How art can help children express grief

Categories: Care and Featured.

Today marks the start of Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK. Founded by childhood bereavement charity Grief Encounter, the week aims to raise awareness of the needs of bereaved children and young people, something that’s especially prescient this year with the additional challenges of Covid-19.

Emily Gray is an art therapist at Saint Francis Hospice in Essex. Here she tells us how art has been helping to relieve children’s feelings of loss and isolation during the pandemic.

The pandemic has been difficult for all children and young people, and for those who have faced bereavement or are facing a loss, it has been even tougher.

These children have been coping with feelings of grief but many have also been struggling with anxiety, feeling disconnected, restricted, fearful and isolated.

Many young people are struggling with their levels of confidence and are finding it a challenge to adapt to change and a different way of living.

With the support of Children in Need funding, Saint Francis Hospice have been providing weekly counselling sessions, which has included art therapy sessions for children and young people, giving them a safe, consistent place to explore and share their thoughts and feelings in a way that is comfortable to them.

Using art to express difficult emotions

Art making is used in art therapy as a way of expressing and communicating feelings that can be too hard to verbalise. Offering a child space to express themselves leads to exploration of these feelings, and helps them to process difficult, often confusing emotions. For children, art-making is a way to release feelings such as anger and frustration, and these can be explored safely in these sessions.

Art-making can evoke memories, bring comfort and be a connection to a loved one who has died. For example, painting beach stones to lay on a loved one’s grave or creating a picture of a loved one can not only start a conversation but supports a young person to process their loss.

During the lockdown we’ve delivered art packs to families for children to use during online therapy sessions, continuing their creativity and exploration in a different way and helping to reduce feelings of isolation. Many children showed their families what they had made afterwards, which helped them feel more comfortable about sharing their feelings at home.

Evoking memories

I recently finished working with a young child whose mother had sadly died. The child found it difficult to verbalise how she felt. Art therapy gave her the opportunity to talk to me about her feelings, and we explored them together over a number of weeks, at school before the pandemic and during online video sessions throughout the lockdown.

In these sessions, she decorated a memory box to remember her mother by, and made images that helped her feel connected to her. It was wonderful to witness her begin to look forward to her future, and see her enjoying things again.

In the case of another family, parent Rabia told us how these sessions had benefited them. “Our eldest daughter has been anxious about expressing her feelings because of the impact it would have at home. Having the support of a trained therapist has given our children a voice and the freedom to express how they feel without worrying or upsetting anyone” she said.

“The therapy through art approach is something that has brought us closer together as a family, as we have been using the materials to create art and models to remember the children’s grandmother by. Our children’s mental health and wellbeing is so much better because of the work Emily has done.”

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