The focus of therapists is almost always to help clients process their feelings as they bring their vulnerability into the therapy space. This is most true when clients are dealing with grief, whether it stems from death, divorce or other loss. But what happens when it is the therapist who is experiencing grief? How do therapists deal with their own feelings within the therapeutic relationship?
As an art therapist, I have struggled with that question as I’ve dealt with the impending death of a family member. My experiences of grief come into the therapeutic space through countertransference and because I bring my most authentic self into each session. But of course I seek support from friends, family, my supervisor and my own therapist. Since I am aware of my feelings of grief, I am able to use them to connect with my clients on a deeper level and to use them in a positive way. Art therapy provides an ideal way to do so.
By creating art with clients during a session, art therapists can support clients’ emotional growth but also communicate in a non-verbal language that they understand the clients’ feelings and that they share in their experience. The shared art-making becomes a means to create a stronger therapeutic relationship and it can serve as a representation of the joint work of therapy. Shared art-making can include creating a scene with clay in which both therapist and client contribute or creating a collage together which explores the feelings within the therapeutic relationship.
Art therapists also have the option of creating art in response to what the client makes as they experience grief. Some time ago I was moved deeply by the sadness that a client expressed and as I touched into my own sadness I felt my heart open as we shared the experience together. I made my client a small sculpture using clay, which I gave to her as a symbol of how I was moved by her gift of vulnerability, which she shared with me. Several months later that client told me that the art I gave her was significant in that she knew I understood how she felt.
Therapists’ grief does not have to be a hindrance within the therapeutic setting. Using art can not only help bridge the gap between therapist and client’s emotional selves, it can be essential when processing complex issues such as grief. By using creative methods, I have not only managed by grief expressions within the therapeutic setting but have used them to become a better art therapist.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA