At just the right moment to comfort and guide him,
a spider dropped down and dangled beside him.
“The world up above is shattered and gray,
but it’s where you belong so you must find a way
to let that storm out and move through your sorrow –
you’ll find many helpers on your road to tomorrow.”
--from The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm
by LeVar Burton & Susan Schaefer Bernardo
Before I sat down to write this article, I reached out to my friends in the expressive arts community for their words of wisdom on the topic of creating safe space for healing through creativity. It suddenly struck me that I am friends with a LOT of professionals in that arena – and that I met most of them during my own journey to find emotional healing.
They are teachers and counselors and friends and artists who:
- led poetry workshops that let me bleed my heart out onto the page
- danced alongside me in ecstatic movement classes
- showed me how to bang out my worries in a drum circle
- listened to me in talk therapy sessions and gently guided me to a better understanding of myself
- taught me how to let go of my inner critic and trust the process of intuitive painting
One thing that all these people have in common is their ability to hold safe space. At times when I was fragile, they were supportive, non-judgmental, patient and kind. When I was staggering under the weight of grief, they showed me how to carry it, sometimes even how to set the pain down or transform it into something meaningful: my miscarriage…when a little girl in my son’s first grade class was hit and killed by a car….when my mother-in-law died of stomach cancer…when my husband betrayed me and I was going through a painful divorce…when I was coping with my parents’ declining health.
The classes that they held, the workshops that they taught – they became my sanctuary.
But the work was mine to do. The hardest part of my journey has been learning to create safe space for myself.
“Safe space can only exist and be real and reliable from within,” notes Fred Sugerman, who has led healing movement classes for many years. In his Medicine Dance Facilitation Training program called “See/Hear/Love: As A Tree,” Fred emphasizes the importance of “mindfulness and awareness of present moment thoughts, feelings and sensations, including judgment toward other and especially self. In creating space for young ones, who may not understand these words, the safety can be engendered from within the adult facilitator, and is only acquired from time examining self and practicing presence.”
For Fred, holding safe space involves a “continuous gentle return to kind observation as opposed to the self-denigration to which we are all vulnerable.”
Timing is everything. We cannot force healing upon ourselves or another person – we can only offer safe places to express feelings. When we are caught up in our own storm of grief and fear, it can be hard for us to hold reliably safe space to allow the children in our lives to process their emotions. When trauma impacts your whole family – as in the death of a spouse or a catastrophic event – you might need to reach out for help. That is okay. You can ask others to step forward and provide creative sanctuary. Turn to a trusted friend or your child’s teacher – let them read a book with your child, sit with them to do a healing art activity, or take them on a nature walk. There are many wonderful grief counseling programs and camps available today, too, that can provide children a welcome space to express the pain they are feeling without worrying about upsetting their grieving parents.
“An expectation to follow in a particular way or at a certain speed, or to color within the lines, to keep the teacher happy is counter productive to fostering creativity and healing," notes Erin Tajime Castelan, an artist, mother, and Creative Healing Arts facilitator and consultant.
“It is important to allow people to discover and follow their own impulses, to let what is inside them out, through self expression. This includes upsets, darkness, and playful joy,” comments Erin. “Unique creative inventiveness may seem like a rebellious inability to "follow rules" but for me safe space means letting go of an instructed direction or style – allowing the freedom to paint things in non-representational colors; or move in ways that feel good to the student, including their need to pause, rest, or take more time to digest the process.”
It is vital for you to find creative sanctuary for yourself, too, whether it is a quiet place in the garden where you can breathe and be, or a drumming or kickboxing class where you can pound out some of the pain.
“The most we can do for any one else, including children, is to see them, hear them, and if we are successful at these two things, from these two things comes love,” notes Fred Sugerman. “Love them. This creates safe space. Seeing, hearing and loving.”
Remember the old adage? “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”
See and hold yourself with loving eyes and arms. And when grief and self-doubt make this hard, seek out the helpers around you that can hold safe space for you – and the children in your life – to heal.
Thank you for reading. If you would like to share your thoughts on how to hold space for children to heal from creativity, or to comment on effective ways others have held space for your healing process and emotional growth, please leave a comment below. Together, we can bring light into the lives of children coping with loss and trauma.