Trust the Process

Recently, we had the third meeting of our Young Adult Bereavement Art Group. It's always a bit intimidating, having a group of young souls facing me, their faces carefully blank, but inside, a tangle of  sadness, exhaustion, frustration and hope. The challenge: Somehow we (my co-facilitator and I) have to create a pathway for some of these feelings to find their way out. One of the great tests of teaching is to greet a classroom day after day, seeing the upturned  faces that expect you to offer something that they in turn, can digest. Or not. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is to face apathy.

The main way I know these folks are not apathetic is that they keep coming back, meeting after meeting. Last night, we focused on identifying feelings related to their loss. The group went to work on a "feelings inventory," each one circling the little faces that most closely match their experience.

Next, and this is where my challenge came last night, was to take the most pressing feelings and fill in a body outline with color and symbols, wherever those feelings take hold in their body. I've explained this to groups many times, but somehow, the words I use to explain symbol and metaphor were not there. Only the symbols themselves.

I try to say enough so that their tap is turned on--but not so much that I get in the way of the flow. I hold up examples and talk about butterflies in the stomach and weights on the legs and padlocks on the mouth--and then I stop, almost holding my breath--and wait.

It's slow, they stare at their empty body outlines for a long time, unsure what to do first.  Some of them tentatively begin to outline their bodies in a dark viridian green.


And then it takes hold, carefully and methodically the feelings pour through the markers in streams of red, black, green and orange. Tears are added, broken hearts appear and mouths wide open with shock.

But the greatest change is in the people from whose pens these feelings issue. As we go around the room, one by one each of them shares their map with the group. And the words which come out express relief, calm, contentment, curiosity.

I've heard it a hundred times, but the truth of it does not wear out: "trust the process."

Good News: Art Therapy and Healthcare just published!

Lately, my mind has been wandering; wondering what it would be like to attend my 40th high school reunion, and whether it would be fun or feel like torture. Meanwhile our fall Young Adult Bereavement Art Group (YABAG) was advancing in fits and starts and now has finally fallen into a rhythm, much as leaves progress into their rich autumn colors.

Sometimes it takes a while for a group to coalesce, like the leaves of particular trees turning at different times. In a group where participants have suffered devastating loss (all loss is devastating, but some circumstances can bring additional trauma to the bereaved), people need time to make sense of their lives going forward.

My colleague and I wondered what was going on; perhaps it was how we were leading the group, but we reminded ourselves we'd done this many times before with the same curriculum and it had worked.

As if to remind us of this, two thick cardboard envelopes arrived in the campus mail, one addressed to me and the other to my colleague. I can't tell you if he ripped his envelope open, but had I been there when they arrived, I would have!

Inside the brown husk of wrapper lay the fruit of our labors for the last year; a copy of Cathy Malchiodi's edited and recently published book: Art Therapy and Healthcare, containing our chapter on the young adult bereavement art group. When I saw the cover, a richly colored oil pastel nautilus drawn by Cathy, I felt such a swelling of pride; as if some unspoken, barely imagined dream had come to pass.

I've had a chance to cozy up with it and I'm looking forward to reading through the many chapters written by art therapists across the country and world. I'm reminded of a colored construction paper banner that hung in my public library as a child. The letters read: "Come, journey with a book." I know I will.