How the Act of Art Therapy Helped Me with PTSD and Grief

When the instructor gave us the go ahead, I started by sculpting a figure sitting. My partner then sculpted a baby and put it in the figure’s lap. I then sculpted a broken heart with a band-aid. She then gave the baby wings. I then sculpted a small figure standing beside the seated figure. She then sculpted an angel.


By Tanya Tiger

I had the opportunity to attend an art therapy training in September of 2018.

Art has always been my go-to when I’ve needed to quiet my mind or otherwise sort things out. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I figured I would at least pick up a few new techniques that might come in handy with myself or a future client. I had no idea that I, personally, would receive such a deep and healing experience when all was said and done.

I was happy to see that the instructor had brought a ton of art supplies. She expressed that hands-on learning, especially when it comes to art therapy, is the best way to familiarize yourself with different techniques. When we experience something first hand we have a better understanding of what the client/patient will encounter as well, also keeping in mind that everyone’s experiences will differ based on their own personal histories, etc.

One of the exercises we were asked to do was called “a conversation in clay.”

I was partnered with a woman I’d never met. We were each given a lump of clay (I got gray and she got red) and we had no more than 10 minutes for the exercise. We were not allowed to speak, only take turns sculpting. There were no assigned topics. We were simply to create something in clay and then allow the other person to respond with their own creation, going back and forth as if we were speaking to one another through the clay. I was left wondering what in the world I would come up with but definitely curious to see how the exercise would unfold.

<<See more about grief and mindfulness here>>

When the instructor gave us the go ahead, I started by sculpting a figure sitting.

My partner then sculpted a baby and put it in the figure’s lap. I then sculpted a broken heart with a band-aid. She then gave the baby wings. I then sculpted a small figure standing beside the seated figure. She then sculpted an angel. I sculpted tears for the little figure and the seated figure. She then posed the angel so that it cradled the baby and had a hand on the seated figure. I then sculpted a halo for the baby. The time went by quickly and we were both caught off guard by our creation.

The instructor asked that we each then write our titles under the plate without letting our partner know what we were writing. I titled the piece “saying goodbye” and she titled it “endless love.”

I did not start off planning to sculpt my last moment with my daughter Krissy, holding her in my arms in the hospital after the machines were turned off, sensing the presence of another being…my partner who was co-creating the clay piece had no idea of my loss. This was an intense experience and I was left feeling a bit heavy.

Afterward, the teacher told us we could dispose of the piece or return the clay to the earth by burying it. I knew without hesitation exactly what I needed to do. I gently wrapped the paper plates we had sculpted on around the clay figures and tucked it in my bag. When I got home that evening, I took our creation which represented the most painful moment of my life, and I surrendered it and the pain of that moment to Mother Earth, asking her to please release me from the pain while allowing me to remember the grace of the moment.

I placed the clay in the earth under an old tree on our property, burying it softly. I said my good bye and walked away feeling lighter.

See, after Krissy died, I was plagued with sudden, PTSD-like flashbacks of the moments in the hospital leading up to her death. The one that was most painful was of me standing behind her hospital bed, after the medication orders has been messed up and she was given a paralytic too late. She was already waking up from the anesthesia and her diaphragm was now paralyzed. She was suffocating and I watched as a small tear ran down her cheek.

I was completely helpless in that moment. Those flashbacks would hit out of nowhere and the heartache was so intense it would knock the air out of my lungs every time it resurfaced. I can’t even recall the number of times I had to pull my car over to keep from crashing. These memories would consume me and shake me to the core for hours after.

Nothing seemed to help and I was at a loss for what to do next.

This art therapy experience gave me the peace I was seeking. Since I buried the little clay figures under that old tree and asked to have my pain lifted, I have not had a single flashback. The memory itself still surfaces occasionally but it doesn’t linger and I am able to breathe through it. It no longer takes over or forces me back into that moment, it simply comes and then goes.

Of course, I still experience sadness. I don’t think the heartache will ever heal completely.

What’s changed is that I am able to sit with it now and then let it go. The pain doesn’t take control like it used to and it’s been deeply healing to remember Krissy during the good times instead of being pulled into the horror of her death.

As someone who works in the mental health field, and as someone who has experienced trauma, I highly recommend this for anyone who needs to release something or otherwise heal.

Sculpt the moment in pure clay and then return it to the earth. You don’t have to be an artist. It doesn’t have to look “good” to anyone. It’s about the act of putting energy into the creation and then surrendering it to be healed.

I hope this helps.


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall



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