Field Notes

MOVING THROUGH

Getting to the other side of grief with creative healing.

BY LISA POHLMAN

Iwas already a professional art therapist, living here in the valley with a growing family, when my dad was diagnosed with ALS. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

I traveled often to spend irreplaceable time with my parents in Syracuse, New York. I became hands-on in his care, part of the team of doctors, nurses, respiratory and physical therapists, family and friends that teamed up to help Dad live a full life for the next 12 years. Sometimes things went smoothly and other times…well, I was grateful for laughter, especially when Dad could laugh along with us.

“I found emotional resilience and insight as I painted in red acrylics, tore paper, layered, and collaged.”

 

Dad’s life with ALS provided many life lessons, changing how I perceive the world and choose to function in it. As a caregiver and daughter adapting to his degeneration, we learned to sit in silence together. In his final months, when breathing grew increasingly difficult, the present moment became everything. As the external world became less accessible, his presence, breath, heart and soul defined life. His life, a quiet internal pulse, provided an abundance of connection, love, honesty, vulnerability and a voice of trust that lived.

My heart was often in two places, fully committed to the life I created in Montana and grieving deeply as I witnessed my dad living with ALS. With purpose, I turned to art making as a form of self care. The creative process allowed me to acknowledge my grief and gain perspective toward healing. Visual and symbolic expressions gave voice to my emotional experience. Ceremonially, I collected objects from nature to honor myself and stay connected to my dad. The art making was unplanned and heartfelt, drawing from an unconscious process. I found emotional resilience and insight as I painted in red acrylics, tore paper, layered, and collaged. I pasted pieces of wasp paper, representing deep sorrow. The grief I expressed in wasp paper was not aesthetically pleasing and was hard for me to look at. Yet it belonged and it stayed. Perspective showed me that that’s what my grief looked like and I learned to sit with myself. I formed the circle shape by ripping and gluing white rice paper to create and symbolize an infinite wholeness. The gold acrylic paint around the circle represents the combined energy of the human spirit and sacred space as I witnessed my dad’s transitional time of dying.

This piece, which I titled “Moving Through,” was exhibited at the Hockaday Art Museum this fall. The exhibit, “Art as Therapy: A Healing Journey” with the Montana Art Therapy Association, portrayed the role of art in emotional and mental health and was a collaborative project from master’s-level art therapists and their clients from around the state of Montana.

Professionally, I work with people of all ages who are facing a wide variety of challenges, including medical and mental health problems, life transitions, grief, loss and trauma.

Evidence-based research supports that art therapy improves cognitive and sensory motor functions and fosters self-esteem and self- awareness when guided by ethical standards and treatment goals, facilitating a creative, healing journey for clients’ emotional, spiritual, and mental health growth.

Lisa Pohlman, a registered art therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor, owns the Whitefish Art Therapy Studio and is a founding member of the Montana Art Therapy Association. 

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