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How a Daily Art Practice (Art Journaling) Can Help Us Cope with Grief and Loss and Move Onto Healing

I'll start with my story. I hope that you can relate to something in my story.

Over the weekend I learned that my grandma, Grams, was moved into an assisted living facility and has been cognitively declining since August 2021. My family situation, like many, is an odd one because all families have their quirks. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown didn't leave my family untouched. For me, it impacted my sense of time within the world. 2020 and 2021 seem smushed. Sometimes I feel like it's 2019 and we are just coming into 2022, and I struggle to figure out what happened to the two years in between. I feel like the world is just coming alive again and I struggle to figure out what happened to two years of my life.

I see this reflection on my own family. In 2020, my mother stopped speaking to me. COVID-19 affected her because she lost her job during that time, and she hasn't been the same person since lockdown. She's working again, but our relationship changed, and I can't pinpoint why. I contact her via text and try to stay in touch, but I get no response from her. Instead, she sends me puzzle books and a card in the mail and signs it "Mom". Before the pandemic, the signature read "Love, Mom". Now it reads "Mom". As for my father, it's been years since I spoke with him.

My Grams, my father's mother, has always had a strange relationship with me, my mother, and my father. The best word to use would be estranged. I struggle to use this word even though I know it to be the most accurate word for my family. I know I'm not alone or unique in this, even though I feel that I am. Every family is unique as to what makes them tick.

The last time I spoke with Grams was in anger in August 2019. She called me 20 times in one day determined to send me a box of family photos. Before that, she'd been trying to get me to pick up a set of dishes. Often times these were things I felt should've gone to me my father and not me. Because of the estranged relationship between my father and his mother, I wound up in the middle of the two of them as a child and into adulthood. I never realized how stressful this was for me until I wrote my memoir and worked my way through "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. I came to so many realizations by doing that program. It's had a profound impact on highlighting things I hadn't seen before in my life and my relationship with my grandmother and how she made me feel, often shameful about myself and my family, were always at the top of her list.

An example: Grams is religious and I am not. One Thanksgiving evening after our meal, she told me that didn't think she'd see me or my husband in heaven and that we needed to accept the Lord. I turned to my husband to ask, "Is she implying we are going to hell?". I can laugh about this, but this moment still causes me pain because it's the perfect example of things that caused my relationship with her to change. The stranger she started to act, the more I distanced myself from her to protect my mental health and my emotions. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I find that I often protect my mental health so that I don't rock the boat and go into a downward depressive hole that is a struggle to climb out of.

I pulled back on my relationship with Grams in 2019 to protect myself. In the process of doing so, and then the years with the pandemic, two years have passed and I realized it'd been a "little" while since I'd heard from her. Grams continued to send me greeting cards during this time and she would call me and wish me a happy birthday or anniversary. In August 2021, I turned 40 and I didn't hear anything from her and didn't receive a car which felt odd. I didn't hear from her at Christmas and I pushed it aside thinking it was nothing. My 10th anniversary was in April 2022, and I didn't receive a call or card, and I wondered if something was wrong. She called me last April to wish me a Happy Anniversary. I knew the sacrament of marriage was important to her and she always wished me a happy anniversary, until she didn't.

I was curious as to what had happened. I called her and there was no answer. I started looking for an obituary to see if one had been published, and I couldn't find anything. I went to the assessor's site to search for her address, and I found that her real property had been sold, and I had no clue where she was for a day and a half last week. Her property was sold in February 2022. The real estate listing photos showed most of her furniture had been moved out with few exceptions. So, where was she? I found a power of attorney that had been recorded with the deed on her home. Her property had always been held in trust, so it wasn't a surprise to see a POA as her successor trustee that signed the deed. Not being told felt like the weird part. Public record searching as a profession for over a decade does have its uses if you're trying to find someone.

I contacted my father for the first time in years to find out if he knew anything about what happened, and he didn't know either.

