How Art Heals Grief

Abstract artGrief arises as a product of a loss that we have experienced. It is associated with losses that may include a person’s health, job, relationship, pet, or loved one. We may not be able to describe the roller coaster of emotions, yet we do know that we are not ourselves. When we feel out of sorts, sensations surface such as low self-esteem, illness, depression, and confusion, which can manifest into thoughts that our feelings are out of our control. As a result, this full-body experience may be difficult to process or verbalize. To mend this sorrow, the expressive arts can create a doorway to the unspeakable by opening all channels to the grieving body.

Opening Up to Grief

Expressive arts therapy encourages movement of the imagination that we may struggle with during our grieving process. Our art influences how we look at, unblock, wrestle with, and shed light on the need to distance and detach from our pain. When we dodge grief to avoid, deny, or block the inevitable pain, the arts invite the imagination of these stuck places to come to the surface in images, movement, color, and sound. Our art process releases the tension of grief, allowing it to expand and contract, while providing a safe container in which this process can take place. When we create, we give ourselves permission to examine all that is happening within our grieving bodies.

“Art shows how the difficulty can contain its cure if channeled into life-affirming expression.”
-Shaun NcNiff

Understanding the Experience of Grief

There are five to seven stages often associated with the grieving process. They may be experienced as denial, pain, anger, bargaining, depression, upward turn, reconstruction, and acceptance. The experience can feel like a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, mood swings, and erratic behavior. When we drop in to our art-making, the grief is given containment—a place to be held. This containment permits the pain to speak and encourages our healing. Making sense of what is happening comes to light. We may notice this in a color that strikes a mood, or a picture that recalls a memory, or an emotion to be felt. It is an opportunity for the most vulnerable parts of a grieving body to speak, feel safe, be heard, and be externalized. Once the art is created, we can then dialogue with it further and support our need to metabolize all that is going on within us.


“The reward for attention is always healing.”
-Julia Cameron

Facing Grief and Piecing Life Together

Fragments of memories, like bits of broken glass, can be difficult to hold emotionally around anniversary dates, picture books, and mementos. They can feel like a jab to the heart, invite an unwanted memory, or open a floodgate of emotion. These fragments seek meaning and solace, yet can wander in and out, tugging and vying for attention at awkward moments. As we seek to piece our lives together after a loss, the expressive arts can heal us by giving these bits and pieces the attention they deserve and need. For a moment, we can sink into ourselves and allow our memories, thoughts, and feelings—those we desperately struggle with—an opportunity to speak, to be heard, and to be felt. Each time that we engage the process using the arts, we give ourselves a break, a breath, and a reprieve from the pain that seeks expression beyond talk therapy.


  1. Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way. New York: Tarcher/Putnam Publishing.
  2. McNiff, S. (2004). Art Heals. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Joni


    March 27th, 2012 at 12:15 PM

    It really is amazing how thoroughly art can heal, even if it has never been a part of your life prior to some striking experience. It is amazing just how much it allows you to tear down those wall of grief but then allows you to put yourself back together again all through that creative mission and a desire to create something new out of life again.

  • Karla


    March 27th, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    Maybe this is not quite the same thing but after my om died I enrolled in a dance class, just because it was always somehting that was so im portant to her and I wanted to find out what about it she loved and see if there was any way that I could keep her alive through those lessons.

    My mom, while I am such a klutz, was so graceful, and when I took those classes, I felt free of that gracelessness that had always seemed to follow me, and I felt her spirit with me every step that I took. She was there with me in spirit and that freed me from so much of the grief and regret that I was feeling.

  • Molly


    March 27th, 2012 at 10:29 PM

    I was so depressed after my aunt passed away.She was very close and dear to me and I love her a lot.Never was I a poet but started to write little poems about her a few weeks after her passing away.It gave me a feeling that she was reading those poems and it ultimately made me feel better and I also felt like she was with me anyway.It may be surprising but such things can help cope with sorrow.

  • Hildy


    March 28th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Any of the arts provide a wonderful outlet for your emotions.
    And I think that the section about how it can help you to piece it all back togther is so important.
    You might feel like your world has been torn apart, and in some ways I am sure that it has been, but his gives you the chance to heal through being creative.
    It will help you to take your mind off of the grief and sadness, while allowing you to show your creative and resilient spirit too!

  • Coles


    March 28th, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    SO what is it about art that helps in this? Is it the mere distraction, the beauty of art or the happiness due to making something creative yourself?Inclined to know..

  • Wendy


    March 29th, 2012 at 5:40 AM

    Dance has always been my mode to self expression. I truly agree that expressive art can help someone heal and move through and express feelings that other wise would be really hard to express.

  • Douglas


    March 29th, 2012 at 8:36 PM

    Dear Coles,

    Art supports the use of all your senses. Something magical can happen when we use a different venue other than our minds to process out what we are going through. Both the beauty and the happiness in making your own art applies to the outcome. I would like to offer that the creative process, when applied to specific issues in our lives, can bring about new awareness – massaging the issue in a new way. I hope this helps.

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