Tagged Art

Coloring Your Way Through Grief

Photo

Credit Lisa Powell Braun

There is no disputing the adage that “into each life, a little rain must fall,” and the occasional need for a protective umbrella, but what do you do when the shower becomes a downpour that doesn’t seem to quit?

One shattering loss can be enough to derail a person for years, even for life. But tragedy seems to stalk some people, and it is reasonable to wonder how one goes on in the face of repeated painful losses.

Deborah S. Derman, a professional grief counselor in suburban Philadelphia, has clearly suffered more than her fair share. “The field of grief counseling sort of found me,” she said, “because I had such a long history of loss.”

She weathered her first devastating loss at age 27, when the boyfriend she had broken up with retrieved the vacuum cleaner she had borrowed, attached the vacuum’s hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and killed himself.

Fast-forward a decade: Now happily married and mother of a toddler, she was waiting at the airport for her parents to arrive when the private plane her father was piloting dropped from the sky and crashed in front of her, killing all four passengers aboard.

Four years later, while playing rugby, her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her a widow at age 39 with two young children and a third on the way. Then a few years later, she learned she had a rare form of breast cancer. “That’s when I felt I had a target on my back,” she told me. Her biggest fear, she said, was that if she died, her children would be orphans.

But she didn’t die. Instead, she managed to bring up the three children, marry again “a wonderful man” who adopted them, and earn a Ph.D., writing her dissertation on grief and attachment in young widowhood.

Dr. Derman has since been in private practice as a grief counselor, able to bring far more than professional training to the therapy she provides for those who have suffered losses. She has helped families on Staten Island who lost loved ones on 9/11, counseled breast cancer survivors, and conducted support groups for people weathering all manner of loss and grief.

She knows firsthand how important it is to say the right thing early on to someone who is hurting and vulnerable. When her former boyfriend committed suicide, “I felt like I was an accessory to his death,” she told me. Her mother helped to assuage her guilt by reassuring her that “this is not your fault.”

But when her husband died, her parents were no longer around with wise words. She recalled, “I was in so much pain, the grief felt physical. I was unable to concentrate on anything – I couldn’t read a book or hold a conversation. The only thing I could read were self-help books on loss and grief, looking for answers to how to get through the anguish I felt. I was so isolated and frustrated. No one knew what to do with me.”

She couldn’t even feel happy when two months after her husband died, she was accepted into a doctoral program in psychoeducational processes at Temple University. Advised to speak to another young widow, she was beaten down even further when the woman said, “Debby, do you know how you feel that your life is over? Well, it is,” which she said prompted her to take to her bed.

But she decided to get up and try a different approach after her sister said: “One day, Debby, this will be your past,” which made her realize that she might indeed have a future. She said she switched her field of study to grief and loss “because I never wanted another widow to feel as isolated as I did. I wanted to know how a person heals, so I can help others heal.

“Healing is a lifelong process, and elements of grief can occur at any time,” she said. “I’ve been widowed now for 24 years, but when my son got into medical school, I cried because my husband and parents weren’t there to see it. My daughter is about to graduate from college, and we will both cry because she never even knew her father. Her grief is different, but it’s not absent.”

Now Dr. Derman has produced an intriguing new tool – an adult coloring book intended to help others “get through tough times.” Called “Colors of Loss and Healing,” the book consists of 35 pages of lavish illustrations to color, each relating to a word or phrase, like “one day at a time,” “bitter and sweet” and “resilience,” meant to evoke thoughts and feelings that can help to promote healing.

Opposite each illustration, designed by Lisa Powell Braun, is a blank page with the heading “My palette … my words … my thoughts,” to prompt people to write down the feelings the words and phrases in the illustration evoke.

Dr. Derman said she had kept a journal after her husband died. “When you have to write something down, it really clarifies your thoughts and helps you know how to proceed,” she said. “In a journal, you can say whatever you want. No one else has to read it — it’s private.”

While art therapy has been used for decades to help people express what they can’t put into words, filling in the spaces of a coloring book has a different kind of benefit: enabling people to relax and be more focused. Marygrace Berberian, a clinical assistant professor in art therapy at New York University, said, “Research has shown that art making can have a profound impact on a person’s physical and psychological well-being. And coloring within an outlined structure can help to contain and organize feelings of distress and helplessness.”

In 2005, Nancy A. Curry and Tim Kasser of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., reported in Art Therapy, Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, that coloring a mandala reduced anxiety in undergraduate students, a finding that has since been replicated and expanded. Today, there are adult coloring books to help alleviate stress and anxiety, release anger, induce calm and enhance mindfulness.

Dr. Derman’s idea for her book was prompted by a coloring book she received for her birthday last Christmas. “I colored one space, then another, and another, and realized this is how I proceeded through my life — one small step at a time. This is a good paradigm for how a person gets through loss, one day at a time. After my husband died, I didn’t think I could make it through a whole day. I looked at my watch — it said 10 a.m. — and made a deal with myself to make it to 11, then 12, then half a day.”

The book is meant to help people with losses of every kind, including illness, divorce, financial ruin, post-addiction — anything that might force people to redefine their identity.

