Seeing is believing: how an expressive art grief ritual helped me gain clarity and strength

Last night was the anniversary of my dad’s suicide in 1980. Most years I just ignored it and tried to carry on, but this year I decided to do a letter writing ritual. My ‘letter’ turned out to be a piece of expressive art as I followed my intuition and did what I needed to do throughout the process.

My expressive art ‘letter’ to my dad who killed himself 39 years ago.

Before I started, I lit some candles and lamps, ate some dinner, then meditated. An image of me taping four sheets of A4 paper came to me so, when I finished meditating, I did that. I got out my coloured pencils and stared at the paper before making marks, holding a pencil in my right hand. I felt some nervousness and wanted the image to be beautiful, and then it occurred to me to use my non-preferential hand to stop my inner critic getting in the way of the process, and it flowed from there.

I made jagged red marks – they feel angry but may not be – they’re like a Catherine Wheel firework. And then there’s a turquoise centre that spirals out and pink (or is it red?) joins it at the centre, making dashes in the space between the turquoise spiral lines. The yellow starts at the heart of the spiral and fills the space between the turquoise spiral lines, getting brighter as it spirals out.

It was intense doing the yellow; I was focused on it and pressing quite hard – I had to sharpern my pencil a number of times. I had thoughts about every day stuff and then brought my mind back to what I was doing and what might be the next step of the process. Once I finished the yellow, the next step was obvious: just write whatever thoughts come into my head about my dad.

The first was, “why?” over and over. It’s the question that repeats and won’t leave you in peace when someone kills themself and doesn’t leave a note. And that’s just one layer. My relationship with my dad was so complicated and I think this image captures that. It was 39 years ago that he killed himself and still I have these questions, yearnings, anger, disappointment, love, judgement, and unmet needs.

There’s something refreshing about seeing all of it present, rather than focusing on one aspect, which is what writing does for me. Seeing it all gives me a sense of how I’ve held all this at the same time. It’s almost relief, the feeling I get from looking at it.

I’m wondering about the “time to let you go” and “bye dad”. I think it ties in with the recognition that I care for myself, so I don’t need a father figure; in fact, the way I care for myself is nothing like the care he would have given me because he was barely there and sometimes he was abusive.

The question, “why do I still care so much?”, given the emotional distance and abuse, comes from a frustration, and possibly annoyance at myself, for yearning for someone who was so painfully bad for me. Why is it that we want connection with parents who couldn’t be good enough for us? Surely the healthiest thing would be to walk away but we feel a pull, perhaps an unmet childhood need.

I didn’t have massive catharsis whilst making my letter, like I thought I would. There were a few tears when I felt the yearning and heart ache. If there was some catharsis, it was gentle. I feel like it was a steady, wholesome process, and I’m really glad I made time for it. I feel strong.

Could being ‘trauma informed’ help you in your work and personal relationships?

Given that an estimated 20% of women and 4% of men in England and Wales* have experienced sexual violence since the age of sixteen (and those are just the reported cases; therefore, these figures could be just the tip of the iceberg, not to mention the child sexual abuse figures; see Rape Crisis for more statistics), there is a high probability some of them will be your clients or customers or colleagues or students or apprentices or family members. There are also many people who have experienced emotional and/or physical abuse and/or neglect. You might not know this about them because they may never tell you. Since some of the people you spend time with at work and home are likely to have experienced trauma, it follows that being trauma informed in the ways you communicate with them will be helpful to both you and them.

What does it mean to be trauma informed?

If you’re in a position of authority – for example, you’re a G.P. or a nurse or a therapist, or a police person, or a housing officer, or a manager, or a parent, or a teacher – any role where you are deemed to have power over other people (if only because of your knowledge and expertise) – that is more than enough to be triggering for people who’ve experienced trauma in their close, personal relationships. For these people, who have been coerced and controlled, the power imbalance in a helping relationship means they may find it hard to trust you, and hard to express their needs in healthy and straightforward ways. This could show up as defensive and angry reactions or fawning and flattering behaviour, to name just a few. Being trauma informed and behaving in trauma sensitive ways may not necessarily encourage straightforward self expression, but it gives the opportunity for that to happen, and it is respectful, which is something traumatic relationships are not, so it will be good for all your relationships, regardless of trauma experience.

