Ancient wisdom and modern science both encourage us to be expressive when we are grieving.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) research reveals that the brain’s blood flow changes with emotional stress. Blood flows away from the left side – the logic, detail and language center. It flows toward the right side, where feeling, symbols and imagination reside.

Perhaps the body needs more than logic and language during stressful events.

There is a story about the children who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and their residual terror of the ocean. For months, nothing counselors did could pierce the children’s fears of the waves. Finally, they had the children draw simple pictures of their experience. At the end of the day, the children spontaneously held hands and joyfully ran into the ocean waves together, thus reclaiming the ocean through the power of their drawings.

A UCLA study found that putting feelings into simple words has therapeutic results. When we are stressed a region of the brain called the amygdala is activated thereby initiating many protective biological functions. Neuroimaging indicates that by simply saying a descriptive word about the upsetting feeling you can lightly tap the brakes on those biological responses, making the feelings more physically manageable.

This is similar to ancient “mindfulness” techniques – which are simply the practice of paying attention to what is present and allowing thoughts and sensations without passing judgment or reacting. For example, saying, “I feel angry,” “I feel fear,” or “This is peace.” The result is a “centering” effect.

When you are in a wave of grief, consider simply saying, “I grieve,”, or “My grief is like….” Also, try to take time to do a simple drawing about your grief. You need NOT be an artist to do this.

Here are a few descriptors some people have used:

My grief is like…

… a never-ending stairway, endless closed doors, a mountain range, pounding waves, a marathon, a labyrinth, a house of mirrors, a maze, a vacuum, an octopus, a desert without water or companions.

… a thief, being stalked by a murderer, a tornado, an earthquake, broken bones, boiling, burning, a minefield, shattering glass, a knife, a bomb, being thrown off a horse.

… a river, a cloud, fog, an onion, a heavy blanket, being lost, shadows, marbles hitting the floor.

By selecting one word or description and speaking and/or drawing it, you have become armed with simple art and simple words. You begin to unlock your grief and move toward your healing. Remember: Your story has power.

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Kim Go

I am an artist in the expressive, installation and performance arts. I write because of our shared cultural beliefs about loss offer far too few tools to people working with grief. When I was very young, I thought little about impermanence. Then, my personal encounters with impermanence grew to include such challenges as: my father's death in early childhood, a near-death experience in adolescence, divorce, fertility challenges, death of a soul mate and spouse and subsequent loss of access to stepchildren, mugging and assault, pet loss, job loss, suicide of two close friends, and geographic resettlement. Perhaps we have something in common... perhaps not. I have learned that the specificity of the loss does not matter as much as the condition of the heart to be open to others who are learning to be present and alive regardless of the impermanence in their story.

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