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Using Art Along the Grief Journey

“Grief is a process,” said Good Shepherd Hospice Bereavement Specialist Esylen Stephens. “It’s something that doesn’t end in a month, or even a year — a grief journey.”

The grief journey for Good Shepherd Hospice volunteer Dottie Van Roekel began in February 2018, when she lost her mother, Dorothy, to Alzheimer’s disease. It was the end of 15 years of living with the disease.

Dottie had been her mother’s caretaker all that time. When Dorothy passed, Dottie turned to Esylen and Good Shepherd Hospice’s Bereavement Services for support.

Not much of a talker, Dottie first took a one-on-one approach with Esylen, and then eventually a group approach.

“Talking wasn’t getting it done,” shared Dottie. “Being in the group and listening to the stories on how to cope wasn’t really doing it.”

That’s when Esylen had an idea.

Different Grief Journey Approach

“When she came into the sessions, we were talking about ways to cope with grief, and I suggested that she may work through her grief through her artwork,” Esylen said.

Dottie had had a knack for art since middle school but admitted she wasn’t able to devote as much time to drawing once she became a mother of two children.

“Art used to be an outlet to escape to,” Dottie said. “I gave it up for a while, but Esylen told me to draw my feelings.”

Her feelings came in the form of colored pencils on paper.

grief journey

A child with her head in her knees, sitting under a rain cloud.

Up in the clouds above, her mother looking over.

A hand reaching out to help.

“This was the first time someone had brought me a picture like that,” Esylen said. “In a sense, I could feel her grief by looking at that picture. Her head was down and she was hiding.”

Dottie said she was torn up but just started drawing.

“I was just devastated,” she said. “I was in a storm, but I knew that Esylen was going to pick me up and bring me out of it sooner or later.”

Dottie’s grief journey still continues today. She said she turns to art about once a month. Not always anything in particular. The casual observer may not be able to make out anything, but Dottie said she can see it.

Her Grief Journey a Year Later

Almost exactly one year after her mom passed, Dottie was sitting on her porch when something came to her.

“There’s just a line of trees across the street,” Dottie said. “And I saw the fog across the field rolling in, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘that’s exactly how I feel.’ The sun was coming up, but the fog was rolling in. So I went in and started drawing.”

grief journeyThat led to the picture with the words “one year later” on it.

The girl in the first picture from a year ago is now a woman. Instead of hiding, she’s standing tall. She still sees her mother, this time a little closer in the trees.

“I’m up on my feet now,” she said. “I’ve got just about everything taken care of – just looking through the fog and seeing everything coming back to life.”

A year later, Dottie’s grief journey isn’t over, but she is proud of her progress.

When asked what she hopes her drawings might look like in a year from now, she is hopeful of what could become more of a self-portrait.

“A smile on my face,” added Dottie. “It’s still really sad, but I’m getting on my feet. Hopefully it’ll all be sunshine and roses.”

Looking back on a time when words failed her as a coping mechanism, Dottie has a simple message for anyone who might be going through the same struggle she once did.

“What was your passion before?” posed Dottie. “Was it art? Was it music? Was it dancing? Pick it back up. Don’t let the sadness get you totally down. You can bring yourself out of it with what you are passionate about.”

Dottie’s art has inspired many others who have turned to Good Shepherd Hospice for help. Esylen said she shows the pictures in her therapy groups as a way to help guide others through their grief journey.

“I think it leaves them with a sense of hope that they can move forward,” Esylen said. “They may start out being sad, but they learn to walk through grief, and by using coping mechanisms. The sun will shine again.”

Inspiration for Others

In addition to therapy groups, Dottie’s artwork could soon inspire others.

Good Shepherd Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Peg Parschė hopes to start what she called a “Healing Arts” program. It would provide art supplies for those who want to turn to their creative side to help with whatever they’re going through.

“To get other people to create something that is meaningful,” Dottie said, “it’s very rewarding.”

At Chapters Health System and its affiliatesGood Shepherd Hospice, HPH Hospice and LifePath Hospice, every day is devoted to educating our patients and keeping them in the place they call home. We are dedicated to ensuring that patients, young and old alike, and their families are able to make educated decisions about important healthcare matters. For more information, please call our helpful Chapters Health team at 1.866.204.8611 or send an email to info@chaptershealth.org.

About Pat Carragher

Pat Carragher, Media Relations Coordinator for Chapters Health System, coordinates external communications for the not-for-profit organization.

grief journey

Do You Need Grief Support?

Experiencing a loved one’s death can be one of the most difficult and painful chapters in an individual’s life. That’s why Chapters Health System is here to help and wants you to know that you are not alone.

Our not-for-profit organization offers bereavement support for hospice survivors in addition to ongoing community support groups.  There is no charge for bereavement support and services. While many individuals participating in our community bereavement support groups have lost someone under the care at any of our affiliates — Good Shepherd HospiceHPH Hospice and LifePath Hospice — others have experienced a sudden or unexpected death.

  • Individual & Family Support: Bereavement specialists offer guidance, attention and support to hospice survivors within the family system as they work through the grieving and healing process.
  • Adult Grief Support Groups: Grief support groups offer support and education by helping survivors cope with their emotions, new roles in life and plans for the future. Groups are scheduled at various locations on an ongoing basis. Pre-registration is required, and groups are open to all community members who have experienced the death of a loved one.
  • Children’s Grief Services: To meet the special needs of children and their caregivers coping with the death of a loved one, we provide age-specific services and caring support in a safe environment.
  • Annual Children’s Camps: Each of our affiliates holds an annual camp for children in the spring.
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