Creative Grieving

How can we explore the therapeutic potential of creativity? What is the most effective way to demonstrate the different ways that art and the imagination can enable the bereaved to express and process their loss?

What did the project involve? 

The aim of this project was to explore the therapeutic potential of creativity, demonstrating the different ways that art and the imagination can enable the bereaved to express and process their loss. The project grew out of two highly successful projects: Hay and Dawson’s Brigstow funded project, ‘An Empathetic Realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film’ and Good Grief: A Festival of Love and Loss, an online festival funded by the Wellcome Trust, which was attended by over 12,000 people and received extensive national media coverage.

‘Creative Grieving’ drew on insights from psychotherapists, bereavements councillors, and art therapists as well as artists, photographers, directors and writers who had turned to creative projects as a means of expressing and processing their grief. The project involved traditional research components and practice-as-research components.

The Project aimed for five outputs:

  1. Five filmed segments on creativity and grief, shown on the Grief Channel
  2. A creative film, written and directed by Jimmy Hay
  3. A collaborative animated film about children, grief and creativity 
  4. A book by Lesel Dawson, Creative Grieving: Art, Loss and the Imagination. This will a research-lead but also accessible book on creativity and grief, aimed at a popular press. 
  5. A policy paper on the need for grief education in schools.  

Creativity and Grief Interviews

The team organized 5 filmed segments on creativity and grief for the Grief Channel. These comprised a series of interviews on Zoom were recorded and then edited to form these segments. The overarching question for these was: ‘what is the role creativity plays in the grieving process?’ These were aired and were free to view if watched ‘live’ and are now available for further viewings ‘on demand’ by subscribers of the Grief Channel.

A Creative Film

In the practice-as-research component of the project, Jimmy Hay produced a short fiction film as a means of exploring his experience of grief and the way that creativity impacts his processing of grief, if at all. Unlike Lost Property (the research output of Hay and Dawson’s Bristow project), which was collaborative, this will be a single authored and directed film. During the creation of the film and after the shoot, Dawson recorded interviews with Hay about his experience of making the film and how it impacted his experience of grief. This will also include recorded ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage of the film shoot, which would provide additional content for the project. This work will form one of the case studies in Dawson’s book Creative Grieving.   

Animated Films on Children, Grief, and Creativity

In this part of the project the team collaborated with therapists / bereavement counsellors, art therapists, children bereavement councillors and the illustrator Gary Andrews to make two short, animated films about children and grief. It began with a description of how children’s expressions and experience of grief can be different from adults (using Julia Samuel’s metaphorical description of children jumping in and out of puddles in terms of their experience of grief) and then moved to an exploration of how creativity can have an expressive and therapeutic function for children. The animation was aimed to be accessible and aimed at anyone interested in how to support bereaved children. It was released on the Grief Channel but was also offered as a something that can be used by children bereavement charities (such as Winston’s Wish and Grief Encounter, both of which are Good Grief Festival partners) and in schools as a resource for teachers.

A Book by Lesel Dawson, Creative Grieving: Art, Loss and the Imagination

This research-led but accessible book seeks to build on the research generated (and contacts made) from the Good Grief Festival. While there are books on creativity’s relationship to the grieving process, these tend to be aimed either at an academic audience or at those interested in practicing art psychotherapy; none have tried to illuminate its diverse therapeutic benefits for a general audience. This book aims to fill this gap. Drawing on current psychological and therapeutic approaches to grief, it will argue that the imagination is crucial to the processing of loss because grief typically involves a wound of the imagination. Creative Grieving will begin with a substantial introduction that uses current ideas on grief, cognition and memory to suggests the ways in which creativity can be constructed as therapeutic; the introduction will also propose how artistic expression fits into the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement (Stroebe and Schut, 1999). This will then be followed by six vivid case studies that illuminate the complex and diverse ways that creativity can help the bereaved to process loss.

