At a Loss: Compositions of Art in Grief


Salcedo, D. (2011-2012) A Flor de Piel, The Materials of Mourning. [Rose Petals]. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. “To create A Flor de Piel, Doris Salcedo sewed/sutured together hundreds of rose petals into a delicate shroud that undulates softly on the floor. Suspended in a state of transformation, the petals linger between life and death and are so vulnerable that they tear if touched”

Art Therapist as Celebrant, An Arts Based Celebration of Life

Celebration of Life Ceremony for an Individual 

  • Co-designed
  • Client Centred, Client Directed
  • Co-curating
  • Co-scripting
  • Storytelling and Making the Story come Alive
  • Location
  • Arts Based Practice: what artworks will be involved, what arts practices will be involved
  • How will you create the scene the context the installation for the celebration of life.
  • How will the ritual/rite of passage be documented/recorded? Or is ephemeral.
  • How will you be both the collaborator and the witness?

Celebration of Life Ceremony for a Community Inspired by an Individual’s Story

  • A performance for loss. Grief as a social construction.
  • What will be the arts based practices? Storytelling? Sound? Art? Movement?
  • How will the space be composed, crafted, constructed?
  • Co-production, how will the invited guests participate in the ceremony/ritual/rite of passage/commemoration/celebration of life/memorial.
  • How will you prepare the event?
  • How will you pick the location? How will you create the scene and the context for the celebration of life?
  • What arts practices will be involved?
  • How will it be documented?

Shapes of Grief Podcasts

You can select and listen to a podcast of your choice, and then write down some bullet points about what you have learned from the podcast, and also consider how you would approach working with the narrator through art therapy. Suggest art materials and art projects that may be helpful to document the narrator’s experiences of grief. Send this mini-report/response to the podcast to Pamela for a Category C hour.

“Based in Wicklow, Ireland, Shapes of Grief is an educational resource for healthcare professionals, therapists, educators and anyone who wants to better understand grief and how to support it. The Shapes of Grief Podcast hosted by Liz Gleeson, Bereavement Therapist, explores grief in all its facets, with an aim to normalise grief and share the many ways that people manage and transform their suffering”.

Track: Alanna O’Kelly, Original soundtrack, Sanctuary/Wastelands, 1994.
“O’Kelly employs an undercurrent of sombre sounds that reduce the Irish famine’s emotional extremes – hope and despair, loss and recovery. The soundtrack evokes a cultural grief and the landscape of grief” (Irish Museum of Modern Art).

Book Reference for Grief Seminars 

eBook in Ulster University Library

Complicated Grief, Attachment and Art Therapy: Theory and Treatment, edited by Briana McWilliam

Chapter 4: The Impact of Culture and Community

Grief is socially constructed and a profound experiencing of loss that is unique for each individual.

What are our cultures of grief as an art therapist? What are the cultures of grief for our client?  Culture can include family, race, age, gender affiliation, class, physical ability,   ethnicity, geography, etc. It is a negotiation of complexity. How do cultural affiliations inform end of life rituals? How do we generate meaning in regards to death and the grieving process? What is the historical legacy of grief that we were born into within our own family? What is the historical legacy of grief that we have inherited through cultural associations/affiliations? How do we understand intergenerational grieving? Art therapy can contribute to meaning making within grief through composing rituals, artworks and commemorations for individuals, families and communities. Legacy artworks and experiences also evoke the continuation of memory and a relationship to loss that also considers possible futures. Culture is dynamic. How is grief given meaning?

Can an art therapist be a celebrant at the end of life? How can an art therapist facilitate an rite of passage, a ceremony, a ritual, a memorial event?

Everyone one finds their own way with grief? How to build in supports and a way to compose grief? How to find a way that connects you to the person who has died? Finding a context to represent loss. How to build a relational representation of loss through community building around loss?

