I’m beginning a series of posts about how art can act as a tool in our healing process. The fact that it’s a tool means the work is up to you. But you can’t take advantage of this powerful tool until you learn more about what it is, and how to use it. So how can art help me in my grief, you ask? Read on, brave soul!

First things first, you don’t need to be an artist in order to experience the benefits of using art in your grief journey. Fine art - what people usually think of when they say, “I’m not an artist!” - is all about the product. Grief art, on the other hand, is all about the process of creating it. It might produce a result that’s less than aesthetically pleasing, but know what? Grief isn’t pretty, either.

There’s this motto that I live by in my adventures with Project Grief:

“Because grief takes us beyond words, we must go beyond words (to art!) in order to heal.”

Let’s learn about one of the most obvious aspects of using art as a tool in our healing: Externalization. Externalization is the process of taking what’s inside of you, and expressing it outwardly.

The arts help me get out the chaos inside. I’m a visual person, so when I see something powerful - whether good or bad - it sticks with me. That was especially the case for the memory of the night my dad passed away. I was twelve years old at the time. I can still picture getting up in the middle of the night to ask why all the lights were on. To spare you the details, I saw what no child should ever have to see. Dad had suffered a massive heart attack, which took his life instantly. The world as I knew it was gone. That memory was so strong that a decade later, I could viscerally feel all the same emotions of that night.

After years of counseling, I knew it was time to get this memory out of my head. I started painting a picture of myself lying on the couch after all the paramedics had left. As I painted, I felt all the feelings and thoughts of that night, welling up inside of me. Yes, I hurt and I cried for that little girl on the couch, but I knew I had to press on. It was no small effort.

Once it was all out, I stepped back from my painting and gasped. Something had happened in the course of those hours. I had spent so much time with that memory, thoroughly feeling it, then releasing it onto the canvas. And now, I felt freer, lighter. I was no longer the little girl on the couch.

Clocks, grief art, Danica Thurber

Art helps you externalize the deep emotions and thoughts of grief. They aren’t pretty to see or feel, but you must get them out of you so that you can move on and live.

Try it for yourself.

1.) When you feel overwhelmed, take a few colored pens and a piece of paper to a quite place. Beginning with one color, write a few sentences and phrases that are rumbling around in your mind. Try turning the piece of paper so that the sentences turn around and around. Now pick another color and pick up where you left off with your thoughts. Continue until the whole page is covered with a swirl of sentences and colors. How do you feel now? If anything, you’ll feel better about being so overwhelmed. You can now visually see that yes, indeed, the thoughts and feelings inside you are overwhelmingly big.

2.) When you feel numb, pick up a box of crayons and a piece of paper. Angle the crayon so that when it hits the paper, it has a wide angle. Beginning at one corner, shade the entire length with one color. Now pick a different crayon, angle it, and continue shading. Shade until you fill the whole paper. Now look at the piece. Notice what colors you used. Which colors “feel like you”? Which colors don’t? Does this give any hints as to what your emotional state is, beneath the numbness? If you feel comfortable, find someone you trust. Explain that you’ve been feeling numb and share your drawing with them. Let them help you identify what might be going on underneath the surface.

3.) At any time, you can begin to learn more about using art as a tool by enrolling in my free mini-course, Grief Art 101. There’s a beginner art project too! Try it for yourself here.

Comment below: How has art helped you externalize the overwhelming thoughts and emotions of grief?