A Policy Paper

This paper sought to look into the need for grief education in schools. The research team believed statutory grief education would be an effective and efficient way to help school pupils talk about death, preparing them to manage their own grief and support others, and fostering the development of a more compassionate society.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jimmy Hay (Film and Television, University of Bristol) is a filmmaker and lecturer with experience of UK-wide cinematic release. He brings his expertise in the fusion of theory and practice with audio-visual interrogation of cognition and emotion in filmmaking. Jimmy leads the Medical Humanities Cluster’s ‘Grief’ research strand.
  • Lesel Dawson (English, University of Bristol) is a researcher centred on the history of psychology, focusing on how representations of the experience of grief and the meanings attributed to it have changed over time. Lesel has published academic work on the history of emotions and on theatrical and cinematic representations of grief.
  • Lucy Selman (Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School) is an Associate Professor in the School of Population Health Sciences. Her research interests fall into two areas: the development and evaluation of complex clinical interventions, and palliative and end of life care and bereavement. She is currently conducting an NIHR Career Development Fellowship leading the OSCAR study (Optimising Staff-patient Communication in Advanced Renal disease). She is also Co-Principal Investigator on an ESRC-funded national study on bereavement during the COVID-19 pandemic (in collaboration with Dr Emily Harrop at Cardiff University), and the founding director of Good Grief Festival. She co-leads the University of Bristol Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group.

What were the results?

The 5 filmed segments on creativity and grief for the Grief Channel can be found below:

Robert Neimeyer is the Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. He’s published 30 books, including a series of volumes on Techniques of Grief Therapy and Grief and the Expressive Arts. He serves as Editor of the journal, Death Studies.

In this talk, Robert explores include how bereavement can bring about a crisis of meaning; how charity can be an important form of meaning making; and whether meaning making as a way to continue the bonds with the person who has died is always a positive activity.

Jane Harris is a psychotherapist and filmmaker. With her husband and fellow filmmaker, Jimmy Edmonds, Jane co-founded and runs The Good Grief Project. It was created following the death of their son, Josh, to share their experience of grief and to help others find a creative expression of grief through photography, film and creative writing.

They talk about the fear surrounding death, and about how Josh’s funeral allowed his peer group to think about death and mortality. Jane elaborates on the role that creativity plays in processing grief and meaning making, and how we don’t ‘get over’ someone’s death, but instead find ways of continuing our relationship with the person who has died.

Jane describes how, as parents, they aren’t looking for ‘closure’ but rather for openings, and how important it is for grievers to come together, to share stories and to build community.

Victoria Tolchard is an art therapist specialising in bereavement support. Her mum died of cancer when Victoria was 22 years old, and Victoria is currently creating a book designed to help people understand and talk about death and the process of dying.

A key way in which Victoria encourages bereaved people to share their feelings and emotions is through art. Art can allow adults and children to express and process their grief in ways that go beyond words. Art allows grievers to share their own stories either singly or in groups, with such storytelling crucial to the grief recovery process.

Simon Bray is a Manchester-based artist and creative producer. He uses photography, audio, installation and text to explore the notions of place, identity and loss. Simon’s Loved&Lost project has been seen by over three million people worldwide and is supported by the book, Loved&Lost – Volume 1.

Simon talks about the death of this own father and how that impacted him, and how returning to places reminiscent of the loved one who has died can help bring back sensory memories. Photographing groups of siblings also helped Simon to process his grief for his younger sister, who died of brain cancer in 2018. This exploration culminated in the project, Siblings.

Liz Gleeson is a highly qualified and experienced psychotherapist and educator in the field of grief and loss. She is also the curator of the podcast Shapes Of Grief, which is a recommended resource in universities and colleges internationally. She joins Lesel Dawson to discuss the detail of how our bodies are impacted by grief. Liz also reflects more widely on her personal and professional experiences of loss, using examples from cases to explore the diverse ways that people experience grief emotionally and physically.

Using examples from her grief therapy sessions, Liz explains how she draws on her vast experience to ensure that her therapeutic approach is relevant to each individual. Listening is key, to truly hear people’s stories, see their sadness and witness and validate their grief. Liz outlines how people can experience disenfranchised grief when this doesn’t happen, and explains what we can do to support people in helpful ways.

Liz goes into depth about the processes taking place in the body and the brain when grieving, revealing the physiological as well as the psychological impacts of grief. She also introduces creative tools that can help people to express grief or release their energy in non-verbal ways.

Julia discusses the importance of externalising the relationship with the person who has died, instead of hiding it away and covering it up. Pain is the agent of change and without feeling the pain of grief it can be hard to process the loss.