What are the elements of being trauma informed?

In no particular order, the elements of being trauma informed are:

1. Psychoeducation about how trauma affects brain and body functions

Polyvagal Theory
This infograph shows how the vagus nerve affects brain and body functions, according to Polyvagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges to understand how trauma affects physiology

When you understand the physical and mental affects of trauma, not only does it help you to empathise with trauma survivors, but, if the opportunity arises, you can give information about it to the person, which helps to normalise their situation and take the shame out of it; many survivors feel shame that they didn’t fight off their abusers or get away from them but the natural freeze response in their brain made both those scenarios impossible. Carolyn Spring runs some brilliant courses on working with shame and her website has a wealth of information.

2. Giving clear information (no jargon), more than once, about your process

People who’ve experienced trauma often zone out and may not hear you; they may be embarrassed about this and not mention that they haven’t heard you, so if you repeat what you’ve said and give the information in different forms – if you’ve verbalised the information, you could give them a visual infograph, for example – they stand a better chance of receiving the information.

3. Invitation and choice – including the choice to do nothing

Invitation and choice are the opposite of coercion and control. You might feel like you know what’s best for your service user and, coming from that place, you might try to convince them to do what you want them to do but this is a form of coercion and control and a trigger that could kick off the fight, flight, freeze response, which may show up as acting out or shutting down. If you invite and give choice, and accept their “no”, you are giving them respect.

4. Setting clear boundaries and sticking to them

By clearly stating what you are willing to do and not do and sticking to it, you are modelling healthy boundaries. It may feel hard because you might feel compelled to stretch a time boundary, for example, but doing that is like giving ‘special’ treatment and one of the ways abusers use coercion on victims is to make them feel ‘special’, so this can be triggering. It may also induce them to try to push other boundaries and keep on pushing, which could make the relationship problematic in many ways. Being assertive and sticking to your boundaries creates a sense of safety for all concerned. Check out Karpman’s Drama Triangle if you feel compelled to break your boundaries for people.

5. Acknowledgement of the power dynamic in your relationship

If you were to say something like, “I’m aware that my position comes with a sense of power or authority and that might get in the way of how we communicate with each other. I want to do my best to help you without that getting in the way if that’s at all possible,” to them it could help them to relax a little. At the very least it shows that you’ve reflected on the imbalance of power inherent in your role (given the societal context we live in), and that you want to help.

6. A person-centred approach

Unconditional positive regard, empathy and genuineness are the key attitudes of someone who takes a person-centred approach. Carl Rogers wrote many books about this way of being with people – On Becoming A Person is one of them and a good starting point. Reflecting on and using these attitudes with people can make them feel valued, safe, and understood, and these are some of the conditions for personal change and growth.

7. Evaluating your own self-care

self-care wheel
A self-care wheel (my own, in fact).

Self-care can have different meanings at various points in your life; what you thought of as self-care a decade ago might not be what you do for yourself now. It is important that you have good enough self-care if you are in a position where you need to give good enough care to others, even though it can be compelling sometimes to put off meeting your own needs; again, the drama triangle is a good model to reflect on if this is the case for you. A way to reflect on your own self-care needs is a ‘self-care wheel’, where you can list your needs under headings of ‘physical’, ‘psychological’, ‘emotional’, ‘spiritual’, ‘personal’, ‘professional’, or you could choose your own headings. Then you can plan how to meet your needs.

What difference might being trauma informed make to your relationships?

That question is for you to investigate and answer, if you wish. Something to bear in mind from a survivor perspective: being trauma informed as a survivor can be incredibly empowering because it can take away a lot of shame; for example, knowing that your brain made it impossible for you to ‘do something’ (get away or fight) because of its natural reaction to perceived life or death events helps you accept that you actually couldn’t ‘do something’ at the time. So, if you can give a survivor the gift of psychoeducation, at least, it can help them to normalise their reaction and lose the shame. Less shame can mean feeling more relaxed and sociable, although it’s often not that simple.

