Number 4 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights how art can help us cope with loss…

It’s impossible to imagine the reality of grief until we're confronted with it. Grief and mourning come from loss, whether it is the loss of our health, a relationship, a job, a pet, a loved one, or something else entirely.

Loss can be life-altering. And as Joan Didion wrote: "There is no real way to deal with everything we lose…" Everyone will respond to loss in a different way. But there are ways that can help us all cope and even begin the healing process.

Grief is a natural, normal, and necessary response to loss. Many people confuse grief with sadness but the reality is that grief involves a far wider range of emotions, from anger and confusion to guilt and anxiety.

This torrent of emotions can be difficult to process, and we may not even realise what is happening to us. Grief makes us feel like we are not ourselves. It can change our behaviour and can bring with it low self-esteem, depression and physical illness. Our confusion and overwhelmed state can make verbalising our experience of grief almost impossible.

“When we create, we give ourselves permission to examine all that is happening within our grieving bodies.”

Douglass Mitchell, therapist

Grieving and adjusting to loss has no quick fix: it is a long process. But art can help begin this process by opening channels through which to explore and vent the unspeakable.

For thousands of years, artists of all kinds have used their work to express their sadness, anger, fear, love and hope. Of course, there is no painting or poem that can ever bring back what we have lost but they can help us accept that it is gone.

The general benefits of art therapy are widely documented. But what about evidence for visual arts interventions in loss?

Research into the effects of visual art on grief and loss are in the very early stages. However, a study in February this year found preliminary evidence to support the effectiveness of visual arts interventions in alleviating grief symptoms such as general distress, functional impairment, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Douglas Mitchell, a family therapist, says: “Art influences how we look at, unblock, wrestle with, and shed light on the need to distance and detach from our pain. When we dodge grief to avoid, deny, or block the inevitable pain, the arts invite the imagination of these stuck places to come to the surface in images, movement, colour, and sound. Our art process releases the tension of grief, allowing it to expand and contract, while providing a safe container in which this process can take place. When we create, we give ourselves permission to examine all that is happening within our grieving bodies.”

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