Many people become familiar with hospice care as they watch their loved ones slip away, moving toward the end of life. And as they grieve that unimaginable loss, hospice might be the last thing they want to hear or read about. But for folks familiar with the Center for Hospice Care Southeast Connecticut, hospice can make a difference long after their loved one has moved on.
The Center for Hospice Care has an Expressive Arts Program that offers opportunities for creative expression for children and adults. Those opportunities enable folks to deal with their grief through remembering, creating, and socializing in an atmosphere that is nonjudgmental, compassionate and supportive. Linda Bradley is the expressive arts therapist and coordinator of the program that has been growing since it began as a pilot in 2010 when she was on staff only 6-8 hours per week. Her hours have tripled, reflecting the success and demand for her program.
“I always felt comfortable with art as a way of expressing the soul, using my art to work through my feelings about grief and death,” said Bradley. “When my Mom died in 1998 I found it therapeutic and very, very helpful to work through my feelings through journaling and art. It became a focus for me to help others in the same way. My dream was to facilitate an expressive arts program that supported individuals in expressing their grief through a variety of creative modalities.”
She was fascinated by expressive arts and the way it can help people deal with what is important in their lives. So with a Masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut under her belt, she pursued a Certificate in Advanced Graduate Study in Art Therapy at Springfield College in Massachusetts. She then became a Registered Art Therapist (ATR) after completing her studies in Springfield. Bradley brings that passion for helping people through the arts, to this program at hospice.
No two expressive arts therapy programs are the same. They all draw on mediums that connect with the senses including painting, crafts, music and movement, drawing, journaling, cooking, gardening. The common theme is a creative flow. And each participant approaches it as they need with no right or wrong way, making it ideal for everyone, even those who assert, “I can’t draw a straight line.”
“Everyone is creative,” says Bradley. “We experience creativity in so many different ways. It’s not always studio art. It’s about taking what’s inside and articulating feelings in some tangible way.”
Children have an easier time accepting their artist within. We adults allow that inner critic to reside on our shoulders offering their two cents about what we’ve done wrong, how inadequate we are, how we’ve hurt others and so much more. But if we can move past the resounding epithets and accusations that go with them in order to get quiet and tap into our authentic, beautiful and ultimately creative nature, we can do something powerful. We can use the process of creating to deal with our grief.
“Once they get involved, and overcome the anxiety of being in a group, they find a welcome, supportive, environment,” said Bradley. “They can see the benefits. Sometimes they come once and that’s all they need. Others come for the whole six week series and some stay longer”.
Initially participants arrive and their grief is so raw they can barely say their loved one’s name, she says. Through the experience they bond with others in the group, who although each experiences grief in their own way, they have empathy for one another. The program at Center for Hospice Care is somewhat unique according to Bradley in that there are few expressive arts programs like it, that focus on supporting those who are grieving.
Barry Rhodes heard about the program after his wife Diane of 18 years passed away three years ago. His stepdaughter signed him up for a bereavement group, where he was introduced to the expressive arts program. It was there that he painted a picture frame to display a photo of Diane, but he received so much more. “Just being there was helpful,” said Rhodes. “There were others there who knew what loss was like. I liked the people in the group. Personally I don’t get out a lot. Other people, they don’t want to hear about someone’s loss. But in this group, everyone has been through similar difficulties.” He had been working up until last year, as a shipwright at Mystic Seaport where he worked on the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world. Since his wife passed away, he has been diagnosed with cancer himself. “It’s not as hard as dealing with my wife’s cancer,” said Rhodes who continues to be a part of an Expressive Arts Alumni Group. They continue to meet weekly to support each other and give back to the organization that has given much to them.
The Expressive Arts Alumni Group is made up of four individuals who had lost loved ones and had gone through the expressive art therapy program. Their latest project is making hand crafted greeting cards for the social workers and staff to use as needed. This sharing with the program is as therapeutic as is the group dynamic and the creative process. “The process of the group is amazing as they moved from being barely able to contain their own grief, to wanting to reach out and help others,” said Bradley about the alumni group that has now been meeting for over two years. “They have become close friends.”
Louisette (Lou) Wasilewski is part of that group. She lost her husband Michael in 2010 after a three year battle with cancer. She remembers one of the first activities she did in Bradley’s program was going through a magazine to search for images and words that resonated with her and reminded her of Michael. She chose pictures of a garden scene because Michael loved flowers. Her collage ended up growing into something like a scrapbook as one thing led to another. She has painted frames and birdhouses, made holiday wreaths, and made a chest for keepsakes. “A lot of things about how we feel can come out of it from black clouds to beautiful flowers,” said Wasilewski. “It kind of helps to take some of the grieving away. And you are with people who are all going through the same thing. We all lost someone we love. Talking with other people puts things in perspective and eventually you can see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
The expressive arts process is helpful because it makes feelings tangible, according to Bradley. Anger, sadness, confusion, anxiety, and indefinable emotions can be worked through by making these tangible things. It is about making memories and about finding comfort. The Memory Scrapbook is one activity that people have found helpful. Participants bring mementos and photos from home and work with a binder filled with pages.
There is an intensity about them when they are sorting photos,” says Bradley. “It takes them back and triggers an opportunity to share treasured memories with others in the group. It is a way to reflect on things about the person they want to remember. And they can go back to it when they want. It is a way to celebrate their life together and the life of the person they’ve lost.”
Using a Grief Inventory, they explore colors, shapes, temperatures, etc. and create an image that allows them to take something as huge and unmanageable as their grief and break it down, so that it is more contained, explains Bradley. In that container they can share with others. They gain self-awareness about what they are experiencing. Defining issues helps in developing coping skills.
“Their whole life has changed because of this loss. They have to learn how to work with all these changes. They find comfort in knowing they are not alone. It is a solitary journey through personal grief but they know they are not alone. They’re not going crazy, they’re grieving; a normal natural process and response to the death of a loved one.”
Expressive Arts Programs are free at the Center for Hospice Care Southeast Connecticut. They are located at 227 Dunham Street, Norwich, CT. Learn more at www.hospicesect.org or visit them at www.facebook.com/hospicesect or call (860)848-5699.