Creative expression has tremendous power. As a social worker and grief counselor who has worked with children for over twenty years, I have witnessed the power of art and writing in transforming an uncontrollable situation into a controllable one.
On a personal note, my twin sister Anabel and I were born with a serious illness and spent many weeks in the hospital as children and teens. I learned kindness from the nurses, doctors, and other staff; they became like our second family. Still, I struggled with the boredom, fear of painful procedures and chronic anxiety of getting sicker. Illness makes kids different, and most kids who are sick just want to be normal. For me, one way I coped with my illness was to paint t-shirts in the hospital. Ana and I started a business called, “The T-Shirt Twins.” The staff would bring in a plain t-shirt and we would paint them for $5. We made a catalog with numerous designs that people could choose from. Sometimes we’d go home with $200 in cash! Being busy helped distract my mind from the fear and sorrow that I felt being such a sick kid.
Another way I coped with boredom was to start a journal and write about my hospital experiences. Ana and I drew pictures along with our journal entries. We wrote about roommates we’ve had, our doctors, favorite nurses and funny respiratory therapists. On each page we wrote about different procedures or about holidays we’ve spent in the hospital. One clerk let us type up the journal and sell copies for $1! So once again, we made the most of our hospital time making money that we could enjoy at the mall when we got discharged!
As an adult, I now realize what my hospital projects were really about. They were about gaining mastery. Serious illness can be scary and overwhelming. There are many complex terms that are used; we felt crummy, had strange meds put into our bodies, were hospitalized on a moment’s notice, and had to cancel many plans. I felt angry, scared, anxious, and frustrated many times. There was so much that felt out of control. Art helped my sister and me organize what was happening to us into a coherent story - or picture. Despite so many negative things happening, art and writing helped us stay positive, because we could express the story of how we wanted to feel.
Gaining mastery also means that every child needs to discover their own interests and talents, find the motivation to pursue them, believe they are capable of being successful with these interests, and have people around them to support them. When a child is sick, they usually are deprived of normal social activities, school activities and extracurricular activities. Every child needs to figure out what they are good at- this is the basis of self-esteem. A child in the hospital may need opportunities to pursue creative outlets and interests to discover their gifts and to maintain a sense of normalcy. Art and writing gave my sister and me a sense of control. The positive feedback we received from the staff, friends and family made us feel good about ourselves. This helped us realize that maybe being sick wasn’t all bad; there were good things happening as well.
Art is especially important for children. First, art is fun! Kids need fun in their lives, especially when they are sick. And, sometimes children do not have the words to describe what they are feeling. Sometimes the feelings are so big, there are no words. Having the chance to draw, paint, or construct something helps kids show what they are feeling. There is no right or wrong feeling, and no right or wrong art. Also, children also do not have an inner critic. They know it’s making the art that’s important. Art is therapeutic when we focus on the process- what is happening for us at the time we are creating. As we get older, we start to compare the product- the end result- with other peoples’ art. We start to judge ourselves and this can inhibit our freedom to express.
Art also distracts us from our physical pain and discomfort. Art gives us beauty, color, energy, excitement, joy and awe- these are positive emotions which we especially need when we feeling badly. Art helps us reach a psychological state called “flow.” Flow is when time seems to stand still when we are engaged in a project we are passionate about. Flow helps us concentrate and focus. For once, a sick child does not need to think about her illness. Art gives us a much-needed break from serious worries about the future. And the best part about art is that there is no timeline for art. When a child is sick, she may not feel well enough to do art. Art can be done in short spurts or for hours at a time. It can be put aside and returned to later, when energy permits.
As a grief counselor, I am confronted with the sad reality that sometimes people -including kids- cannot overcome their illnesses. The beauty of art is that it can outlive a person’s short lifetime. Art and writing becomes proof that we have existed. It’s as if a painting says, “I was here. I lived. Now enjoy this part of me forever.” Art is unique- just like the person who lived. Art never dies. The story of the person who created the art is forever embedded in the art.
Also, I use art and writing frequently as a grief counselor. Sometimes, sorrow is too big for words. Creating a work of art can be a meaningful way to express the intensity of pain that a bereaved person is experiencing. Grief can make us tense and restless, with a strong need to escape the grief, even for a short time, and focus on something else. Art can be a way to connect to a departed loved one. One client created a sculpture and dedicated it to his loved one. I often use SoulCollage® in groups and invite grievers to place a photo of their loved one in their collage. We often make memory flags (like Tibetan prayer flags) as well, where clients express wishes, love and prayers to the person they lost.
Writing is another creative way to stay connected to our loved one- by writing to them, writing about them and documenting their legacy. Continuing the bond with the person who has died has been shown to be helpful in facilitating the grief process. There is a famous phrase by Mitch Albom that says, ‘Death ends a life, not a relationship.’ Art and writing are some ways to maintain the relationship with someone who has died.
Art is part of the human experience. Illness, struggle and grief are also part of the human experience. An intense life experience like childhood illness deserves to be documented and expressed. Now, as a healthier adult, I look back at the art I made as a child and am grateful to have a reminder of how I overcame those difficult years- creatively. I am more powerful today because of this.
So, I hope you, too, can continue to discover the power of art in your own lives. Keep in mind, art and writing are not just for the person who is sick. My mother was an artist and painted many beautiful paintings as a way to cope. Caregivers need an outlet too. Your art is proof you have loved, cared for and existed as well.
Kids & Art Foundation is thankful to have a vast community of artists who create with us. Our artists share their passion for art and their commitment to make the world a better place. Without them we cannot heal pediatric cancer through art.
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