Richard Skelton is a writer and a musician. His recording of Landings is a testimony to his walks and encounters with landscape as soundings of personal grief. His music resonates as a soundscape of grief and a collaboration with the land, where he found solace after the death of his wife Louise. “His walking soon took on the status of ritual: a pilgrimage-like beating of the moor’s bounds, a labyrinth-like exploration of its interior. In his own words, he ‘evoked the edges of its streams and rivers, followed the contours of its hills, the eaves of its woods’. The purpose of the walking was unclear even to him, perhaps especially to him, some mixture of distraction, diversion, expiation and commemoration” (Robert McFarlane quoted in his book Landmarks).

The Amulet

Artist: Marie Brett

The Lab Gallery, Dublin City Arts Office, January 15 – March 28 2015

“Shedding light on an often hidden aspect of Irish life, the exhibition stems from The Amulet project (2009-2013), a collaboration between artist Marie Brett, bereaved parents, and three hospital sites: Cork University Maternity Hospital, University Maternity Hospital Limerick, and Waterford Regional Hospital”.

“We all have amulets, those special objects often hidden away in drawers and cupboards which mark a significant time, occasion or person in our lives. Bereaved parents worked with artist Marie Brett to locate an amulet they possessed which has significance in relation to the loss of their baby. Marie recorded the stories behind the chosen amulets and these stories, together with visual materials gifted by the parents, formed the basis for a new artwork. Intimate and universally relatable, you’ll feel and think differently about loss after seeing this show”. (

Complicated Grief, Attachment and Art Therapy: Theory and Treatment, edited by Briana McWilliam

Chapters 2, 4 and 5 Attachment and Therapeutic Approaches to Grief

There is no right way to grieve.

Complicated grief is a prolonged and intense bereavement where a person’s death can be frozen in time, a pain that endures without integration and meaning. This can especially be the case with death as a result of suicide, violent crime, and social and political unrest. A longing for love, security and to be held in both body and mind is also connected to attachment injuries, that were already there and now reignited through traumatic loss. Traumatic deaths are incomprehensible, there are no words, there is a searching for meaning and these experiences can remain alive. They are felt through overwhelming physical and emotional sensations that evoke the lack, the gap, and the quest to find answers. The narrative of the experience is a physical reckoning with pain, disorientation (our worlds have changed), and displacement (losing our grounding in certainty).

The grief of attachment injuries, the wounds that have remained since childhood may resurface again. In the reunion model grief is a yearning to go back in time, to all the times connection was not forged or lost. Grief may be an opportunity for reconciliation and re-creation. Re-creation is what we make of loss (and with loss). The art of loss as a composition.

Grief is a repositioning, and where we move to can be both a revival of loss and the discovery that grief can be the companion in our passage to new places. Do not seek closure but instead a homecoming—finding a home for grief as a companion to meeting life differently. We are changed, transitioned and becoming. Grief may develop a quest for a shelter for survival, a space of retreat, to honour its meaning and experience. There is a legacy of relationships that we live with during bereavement and these relationships continue with grief as a narrator.

We enter and move away from grief’s intensity. This is reflected in the therapeutic relationship. Our art therapy client may filter their experiences through grief as a unique life narrative. They go back and forth with loss and restoration and we are the witness and the mediator between both sets of occurrences.

Pillars of Strength

Pillars of Strength are a system of support for people living with grief by Julia Samuel.

“Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist who has spent the last thirty years working with bereaved families. She has worked both in private practice and in the NHS at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington where she pioneered the role of maternity and paediatric psychotherapist. In 1994 she worked to launch and establish Child Bereavement UK as its Founder Patron, where she played a central role until September 2019. Julia was awarded an MBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list for services to bereaved children. She is the author of two books: Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass.” (Reference:

Death Doula Interview

Meetings at the Edge Podcast

Claire Thompson mentioned the role of a Death Doula, and here is a podcast describing the role of the Death Doula, Lizzie Neville, who accompanies and supports people at the end of life.