Dr. Derman emphasized, “It’s not a recipe book. It doesn’t dictate how people should feel. We all go through grief and loss in very unique ways. One thing I’ve learned from my life and the hundreds of people I’ve counseled: Don’t try to pretend it didn’t happen and walk away fast.”

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Reinventing Yourself

Photo

Credit Paul Rogers

Maybe you lost your job, or your interest in the job you’ve been doing. Maybe a divorce or death in the family has threatened your economic stability. Maybe you think you’re now too old or lack the training to switch to something more satisfying or remunerative.

I interviewed several people in similar circumstances who reinvented themselves, sometimes against considerable odds, other times in surprising ways.

After 25 years in family practice in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Dr. Kenneth Jaffe resisted the encroachment of managed care and found he could no longer take the time he needed to care for his patients and make a living at it.

So at 55, inspired by courses he took at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, he quit medicine, moved upstate to an economically depressed area where the land was plentiful and cheap, and began raising grass-fed beef free of hormones and antibiotics. He named his enterprise Slope Farms in honor of his old neighborhood and the Park Slope Food Coop, which sells meat from his 200 head of cattle.

Now 66, Dr. Jaffe said he remained fulfilled by his work in sustainable agriculture. He helps other farmers near his home in the Catskills do the same, and supports a farm-to-school program that brings grass-fed beef to children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Mary Doty Sykes had been a social worker for 30 years, counseling and teaching teenage parents and adolescent girls about sexuality, self-image, family issues and job training, first in Chicago and then in New York City public high schools. When she became a divorced empty-nester in her early 50s, she decided it was time to get out of the city.

“I rented my house to pay for schooling as a massage therapist,” an interest she developed after techniques in alternative medicine helped her recover from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. Starting at 55 as a licensed therapist, for 13 years she did therapeutic massage at various sites, often for older adults, in western Massachusetts. Now 75 and back in New York, Ms. Sykes offers reiki therapy, and participates in a variety of dance classes. “I’m lucky I can do it all; I have a lot of fun,” she said.

“Fun” is an understatement for Richard Erde, also 75, who worked as a computer programmer for 28 years. After he retired in 2005, Mr. Erde indulged a longstanding interest in opera by auditioning to become an extra, or supernumerary, at the Metropolitan Opera.

“I’ve been on stage at the Met literally hundreds of times with world-famous singers and I never sang a word,” the Brooklynite chuckled. “I’ve worn all kinds of costumes, from Buddhist priest to Russian soldier. It’s ecstatic at times, plus I get paid to do it.” When the Met season ends in late spring, he does the same with American Ballet Theater, where the “supers” are often integrated with the corps de ballet as it moves around the stage.

From age 21, Beth Ravitz worked as a fabric designer, mostly in her own successful business in New York. Then at 40, she gave it up to spend more time with her three young children and two stepchildren. The family moved to Coral Springs, Fla., where, she said, “I didn’t want to think about money; I wanted to nourish my soul and become a real artist.”

While enrolled in a ceramics class at a community college, she saw ads seeking applicants to create public art, decided to go for it, and was hired to do a project. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art, she was able to teach at the college level, a job she loved, and ultimately became what she is now at 66: a public art consultant for two Florida cities (Lauderhill and Tamarac) and an advocate for artists whose work she said is too often undervalued. “I love the fight, and I love that I can make a difference,” Ms. Ravitz said.

Although I have been like a horse with blinders, starting at 23 as a science and health writer and never straying from my chosen path for 52 years, I have great admiration for the courage, imagination and determination of people like these four, who reinvented themselves by believing that you never know what you can do until you try.

Rather than embark on a new career in semiretirement, I’m expanding my horizons by learning Spanish; going to more concerts, operas, lectures and museums; and traveling. I recently took my four grandsons on an Alaskan nature cruise and a tenting safari in Tanzania.

I also adopted a puppy and trained him to be a therapy dog to cheer patients and staff in our local hospital. And if I can find a teacher with a flexible schedule, I hope to learn a new instrument, preferably the bandoneon, a kind of concertina featured in Argentine tango music. (Suggestions for teachers, anyone?)

One thing I’m already learning is my limits: knowing when to say no so I will have the time and energy to do what is most important to me in the last quarter of my life.

Although only 37, Dorie Clark, a teacher at Duke University School of Business and author of “Reinventing You,” is expert at self-reinvention and helping others make changes in their lives.

“Broadly speaking,” she said, “the same principles apply whatever your age.” But she has particular advice for people over 50.

■“Make a special effort to familiarize yourself with social media and the new technology — they’re a proxy for how ‘with it’ you are.”

■“Recognize that you’re likely to be overqualified for certain jobs. It could be the elephant in the room, so it’s important to bring it up first. Maybe say that you’re looking for a new adventure, you don’t need to be the boss, you’re ready to be a team player.”

■“Surprise people to counter any fixed image they may have of you. Your résumé may say one thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you can do. Show you’re serious about reinventing yourself, perhaps by volunteering or writing a blog — something that forces people to see you in a new way.”

She also suggests “reconnecting with dormant ties” — people you had a good relationship with years earlier. They may be able to open doors or have ideas that you hadn’t thought of.

