You are currently viewing Treats (versus Treatment) for the Grieving

Treats (versus Treatment) for the Grieving

Healing Dreamscape for Shirley H by prescriptive artist Nancy Gershman
Prescriptive photomontage for Shirley H


Retelling the story of loss hurts. A normal component of grief recovery, it is often as painful as the loss itself. I remember one widow’s words which always stuck with me – perhaps because she was so uninformed of other more art-centered options besides interpersonal psychotherapy, bereavement support groups and anti-depressants.  Sixty-six years of age, this woman had begun treatment 20 years after the death of her husband for complicated grief. In The New York Times article (“After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away,” Sept. 9, 2009), she tells journalist Fran Schumer about her experience of recounting loss: “That was just brutal and I had to relive it. I nearly dropped out, but I knew this was my last hope of getting any kind of functional life back.”

However, times appear to be changing. In Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s recent article in Time Magazine (“Good News About Grief,” Jan 24, 2011), there is a new movement underfoot, re-examining Kübler-Ross’s “American Way of Grief,” namely:

  • expressing your grief by telling your story often and in detail
  • grieving in stages, from shock to acceptance, in that order
  • accepting mandatory “aftercare services” (a.k.a. bereavement counseling)
Kübler-Ross’s 7 Stages of Grief 

I am a strong believer in resilience, but also in a griever’s ability to dream and hope. Imagine if this same client – in addition to exploring counseling – might also have generated a preferred story in creative play with a prescriptive artist?  Prescriptive photomontage – the work I do as a creative practitioner – frequently follows participation in support groups or therapy.  The epiphanies borne in these environments are then used by the prescriptive artist to focus the client on a new, more hopeful narrative for the future. One could say that it makes hope tangible. For Shirley who lived through her son’s murder only to suffer her third mental breakdown, prescriptive photomontage concretized hope in the form of a meaning-laden portrait of her son.

Read more about Shirley H’s story

Receiving custom artwork under any circumstance is a treat. Positive visualizations of the future by a prescriptive artist, for example, are even more of a treat. Why? Because personal photos previously steeped in sadness are given an entirely different spin, so that they can tell a story of redemption that stars the griever in an epic role – a role where they are no longer The Griever. By “treat,” I am talking about both a process and product that refreshingly doesn’t look or feel like therapy because it is art fashioned by an artist and not the client. It is art conceived to make the griever feel more whole and less raw in their grief … without hurting them further.

Konigsberg sums up the “New Pessimism” towards grief counseling when she concludes with these words:

“It certainly seems time to move beyond our current habit of using untested theories to create unnecessarily lengthy – and agonizing – models for coping with grief that have created more anxiety about the experience instead of alleviating it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Bring all options to the table. Then reach underneath and pull out that drawer of treats.