A vintage metal box for soap found in the Dublin Mountains at the Fairy Castle a stone cairn in the Dublin Mountains. Inside the box is a photo and small painted stone marking the passing of a woman named Antoinette. The Fairy Castle stone cairn is the highest point in the Dublin Mountains. The red box had been placed between stones on the cairn. It felt at once both a personal memorial and a public honouring of Antoinette’s life. The Fairy Castle is the remains of a Bronze Age passage tomb.


Ayling-Smith, B. (2013) Absence [Linen and Thread] Finchampstead, Berkshire: Artist Collection.

“Beverly Ayling-Smith work uses materials traditionally used for burial, such as lead, linen and sheets to explore how she can imbue cloth with emotion and make a connection with the viewer, to allow reflection and consideration of the losses we have all experienced. Using the most appropriate cloth for her work is central to Beverly’s practice, whether linen, lead, cotton sheets or pillowcases. Beverly’s current work uses bedsheets which have been torn, stained and mended to evoke feelings of grief and loss as well as repair and resolution” (


Ayling-Smith, B. (2013) Melancholia, Lead and Linen [Lead, Thread, Linen]. Finchampstead, Berkshire: Artist Collection.

“Even when the immediate feelings of grief and mourning are passed, we are changed forever; the emotions embedded in the fabric of our lives emerge at different times to stain our emotional states. Melancholia has been described by Julia Kristeva as ‘an abyss of sorrow’. By exploring the expression of melancholia through the representation of loss in cloth…(lies the) question whether it is possible to re-evaluate the term ‘melancholia’ in the light of contemporary ritual and practice using textiles as a metaphor for grief and loss within rituals of mourning”. (Reference:

Before I Die Project

Candy Chang was the Keynote Speaker at the American Art Therapy Association Conference 2020 in Washington, D.C. She is the artist who created the “Before I Die Project”.

Before I Die Project 

“Through the activation of public spaces around the world, artist Candy Chang creates work that envisions the future of ritual in public life. Her projects examine the dynamics between society and the psyche, the threshold between isolation and community, and the role of public space in an alienating age. A leader in participatory public art, her work lies at the intersection of contemplative practice and the built environment. After struggling with grief and depression, she channeled her emotional questions into her work. Her participatory public art project “Before I Die” reimagines the ways the walls of our cities can help us grapple with mortality and meaning as a community today. The Atlantic called it “one of the most creative community projects ever,” and over 5,000 Before I Die walls have since been created by communities in over 75 countries.

A Meditation on Grief by Candy Chang

“Grief is a beast that will never be tamed, a creature born from broken promises and mistakes. We will always be together. I will never leave you. Everything will be okay. No matter how heartfelt these vows might be, one day they will collapse and leave us pacing the floors in shock, half-thinking we might enter a room to find the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. Instead we discover a new companion, a shadow in the corner.

Although experienced by everyone, grief remains fiercely private. Only we know the textures missing from our lives. The sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall, the heat and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning—a voice never to be heard again. The shadow howls for answers. Infected by phrases like moving on and overcoming, we push this creature back into the darkness where it grows deformed, torturing us with dreams of running through unfamiliar rooms.

Our psyches are such elaborate labyrinths of defensive architecture, cluttered with alleys and walls that prevent grief from baring its teeth. But cracks always emerge. Grief might arrive on a gust of wind or a glimpse at a calendar, but it seems to prefer the night when silence allows it to be heard most clearly. Nails skitter across memories and regret burns like a fever. We try to fight but there is no battle here, no prize to be won. This creature cannot be buried or slain by a hero. One night it comes to you on its knees, asking for mercy, demanding to be seen. Perhaps grief cannot be tamed, but it can be loved.” (Quotation by Candy Chang, Reference:

The Keening Wake 

Alanna O’Kelly, “One Breath”, Keening Performance.


Art psychotherapist Méabh Meir shared her knowledge of keening, an Irish tradition conducted by women, who performed vocal rituals of grief for families and communities. She has also recommended the BBC Sounds Documentary below, which is an inspiring account of this tradition.