She talks about the importance of using objects to remember and connect to people who have died, and the power of writing letters, visualisation techniques and other creative activities that allow you to connect imaginatively with the person who has died.

Julia also considers what you can do to support yourself when you are grieving, giving tips on how time can best be put to use, in processing your grief rather than purely ruminating on it.

This project funded the creation of the short film, Nothing Echoes Here, by Jimmy Hay.

Nothing Echoes Here (2022), is a Brigstow-funded practice-as-research short film that charts a 24-hour period in the life of a woman and her two children, in the near-aftermath of the loss of their husband and father. The film explores the role that space – interior, exterior, familiar, non-familiar – plays for those grieving a profound loss, whilst utilising formal elements of film language and performance to portray grief in an authentic and empathetic manner, prioritising a sense of experience over story and narrative.

The film was recently reviewed by Benjamin Park on Brigstow Blogs, entitled ‘Reflections on Lost Property and Nothing Echoes Here’.

The project produced two short animations. ‘Children, Grief and Creativity’ and ‘Children, Grief and Art Therapy’.

‘Children, Grief and Creativity’ asks: Do children grieve differently from adults? What are the best ways to support children through a bereavement? How can creativity help children express and process their thoughts and feelings? This film offers practical advice on ways to support bereaved children and suggests that creativity can help them process their loss.

In ‘Children, Grief, and Art Therapy’ Art Therapist Victoria Tolchard explains how the therapeutic use of creative processes can help bereaved children express their thoughts and feelings and see their experiences from a new perspective. Activities such as drawing, sculpting, and painting can free up feelings and memories, helping children connect to their emotions in an intuitive, sensory manner to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of well-being.

The publication of the book Creative Grieving: Art, Loss and the Imagination. Is still underway. Further information regarding this will be published here when available.

A Policy Paper and article on the topic are to be published soon.

Lesel Dawson is working on a policy paper on the need for grief education in schools. This developed into a collaborative article on the topic which has now been accepted for publication for the online journal Bereavement. Here is a section from a blogpost:

“Rachel Hare, Lucy Selman and I are working with Tracey Boseley (National Development Lead for the Education Sector for Child Bereavement UK) and Alison Penny (Director of Childhood Bereavement Network and Co-ordinator for National Bereavement Alliance) on a review that brings together research on the benefits of grief education, explores the most effective ways to integrate the topics into schools, and considers issues with teacher training and other obstacles. Statutory grief education would be an effective and efficient way to help school pupils talk about death, preparing them to manage their own grief and support others, and fostering the development of a more compassionate society.

More detail can be found in the below extract offering an overview of the policy paper.

“1 in 29 UK schoolchildren have been bereaved of a parent or sibling, but there is currently no legislative requirement for schools to teach pupils about grief and bereavement anywhere in the UK. Evidence from across the world demonstrates that grief education has substantial psychological and social benefits for both bereaved young people and those who are yet to experience a bereavement (Work Group on Palliative Care for Children, 1999; Stevenson, 2000; Select Committee on Health (UK), 2004; Lynam & McGuckin, 2018). Grief education could help build more grief-literate schools and foster the development of a more compassionate society. UK charities (including our partners Child Bereavement UK (CBUK), and Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN)), organisations, academics, teachers, parents and others have been advocating for grief and death education to be embedded into school curricula for over twenty years.[1] The Scottish National Childhood Bereavement Project (2022) and the UK Commission on Bereavement (2022) have renewed calls for mandatory grief education in schools and the Lancet Commission on the Value of Bereavement (2022) has affirmed the need for a shift towards grief and death literacy. A clear, public facing policy paper, linked to our academic article, could help influence policy makers to make this change and demonstrate the importance of grief education to the public, especially teachers, other educational professionals and parents.

[1] Many of Childhood Bereavement Network’s recent responses to government and policy initiatives can be viewed on their resources page. There are also examples of individuals campaigning for grief education; Sameena Javed, for example, petitioned for policy change in Scotland when her son died and her daughter was not adequately supported (Wilson, 2020), while the specialist palliative care team at Gateshead hospital worked with local schools to improve learners’ understanding of death and dying (Orr & Henderson, 2020).”