Making Something of Sadness: Using Art Making to Process Grief

In the fall of 2007, I began working on my clinical hours to become a licensed mental health practitioner and a registered art therapist. My first clinical supervisor was Jeffrey Knadjl, MD, a psychiatrist who specialized in psycho-oncology, or the mental health needs of cancer patients. He and his nurse practitioner, Barbara Clinknenbeard, really believed in the power of art therapy for helping their patients. I began doing art therapy and counseling with their patients at Creighton University Medical Center.

Dr. Knajdl was an extremely intelligent and compassionate mentor for me. What I loved about him was that he really understood the power of art and could see in my clients’ artwork the same things that I saw. He and Barbara really respected me, and they invited me to wear a lab coat–the biggest symbol of professionalism in a hospital– while doing art therapy with their patients. They told me I could decorate it, since it was an art therapist’s lab coat. I didn’t do that right away, though, because I wanted to just experience what it felt like to wear the coat unadorned.

In July of 2008, I was stunned when Barbara called me and told me that Dr. Knadjl had died in his sleep, from complications of rheumatoid arthritis and sleep apnea. Immediately, my grief process began. It started with disbelief–I kept thinking I would eventually hear that it was all a horrible mistake or a misunderstanding, and that he would still be alive. When I saw his obituary in the paper, it hit me like a ton of bricks that he was really gone.

I then decided: NOW is the time to decorate my lab coat! I created a memorial pocket, using a photograph of Dr. Knadjl that I printed on ink jet fabric and glued to one of the lab coat’s pockets.

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I had found out that Dr. Knajdl’s favorite prayer was the Peace Prayer, so I made a mandala on the back of the lab coat with a line from the prayer on it.

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I also made several memorial frames in honor of Dr. Knadjl. You can buy unfinished wooden frames at craft stores, such as Michael’s. These frames are easily decorated with paint, paper, and scrapbooking embellishments, and then you can put a picture of your loved one in the frame. The first memorial frame I made in honor of Dr. K. I gave to Barbara. The second one was for me. It sits on my desk at home, and it comforts me when I look at it.

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I didn’t find out until after he had died that Dr. Knajdl was an artist himself–he enjoyed painting very much. Barbara donated his art supplies to me for art therapy. Among his blank canvases, I found a delightful unfinished painting of a flower.

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I decided this painting needed to be finished, so I hand-lettered a quote from an email he had sent me after a rather intense supervision session. He wrote, referring to supervision: “It is frequently when we discover what therapy is, what a privilege we have been given as therapists, and who we are.”

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I also found in a sketchbook a wonderful little sketch of a house that he had done.

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I decided this house needed to be placed in an environment, so I cut it out and put it on another piece of paper and created a safe place for it.

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If you’re in a grief process right now, you might be wondering what the point of all this art making was–after all, it couldn’t bring him back. The point is that art-making gave me something to DO with my grief. The worst thing about experiencing the death of a loved one, I think, is that it makes you feel so helpless. Expressing my feelings through a tangible process of making lessened that feeling of helplessness, while simultaneously validating my feelings and honoring the relationship I had with Dr. Knajdl. Every time I made another art piece about my grief, I felt more settled, and more able to carry on.

So now it may be your turn. Try making a simple object to honor the person you loved. Think about what form you want your memorial to take. Here are three simple ideas to get you started:

  • Get an unfinished wood frame from a craft store. Paint it, or cover it with colored or patterned paper. Decorate it however you like with any sort of embellishments you want. Craft stores have some wonderful 3-dimensional stickers that are very easy to use for this
  • Find a box and paint and decorate it. You can find nice unfinished wood boxes at craft stores, or you can recycle a box you find around the house. Place special items that remind you of your loved one inside the box.
  • Find a nice stone and draw or write a message on it with a Sharpie pen. Or you can use letter stickers from the craft store to spell out a message. Add tiny stickers, stick-on jewels, and other embellishments to the stone.

The important thing is to DO something with your grief by making something tangible to express your feelings, validate your loss, and honor your loved one. You’ll feel better for it.

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