I contacted one of Gram's closest friends to see if she knew what had happened to my grandmother. Her friend Karen called me back and told me that my grandmother had been mentally declining with dementia, and in August 2021 she was declared mentally incompetent, there'd been a hearing and my Grams had been moved to an assisted living facility. Karen was one of my Grams POAs, something I'd known about for years. I knew that my family had been removed from anything legally to do with my Gram's health should anything happen to her. I remember the day she told me and I asked her if I could have Karen's phone number so I could contact her if something did happen to my Grams. I never thought I would be searching my phone for Karen's phone number a decade-plus later. However, I was grateful I had her phone number.

So, now I knew what happened. The timing made sense. Grams was admitted into assisted living after she'd gone to a hospital and couldn't figure out how to get home. She called her friend Karen for directions, and it turns out that Grams was really at a McDonald's, not a hospital, and had no idea how to get home.

While on the phone with Karen, she gave me the guilt trip I knew was coming. Guilt for my family's estrangement from my grandmother despite the relationship we had with her and amongst ourselves. I asked Karen if she'd told my family, and she said no. I asked her if she'd had any intention of telling them and she said no. When I asked why not, she said, "You said it yourself, your family is estranged." I didn't know what to say, and as usual, I kept my mouth shut because nothing witty or sarcastic came to mind because I was processing the fact that my Grams was mentally gone.

This is all to say, that this weekend I spent feeling so much grief and loss. I told my father what'd happened. It turns out my father had located his mother without the help of her friend. He told me he'd called her and that Grams didn't remember him and didn't know who she was herself. He gave me her contact information and where she was and who to call for more information.

Realizing that the woman who had POA had no intention of telling Grams' immediate family that she'd been declining mentally and had moved into a new place was hard to deal with. It caused anger in the grieving process I'm going through right now and will continue to cope with.

While I can't escape the feelings that come with grief, I can try to keep tabs on my mental health. One of the things I learned in 2015 when I was admitted to the mental hospital is how art as a form of therapy can people cope with difficult emotions, like the emotions I'm dealing with right now

It's ironic how the Art Journal Challenge March 2022 I ran for my site turned into something that I would need in April 2022. Doing that challenge helped me develop the habit of having a daily art practice. It helped supplement my journal practice which has changed from writing in a physical journal to typing up my thoughts in Apple Notes to now video journaling which I find to be the most powerful. I recently discovered a passion for making videos. Before I started posting on YouTube, I made several video journals as a way to document how I was feeling when I left my corporate job in August 2021.

Loss and grief are hard feelings to deal with. Add in shame for how I'd acted and someone reminding me of the estrangement and weirdness of my family along with the fact that they had no plans to keep us informed and, in a way, tried to take away our right to know what is going on and our right to grieve just because of our situation and what remains is a big bag filled with hard emotions to wade through and process.

In addition to dealing with the grief and loss of my Grams knowing that she's not there anymore, there's also resentment towards her friend who I don't believe is acting in her best interest as regards letting the family know. Family, no matter how estranged, at least should have the right to know and be allowed the right to grieve in their way. I know my Grams would've wanted us to know what was going on. She always reached out to her family despite how bad or icky things were with us. That was one of my favorite things about her: she always had the bravery to reach out no matter how painful the family situation was. Something that I struggle with: is the courage to reach out to someone, like my father, who has deeply hurt me in the past. It's easier for me to shield myself from the pain of talking to him. My Grams had a similar relationship, but she continued to reach out which makes me know that she wouldn't have wanted her friend to keep this information from us.

Now that I know what's going on, I've been grieving the loss of my Grams, knowing that there's nothing I can do to change what happened between us in addition to processing the shock and surprise of what happened to this woman who'd always been an independent, brave person. I turned to things like working on puzzles, watching TV, and also art journaling this weekend to help me in those moments where I was processing what was going on and also the moments where I needed something to do to take my mind off of what was going on. I found myself in moments where I was crying, moments where I was experiencing blame and anger, and other moments where I felt mentally exhausted. The most powerful thing I found was journaling: writing and typing my thoughts out, video journaling helped me verbally process what was happening, and also art journaling to help me visually express my emotions on the page through images. In this article, I'm going to focus on art journaling and how it's been helping me cope with my grief and loss so I don't lose myself in the process of this painful situation

How art journaling can b