Psychoeducation combined with a person-centred approach could be a game changer for our society, if every adult decides to adopt it, and could mean less mental health problems overall. Imagine seeing and hearing respectful interactions everywhere you go… it is possible if we invest some effort.

What do you think? If you’re already trauma informed, feel free to comment – are there any elements that you would add in? If you’re not trauma informed yet, you could test out what it’s like and I’d love to know how it goes, so please feel free to comment, or contact me directly. If you’d like some help with becoming trauma informed, feel free to contact me for a chat about your needs.

*taken from The Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year to the end of March 2017.

I walked through the woods and captured my experience on paper

I’ve been thinking a lot about movement and expressive art lately and decided to try an experiment: a walk in in the woods, followed by drawing whatever I feel like.

Stanmer Park in Brighton is home to some beautiful trees and it’s one of my favourite places to walk. This image was taken in May 2019 on a sunny day, not like the rainy day of my experiment.

The walk felt hurried – I walked fast, stopping to put my coat on because the rain was heavy at one point. I felt sturdy on my feet and was enjoying the surety of moving my feet until the rain came and made the ground slippy in places. I noticed I tensed up, moved slower and felt less certain of the consequences of my foot placements, particularly downhill; uphill I felt confident. At points I got lost in the sounds of my movements – my breath, my feet, my trousers rubbing – and the trees blurred into browns and greens as I made quick decisions about which trails to follow. Soon I was at the car park again and was surprised at the timelessness of my walk through the woods; I had no idea how long it had taken.

I unlocked the van and sat half in with my legs out, grabbed my sketchbook and began making hurried, careless marks with a watercolour pencil. The rain blurred them and I laughed at this pleasant, unplanned interaction with the weather. Who needs water brushes when you’ve got rain? I closed my sketchbook and drove home. When I opened the sketchbook I saw new marks on the opposite page, and I felt delighted at the pattern of rain that had been inadvertently captured.

The marks I made with a “Dark Chocolate” watercolour pencil on the left; the rain pattern marks on the right.

A day or so later I felt an urge to add dark green marks to the brown. For each brown line I saw I added green either side of it in repetitive marks. The rule gave me something to focus on. I noticed I was gripping the pencil quite hard as I made these marks. I felt very serious.

I added “Leaf Green” marks to the brown lines.

Later, I added light green into any white space I could see; I felt the need to work quickly, to get it done. It felt comforting to work on after an intense volunteering session with survivors of sexual violence. I needed to see the transformation that occurred when I dabbed the water brush onto the pencil marks. I finished the image during a phone call with a friend, and I noticed my dabbing action became much calmer as my friend and I exchanged stories of recent experiences.

I added “Apple Green” into the white spaces and blended the greens and browns with a water brush.

I notice the finished drawing has aspects of what it was like to walk through the woods – the blurriness of the greens and browns and the pathways.

What’s your experience of movement and expressive art?

Overcoming irrational fear in climbing

In January 2018 I was experiencing deep frustration at the fear that was paralysing me when I went to climb. Climbing was one of my passions and had been for about a year, yet when I went near the wall I felt crippling fear. I wondered whether my fear was related to the effects of trauma that pop up in my life, so I decided to research trauma and recovery, and set myself experiments to overcome fear. I recorded my journey in a series of blog posts, in case anyone else was going through the same thing as me. I thought I’d share links to those posts here because the sports psychology I used in my experiments might be useful to you. Here they are:

  • Part 1 – noticing habits and delaying acting on negative self-talk
  • Part 2 – how trauma affects the brain and how embodied mindfulness can aid recovery (if you can feel your feet!)
  • Part 3 – going slowly and gently is kinder than rushing full steam ahead
  • Part 4 – teaching beginners to boulder, dissociation (and how it’s not helpful in climbing), and how training plans can relieve anxiety
  • Part 5 – breathing to overcome fear, personal learning styles, and practising falling
  • Part 6 – Putting a learning style into practice and is a comfort zone actually comforting?
  • Part 7 – Questioning beliefs and does regular climbing normalise the activity and remove the fear?

Four months after completing that series I began a new journey as a Climbing Instructor at an indoor wall.