BBC Sounds Documentary: Songs for the Dead

“Keening was a vocal ritual artform, performed at the wake or graveside in mourning of the dead. Keens are said to have contained raw unearthly emotion, spontaneous word, repeated motifs, crying and elements of song. The word keening originates from the Gaelic caoineadh meaning “crying”.  The keening women (mnàthan-tuirim),  paid respects to the deceased and expressed grief on behalf of the bereaved family”.Méabh also mentioned artist Taryn Simon and her performance of the art of mourning, entitled the Occupation of Loss. In An Occupation of Loss, professional mourners simultaneously broadcast their lamentations, enacting rituals of grief. An Occupation of Loss investigates the intangible authority of these performers in negotiating the boundaries of grief: between the living and the dead, the past and the present, the performer and the viewer. (Reference: Here is a link with more information:

The Occupation of Loss 

Doyle, E. (2019) K Photobook. [Photography]. Dublin: Artist’s Collection.

“Printed on a number of pages in the book are stratified layers of hand-written letters from a mother to her dead son. The artist Eamonn Doyle’s brother, Ciarán, died suddenly at age 33 in 1999. His mother, Kathryn, never managed to escape the grief of such a time-reversed event, right up until her own death in 2017. In the letters, we can make out a word here and there, but the cumulative effect is their appearance as musical notation, a veil of sound waves, a phonetic score for lament.Working with a 1951 recording of an Irish Keen, musician David Donohoe has composed a new, two-part piece for voice that accompanies this body of work for exhibition by Eamonn Doyle. The Keen (or Cine, from the Irish caoinim, “I wail”) is an ancient Irish tradition of lamentation songs for the dead, to carry their spirit over to the other side and to act as a cathartic expression of grief for those gathered around. Traditionally Keens are performed directly over the body of the deceased by women. In some of the images of K, the contorted and wind-blown shapes of the figure and cloth seem to take on the form of the wailing sound itself” (Reference:

Grief is a multidimensional experience.  

A Biopsychosocial Model of Grief examines physical health, psychological behaviour and emotions, attitudes and beliefs about death and the meaning of death within a person’s family and culture, and social rituals and traditions that offer ways to represent grief.

Grief and Meaning Reconstruction Inventory: Key Features of Grief:

Negotiation, Making Sense of the Loss, Reconstruction of Meaning and Identity, Making a Legacy Connection, Establishing Continuing Bonds (memories, associations and symbolic connections), Personal Impact Challenges (emptiness, pain of regrets, guilt, blame, anger, vulnerability, detachment, aloneness, disorientation, loss of direction, anxiety, low mood, not living up to other people’s expectations about working through the stages of grief, feeling misunderstood by others, feeling isolated) Opportunities: (enhanced self knowledge, contemplation, self reflective learning, self-directed learning about grief, awareness of self care, personal strengths, coping abilities, the use of support networks, and the valuing of life yet to be lived).

Prior losses affect current losses, accumulative grief can be intertwined and complex. What has been the impact of grief in a client’s earlier life development?

7 Types of Grief 

One model of working with grief proposed by J. William Worden (2009)

  1. Acknowledge the Reality of the Loss
  2. Process the Pain of the Grief
  3. Adjust to the World without the Deceased
  4. Find an Enduring Connection to the Deceased while Embarking on a New Life

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist (1926-2004) who wrote a well known book On Death and Dying in 1969 where she proposed 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These 5 stages of grief were then modified in the formulation of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve.

Kübler-Ross has stated that the stages she proposed were “never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages” (Briana McWilliam, Complicated Grief) rather they are tools to help frame and identify feelings and do not reflect a linear timeline of grief, but rather responses to grief that appear throughout time in often cyclical ways. Integration is not a resolution of grief, but the way in which we live with grief.