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Using the Arts to Promote Healthy Aging

Photo

Credit Paul Rogers

Throughout the country, the arts are pumping new life into the bodies and minds of the elderly.

Two summers ago, a remarkable documentary called “Alive Inside” showed how much music can do for the most vulnerable older Americans, especially those whose memories and personalities are dimmed by dementia.

The film opens with a 90-year-old African-American woman living in a nursing home being asked about her life growing up in the South. All she could say in response to specific questions was, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

But once she was fitted with an iPod that played the music she had enjoyed in her youth, her smile grew wide and her eyes sparkled as vivid memories flooded her consciousness. She was now able to describe in detail the music and dances she had relished with her young friends.

At another nursing home, a man named George with advanced dementia refused to speak or even raise his head when asked his name. He too was outfitted with an iPod, and suddenly George came back to life, talking freely, wiggling to the music in his wheelchair and singing along with the songs he once loved.

The Music and Memory project that provided the iPods was the inspiration of a volunteer music lover named Dan Cohen, and has since spread to many nursing homes and facilities for the aged around the country. Alas, not nearly enough of them. Medicaid, which fully covers the cost of potent drugs that can turn old people into virtual zombies, has no policy that would pay for far less expensive music players. So the vast majority of nursing home residents who might benefit are deprived of this joyous experience.

Nonetheless, across the country, the arts in their myriad forms are enhancing the lives and health of older people — and not just those with dementia— helping to keep many men and women out of nursing homes and living independently. With grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute on Aging, incredibly dedicated individuals with backgrounds in the arts have established programs that utilize activities as diverse as music, dance, painting, quilting, singing, poetry writing and storytelling to add meaning, joy and a vibrant sense of well-being to the lives of older people.

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Walter Hurlburt, 90, decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives.

Walter Hurlburt, 90, decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives.Credit

Through a program called EngAGE in Southern California, 90-year-old Walter Hurlburt, who once made a living as a sign painter, now decorates rooms at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a retirement facility where he lives, with lovely oil paintings he creates from pictures he finds in magazines and books. Mr. Hurlburt regularly attends classes on various art forms at the residence where, he told me, “I’m always learning something new.”

His buddy at the residence, Sally Connors, an 82-year-old former schoolteacher, surprised herself by writing and directing a screenplay that was performed by fellow residents. Then, with Dolly Brittan, 79, a former early childhood educator, they both surprised themselves by writing their life stories in rap and performing their rap memoirs on a stage for at-risk teenagers they were mentoring.

Both she and Ms. Connors said their newfound involvement with the arts has made them feel decades younger.

Tim Carpenter, the executive director of EngAGE, is now working to expand this approach to senior living in other cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Raleigh, N.C. His goal is to create a nationwide network of programs for seniors that keep them healthy, happy and active through lifelong learning in every conceivable art form, enabling them to live independently as long as possible.

As in Burbank, Mr. Carpenter is promoting the development of arts colonies in senior residences where residents can study and create art in all its forms and where they can see their artistic creations come to life on a stage.

Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a gerontologist at George Washington University who died in 2009, was a staunch advocate for the mental and physical benefits of creativity for the elderly. He directed the Creativity and Aging Study, a controlled study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts at three sites, including Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, N.Y., that showed after only a year that the health of elders in the cultural groups stabilized or improved in contrast to a decline among those in the control groups.

In a film called “Do Not Go Gently,” Dr. Cohen, who founded the Creativity Discovery Corps, featured an architect who, at age 96, submitted a plan for redeveloping the World Trade Center site. Dr. Cohen pointed out that creativity challenges the mind and results in the formation of new dendrites, the brain’s communication channels.

At 26 different facilities in the Washington, D.C., area, 15 teaching artists work with seniors in centers where they live or visit regularly. Janine Tursini, director of Arts for the Aging in Rockville, Md., seeks to “get at what best jazzes up older adults.” Groups of about 20 older adults get involved in what she calls “art making” — music, dance, painting or storytelling.

Ms. Tursini said the N.E.A.-sponsored study showed that when older people become involved in culturally enriching programs, they experience a decline in depression, are less likely to fall and pay fewer visits to the doctor. In another study among people with Alzheimer’s disease, a sculpting program improved the participants’ mood and decreased their agitation even after the program ended.

“The arts open people up, giving them new vehicles for self-expression, a chance to tell their stories,” Ms. Tursini said. “The programs capitalize on assets that remain, not on what’s been lost.”

Naomi Goldberg Haas created the Dances for a Variable Population program to get older adults dancing. People who haven’t moved in years, even those who can no longer stand, can participate. Young professionals and older dancers go to various sites — libraries, churches, senior centers — where elders gather and encourage them to “move more.”

“Movement enriches the quality of their lives,” Ms. Haas said. “It’s absolutely healing. Balance, mobility, strength — everything improves.”

Social engagement, which nearly all these programs provide, has been repeatedly found in major population studies to prolong life and enhance healthy aging. Clinically, the programs have been linked to lowered blood pressure, reduced levels of stress hormones, and increased levels of the “happiness hormones” that are responsible for a runner’s high.

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