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Art program helps kids creatively cope with the loss of loved ones

Art therapy helps kids who have lost loved ones cope with death.
Art therapy helps kids who have lost loved ones cope with death.
Garrett Cheen, MCT

Janelle Tyson couldn't get her twin 8-year-old daughters, Rianna and McKayla, to talk about their father's death.

The girls were stunned by Tyson's emotions after her husband died of a heart attack in August at age 43, but they would never open up about their own feelings, even as the stress of funeral arrangements and moving mounted.

The girls' teacher suggested resources to help the family, including Sutter Health's Children's Bereavement Art Group, a free community project that uses art therapy to help kids who have lost loved ones. The group, which has served more than 9,200 children, celebrated its 25th anniversary April 4.

Tyson was skeptical when the girls started attending the group's sessions in October.

"I didn't think it was going to help much," the Rancho Cordova mom said.

But she quickly noticed a change.

"It opened the door to let me talk to them about his death. Right after the session, we'd talk about what they discussed in their group. ... It was completely awesome."

The therapy also gave Tyson, 32, a window into Rianna and McKayla's perspective on the loss.

Like many of the group's participants, both twins devoted one of the first art projects to a drawing of their dad's death. They drew their dad sitting in his truck parked at a convenience store, even depicting the energy drink he had bought there.

Their drawings reflected how they felt during the hours when Janelle Tyson couldn't find her husband, who had left for his job at 6 a.m. and whose body wasn't found until that afternoon.

"I thought they didn't realize what had happened," Tyson said. "But the artwork really shows they understood."

The art projects are structured and timed to help children move through the grieving process, said Peggy Gulshen, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been coordinating the program since it began in 1985.

"I try to match the types of art modalities and activities with what I believe are tasks of grief," she said.

They also are tailored to the child's age, since children grieve according to their cognitive, emotional and spiritual development, Gulshen said. Children are grouped in three age clusters during the therapy sessions.

"Being able to identify with and be normalized and validated by someone their same age is important," said Gulshen, a certified art therapist.

The 10 sessions which kids typically attend every two weeks within the first year after a loss conclude with an art show for parents.

The art from the program remains special to Russ Cunningham, whose children Thea, now 18, and Alex, 14 attended the group after their mother, Jolene Cunningham, committed suicide in 2002.

The family had created a box of some of Jolene's belongings a favorite purse, a special article of clothing and added the children's artwork to the collection. Drawings of her death. Little boxes containing cards on which Thea and Alex had poured out their feelings.

The box of artwork and belongings is still in a safe place in the Cunningham home.

"For them to be able to articulate the things that hurt the most was good," Russ Cunningham said.

A program like Sutter's would have helped me as a teen. I was 15 when a childhood friend, Cory Stanfield, was slain during a botched robbery at a Southern California ATM. The murder and the search for the killer were highly publicized, the grainy footage of the robbery shown repeatedly on TV.

I didn't know how best to console his brother Chad Stanfield, my friend and a boy who co-starred in so many of my toddler photos that one might guess he's my brother. I also didn't know how to let myself grieve.

Teenagers tend to seek support from peers after a loved one dies, Gulshen said.

"I think they're some of the most vulnerable grievers," she said. "It's very confusing for them. They want to seek out love and nurturance, but part of them says they have to be strong."

Thanks to Sutter and the Children's Bereavement Art Group, there is support for children while they rebuild their strength.

That's strong medicine.

(c) 2010, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).