Researchers have done numerous studies on how creative activities can benefit people who are experiencing grief, even looking at how they impact the brain. We spoke to Jane Harris, psychotherapist, filmmaker and co-founder of The Good Grief Project to find out how creativity can help people through the grieving process.
In her 2010 book The Creative Brain, Dr Shelley Carson says that grief results in a deactivation of the side of the brain that deals with positive feelings like happiness and hope, which can lead to that person not wanting to engage in any activities. If that is the case, at what point does creativity become of practical benefit? “We have to be very mindful to not apply rules that put more pressure on the bereaved” Jane says. “What we see at The Good Grief Project in terms of our active retreats is that everybody grieves differently, and there’s different times when different activities are most helpful.”
The Active Grief Weekends are residential retreats that offer creative writing and photography workshops, physical exercise and mindfulness. They take place in different locations but are usually in a rural setting, and those attending can take part in any or all of the activities. “We have people who might be just months in [their grief], or could be 20 years in. The point is to offer possibilities” she says.
All their creative activities are based on the idea that attendees don’t have any experience. “Some people might think they can’t do the writing workshops, then they’re absolutely blown away at what they’ve managed to do. Others people will go to the physical workshops, for example boxing, thinking “this is a joke, I can’t do this”, and they come out feeling remarkable. The principle with grief is that it’s all a great big learning process. It’s all about post traumatic growth.”
“If someone’s traumatised it’s very difficult to think about anything in any way. But creative and activity-based pursuits really free people up if they’re done in a safe environment.”
Jane says that a key benefit is that they enable people to build new relationships. “It’s about finding a more comfortable language, and being in a safe space where people are on the same page. Peer-to-peer support is very helpful because you’re meeting with people who have gone through something similar to what you’ve gone through, and that brings hope.”
People have also reported the benefits of creative activities on other types of negative emotions and mental health problems. “Creativity is absolutely central to change” Jane says. “It should be on prescription – mental and physical health is so hugely tied up with our creative lives. Of course when you’re in the depths of loss and despair, it’s very difficult to feel that you can do anything active or creative, but the benefits are massive. Personally speaking, they’ve helped us enormously, and all our participants say that writing and taking photographs is hugely cathartic.”
Both Jane and her husband Jimmy were already making films when their son Josh died at the age of 22 in a road accident while travelling across Vietnam. The making of Beyond Goodbye, a documentary about his funeral, was therapeutic. “We realised we were creating a celebration of his life for ourselves, but also for his friends. In a way we wanted participation, and the film is about allowing people to walk in the shoes of someone else. By making the film about his funeral we were told it helped his friends and many other people to be part of the event, and it helped make it real.”
“We’ve carried on making films about life events that are particularly complex and hard to digest, because film is a wonderful medium for helping people to think outside the box, and to look back on a life event that can help them move forward. People tell us they continue to watch Beyond Goodbye because it helps them to have hope, or think of different ways of processing grief.”
“A good documentary allows people to experience something that they couldn’t otherwise really get their head round or comprehend” Jane adds. “People watch A Love That Never Dies (their 2017 film where Jane and Jimmy travel across the US meeting other families who have lost a child) and they’ve stopped saying it’s a good film for the bereaved. They see it as a film for anyone who’s experienced grief or loss at any level, whether it be the loss of a relationship, loss of a home, loss of identity. We all go through the most dreadful losses in our lives and a pecking order of pain isn’t helpful. What we need to do is to find a way in which we can help each other to move forward through any kind of loss.”
For more information visit The Good Grief Project