Sunday, April 5, 2009

Therapy turns grief into works of art

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Art therapy is what happens after talk therapy fails.
'Words are often insufficient,' said Sandy Ellis of Temple, social worker and grief counselor. 'So you can't always just talk about it.'
So to help her clients, she relies on art.
'Creating a vision, it helps to express what's going on inside,' she said.
It's a useful therapy for adults and children.
'It helps older people broach subjects they're uncomfortable with,' Ms. Ellis said. 'And for the children, the art helps them show what they don't understand.'
Art therapy can take dozens of forms: collages, drawings, paintings, sculptures, journaling and 3-D structures.
The options, Ms. Ellis said, are endless. In her art therapy sessions at VistaCare, she employs a variety of exercises.
'Emotion books are a good way to start,' she said.
To make one, you take a bunch of typing paper and label each page with words like denial, pain, laughter, regret, hopelessness and confusion. Then you look through magazines for pictures that symbolize the word.
'Then you put it all in a folder and decorate the front how you want,' Ms. Ellis said. 'This exercise forces you to examine the different emotions and think about how they apply to you.'
Former client Peggy Wells of Moffat remembers this exercise.
'It helped me identify my feelings after my husband died,' Ms. Wells said. 'I couldn't express how I felt.'
Fellow widow Janie Reed agreed.
'I thank God for that grief therapy,' Ms. Reed said. 'You can't describe the pain you feel after losing a spouse. It's so big, and you don't want to get out of bed. You're left alone, empty and angry and you don't know what to do. I'm so glad I went for help.'
Ms. Ellis has found that memory boxes can be as useful as emotion books.
'This is something we use for families who have a loved one in hospice,' Ms. Ellis said. 'We start long before the person dies.'
Inside the box, you put photographs and trinkets that remind you of your loved one.
'And you douse it with their perfume or cologne or something else that smells like them,' the counselor said. 'And that way when the person's gone, and when you need a hug, you open it and the memories are there.'
These exercises facilitate the art therapy process. The next step is to tackle the emotions within and create a work of art that mirrors them.
And Ms. Ellis can make a library of the pieces she's seen develop over her 20-year career.
'Though it's not the end product that's significant,' she said. 'It's the process of making it.'
Her VistaCare office is crowded with pictures, paintings, poems and the like. She saves the ones that are 'powerful and moving.' She says they make good teaching tools. She reminisced about past clients as she talked about the various works of art.
'One little girl, her dad died,' she said. 'She took two paper cups into and made them into a barstool. He was a drinker, and that's what reminded her of him. To her, the barstool was a comfort.'
A set of sisters drew a butterfly when their father died.
'They also wrote a poem about it,' Ms. Ellis said. 'They wrote that pain was like a butterfly because you can hide in a cocoon when it hurts and fly away when it's over. In the picture, their Dad is a flower as the butterfly flies along.'
A 17-year-old boy who wasn't keen on group participation is the creator of one of Ms. Ellis' favorite pieces.
'It's a collage that tells his mother's story from beginning to end, and it's beautiful,' Ms. Ellis said. 'She died of cervical cancer.'
A new addition is a clay heart made of varying shades of red. The black part is where it broke. It was stabbed with a dozen nails.
'They're horseshoe nails,' Ms. Ellis said. 'The little boy who made it - his horseriding instructor had died. And he started having psychosomatic symptoms of grief and anger.'
The counselor said the youngster was getting into trouble at home and school.
'He was spitting at people and purposefully wetting his pants,' Ms. Ellis said. 'It was anger he couldn't express. After he made the heart, I knew the right question to ask. 'Are you angry?''
Indeed he was. The instructor had promised the lad he would teach the boy some new tricks this summer.
'But the instructor died, and it was a broken promise. It wasn't going to happen anymore,' Ms. Ellis said. 'As soon as I found that out, I could tell the boy's teachers and parents. It was something they could understand. It was something they could talk about. It didn't have to be ignored.'

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