Creative and Nontraditional Ways to Process Grief and Find Peace

Grief is a natural human emotion. When we mourn the death of a loved one, we experience intense emotion, and that emotion is typically grief. We experience grief in our behavior, as many people dealing with grief lose interest in things, find themselves unable to smile or laugh, have trouble sleeping, and lose their appetite.

The most familiar approach to experiencing grief was expressed over 50 years ago by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of hospice care and the study of death, dying, and grief. Kübler-Ross wrote the seminal 1969 book “On Death and Dying” and the 2004 book “On Grief and Grieving,” co-authored with David Kessler, who founded, a resource aiming to help people deal with grief. Kübler-Ross proposed that there were “Five Stages of Grief.” Those five stages, experienced in no particular order, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But there are many other theories about how humans cope with grief.

In the book Your Creative Brain, psychologist Dr. Shelley Carson (a teacher and researcher at Harvard on the topics of creativity and psychopathology) points out that strong emotions, including joy, fear, love, anger, and grief, among others, are something that we are almost always consciously aware of and that these emotions directly affect our behavior and how we function. For example, when we feel joy we want to celebrate, and when we feel fear, we want to run and hide. When we feel grief, we typically feel some of the things described in the introductory paragraph, and these feelings and associated behaviors over time can be unhealthy and not do much to facilitate healing. Time is one way to heal from grief, but there are other creative and nontraditional methods to process grief, find peace, and promote health and healing.

The Importance of Exercising Creativity in Response to Grief

Dr. Carson, whose work includes counseling returning veterans says, “From my work with returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that the grieving process is crucial to future happiness and mental health. Many returnees refuse to grieve, thinking it’s a sign of weakness. But it is part of the human experience and is a journey through darkness that has to happen. The pain subsides and the soul is stronger when you allow grieving to take its course however painful.”

She discusses the importance of exercising our creativity in response to mourning. “We are all creative. Creativity is the hallmark human capacity that has allowed us to survive thus far. Viewed in that way, exercising our creativity in response to mourning makes sense.” Your Creative Brain offers guidance for doing just that. Dr. Carson and others offer the following suggestions for using creativity to process grief:

Art as a Release for Grief

Creating artwork following a tragic loss can be very therapeutic, helping you to express and release your own painful, stressful emotions. Accessing these emotions is not always easy using words. You may try to talk it all out, or get it off your chest by yelling and screaming out in your anger and grief. But in the end, the feelings still sit there.

Why? According to Dr. Carson, “your left brain’s verbal language is limited, leaving your true emotions unexpressed. To access and release your real feelings, you have to use the right brain’s language of imagery … through artwork. Open your mind to this and you will find much comfort in your artwork.” The following are some examples of artwork that can be therapeutic when it comes to grieving:

  • Drawing, manipulating a small mound of clay or creating a collage can direct your grief into meaningful works of art.
  • One approach might be to try painting abstract colors or shapes that mirror how you’re feeling. You could even choose a subject to draw that represents your situation. An example would be a bird flying freely to symbolize a loved one escaping illness or your sadness lifting.
  • Splatter paint sessions can also be cathartic. With splatter paint sessions, room sizes can range from a small room for two people to a large room for 15, depending on the business. When guests arrive, they receive coveralls along with goggles and shoe coverings. Rooms are set up with a canvas on each easel and paints and brushes on the shelves. During a typical 30-minute session, participants dip the brushes in paint and fling the colors on the canvas. With splatter art painting, you don’t need artistic talent to see the benefits.

According to Rebecca Soffer, cofounder of the Modern Loss community and author of “The Modern Loss Handbook,” “Splatter art is amazing because that’s what grief is — it touches everything. It’s a total mess, so go in the room and make a mess, have a cathartic moment.”

  • Photographic art can be effective for grief expression. This activity can be enormously comforting and provide an interesting diversion for your grief.
  • 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 and emotional numbness.
  • 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 have an effect in alleviating grief symptoms such as general distress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Grief Yoga Promotes Healing

Paul Denniston, author of Healing Through Yoga, has combined aspects of various types of yoga (Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Restorative, Laughter Yoga, and Chakradance) to create Grief Yoga. According to Denniston, “Grief Yoga isn’t about physical flexibility but more about empowering the person to tap into their strength and courage by using movement, breath, and sound. It’s a sacred ritual that embraces the different colors of life, loss, love, anger, purpose or happiness.”

Here’s how it works:

  • Grief Yoga uses yoga, movement, breath, and sound to release pain and suffering and to reconnect back to love.
  • Grief Yoga combines many forms of yoga, movement, and breath techniques to help students process grief and use it as fuel for transformative healing.
  • Students become aware of the present moment and where they hold struggle or pain in the body and mind, creating a compassionate space to help express and release struggles through movement, breath, and sound.
  • The intention is to open the heart and connect to the soul with dance, prayers, or laughter exercises that connect us to joy, allowing students to surrender in order to let go of pain and reconnect to love and the gift of life.

Grief Cruises Help You Find Relief at Sea

Grief Cruises have also been proven an effective technique to deal with feelings of grief. They involve a weeklong trip for those who have lost someone close to them. Created by Linda Findlay, the seven-day grief seminar at sea includes presentations, arts and crafts, meditation sessions, and a “Night of Remembrance” on the top deck. The week offers a way for people who understand loss to come together.

Linda Findlay set sail on the very first Grief Cruise in September 2016. As the first bereavement-centered cruise vacation, the inaugural Grief Cruise invited guests and their families to share stories about their loved ones and participate in the Grief Cruise’s “Seminars at Sea” workshops. Grief Cruise attendees came away with a sense of hope, healing, and health regarding their grief. Recognizing the powerful connection between a tropical getaway and the healing that comes from a community of others who are experiencing the same thing, Linda continued to lead more bereavement-themed cruises. Learn more about Grief Cruises here.

Are You Experiencing Grief?

If you are experiencing grief, you can try some of the creative suggestions listed above if you choose to do so. We also offer the Farr Law Firm’s Spiritual and Grief Counseling Resources That May Help in Connection with the Loss or Illness of a Loved One.

Additional resources are available on the following websites:

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.

How Do You Want Your Loved Ones to Remember You?

When your loved ones are grieving your death in the way that works best for them and reflecting on their time with you, what do you want them to remember about you? When we die, most of us want to leave a meaningful legacy for our families. These are some questions to consider and share with loved ones, so they can have a knowledge of meaningful things that you want them to know about you:

  • What are some of your favorite memories?
  • What is most important in your life? (Family, pets, friendship?)
  • What makes your life meaningful? (Making art, being outdoors and in nature, being with loved ones, spiritual practice?)
  • If you could choose one or two important ways you would always be remembered by those you love, what would they be?

Having an honest, life-affirming conversation about death and end-of-life planning can be a wonderful gift for the people you will eventually leave behind in this lifetime. Consider using the Legacy Stories app to take pictures to tell some of the stories associated with them. Doing so can provide meaningful memories about you for your loved ones to think about when they are grieving and for when they are later recounting stories about you and your life, enabling your legacy to live on for future generations.

Make Sure Your Wishes Are Spelled Out in Your Documents, As Well

After taking the steps to discuss your legacy and what you want others to remember about you, it’s a good time to make sure your wishes are spelled out and available for your loved ones in your legal documents. If you have not done Incapacity Planning (a power of attorney and an advance medical directive), Estate Planning (usually involving a living trust to avoid probate), or Long-Term Care Planning (sometimes involving long-term care insurance and sometimes involving a Living Trust Plus® to protect your assets from probate plus long-term care), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.