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About Project 1: Drawing our grief

By Jeanne D. Ritterson

Supporting my children after their dad’s death was not easy. Grief is a difficult, perplexing, and exhausting process. They needed me to help them grieve and to make sense of their loss. I wished for guidance to help me do the most important things so that I could use the little energy I had to help them the most. I wanted one of those, “so easy you can do it with your eyes shut” recipes. I decided to design a family art toolbox that would provide the guidance I had wished for.

After my husband’s death, my children talked about him often. They imagined what it was like for him to be dead, what he missed about his life, what it would be like if he came back and what they might say to him if he did. I noticed my daughter was making more drawings than usual and it occurred to me creative expression might help them both. I was pleased to find that drawing pictures helped them share complex feelings they hadn’t expressed before.

Through one drawing my 10-year old son explained that he was lost without a dad. He felt incomplete and doubted that he would ever become whole without a man to love him. It was not just the loss of his father he grieved but that he had no uncle, grandfather or other man to step in and guide him. As we talked about the picture he was able to expand his feelings into clear a verbal expression - he wanted another dad.

For a dependent child, losing a caregiver or other family member is frightening. Feelings related to fear are stored in an area of the brain where fight or flight survival responses are stored. Art helps a child access fear-based memories. Once a fear is creatively expressed though art, a child can be helped to discover ways they can feel safer and less threatened. That’s why having your children draw is a good way to help your child.  

Not only will drawings about grief help your children now, journals of their work will remind them of their feelings during the most difficult times of grief. Being aware of these feelings will help them as they re-encounter the loss (as children do) through each developmental stage until they are fully matured.

Each article in this series proposes a family project. The structure of each project is the same, only the focus or topic differs. After you have tried some of the projects provided here, you may want to create some exercises based on your children’s needs. Depending on the month, the anniversaries at hand and the ages of your children, topics can be designed to help them tap their most pressing feelings. You know your children best.

After drawing and answering the interview questions I asked my children whether they wanted to share their drawings. If a child didn’t want to share at all, I didn’t pry but asked if he or she might be willing to share next time. After we each had a chance to share and to comment in turn on each other’s work, we often lapsed into comfortable conversation about their dad or the changes in the their lives. They liked to talk about their thoughts about my feelings. It was interesting to find out how they thought I was feeling. (Often my children asked me to go first and they enjoyed hearing about my picture and talking about the things they saw in my drawing.)

Do project 1.

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Allina Health Grief Resources
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