabulary to share their stories. In this case stories about those they have loved and lost. Art Therapy enables children to be better aware of themselves, their emotions, responses, reactions and their lived experience. Encouraging them to develop a resilience and vocabulary as they journey into adulthood and inevitably continue to tell their story within all aspects of their life.

Art is a fantastic way for anyone that is bereaved to begin to have a dialogue with their grief, helping them to be in contact with ‘what is’ so that there is the possibility of transformation.

Art therapy encourages a link between our intellect and emotion, the process helps us to realise the range of emotions that we might be feeling. It can enable our complicated stories to have space and room to be told. To begin to acknowledge, reintegrate and accept the individual stories that make us who we are.

I continue to work with bereaved children and adults and I recognise that my experience at the hospice helped me as I began to train as an art psychotherapist. I owe much of my own story to the children that I worked with there, they have left their mark on me and I hope I have left something of my own with them.

A parent of children under 18 dies every 22 minutes in the UK; around 23,6000 a year. This equates to around 111 children being bereaved of a parent every day.
1 in 29 five to sixteen year olds have been bereaved of a parent or sibling – that is a child in every average sized school class.

Child Bereavement UK – death and bereavement statistics.

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