Bridget Nugent noted an additional stage added to the Kübler-Ross model, which is meaning. We read about this stage in: The Discomfort you Are Feeling is Grief 



An Exhibition on Melancholia at the Freud Museum, London

Art Exhibition Melancholia 


On Learning from Loss: Re-Reading Mourning and Melancholia 

Freud Museum: Mourning and Melancholia: Life in the Face of Loss 

Psychoanalysis Unit, University College London

Freud understood melancholia as a special type of mourning for a relationship that has been damaged or destroyed, when the mourner identifies with the formerly loved object instead of giving them up, and becomes highly self-critical in consequence.  However, there can be comfort in other people’s melancholia.

Artists ranging from Albrecht Dűrer to contemporary artists including Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle, Eva Hesse, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Doris Salcedo and Wilhelm Sasnal have taken the concept of melancholia as a form of loss and transformed it into affirming creative action.  Our own encounters with works of art and some of our aesthetic responses to the natural environment can often be influenced by melancholia.

All Souls Ceremonies, Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver

This is an example of honouring death through art installations and events that bring people together to share loss and memories of their loved ones. It is an annual event supported by the City of Vancouver to acknowledge the shared reality of grief within a community of support.






City of Vancouver (2019) All Souls Ceremonies at Mountain View Cemetery [Mixed Media Personal Memorials] Vancouver: Mountain View Cemetery.

In many cultures around the world, the days at the end of October and beginning of November are considered an important time for honouring the dead in our lives. In our modern, urban, and relatively transient culture, traditional “village” customs have been left behind, though not the human impulses that led to these traditions. All Souls at the Mountain View Cemetery is a non-denominational sacred event, and an opportunity for people to share their own customs and experiences. Led by artists Paula Jardine and Marina Szijarto, it grew out of their work together at Public Dreams, and their desire to understand the role of artists in the sacred life of the community.

Children and Grief

Resolving Child and Adolescent Traumatic Grief: Creative Techniques and Interventions 

An Exhibition on Melancholia at the Freud Museum, London

Art Exhibition Melancholia 


On Learning from Loss: Re-Reading Mourning and Melancholia 

Freud Museum: Mourning and Melancholia: Life in the Face of Loss 

Psychoanalysis Unit, University College London

Freud understood melancholia as a special type of mourning for a relationship that has been damaged or destroyed, when the mourner identifies with the formerly loved object instead of giving them up, and becomes highly self-critical in consequence.  However, there can be comfort in other people’s melancholia.

Artists ranging from Albrecht Dűrer to contemporary artists including Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle, Eva Hesse, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Doris Salcedo and Wilhelm Sasnal have taken the concept of melancholia as a form of loss and transformed it into affirming creative action.  Our own encounters with works of art and some of our aesthetic responses to the natural environment can often be influenced by melancholia.

Workshop Activities

In small groups create an end of life celebrancy/celebration of life for author Sara Baume based on the description below:

Handiwork by Sara Baume

“After he died my mum took photographs of all of the things he had scratch-built around the house and garden and inside his sheds—machinery, furniture, paths, customised polytunnels and greenhouses, as well as dozens of items that were unclassifiable. They were old and new, rusted and freshly painted, broken and fixed and re-fixed—they were made from parts of things he had made previously, and sundered and remade. My mom collaged the photographs inside a large frame and gifted it to me—a strange portrait of my dead dad’s material testimonial…”a compendium which is an autobiography”. See what he made, my mom was trying to say. See the things and places in which he still lives” (Sara Baume, Handiwork, p. 74).

Packet Switching Grief by EL Putnam

in:Action, Irish Live Art Review


In small groups create an end of life celebrancy/celebration of life for performance artist EL Putnam based on the description below:

“I said good bye to my father over a WhatsApp video call not too long ago. He was connected to a ventilator and they were about to pronounce him deceased in a US hospital, as I sat in my home in Ireland over 3000 miles away. It all happened so suddenly; I was unable to get a flight in time to be there in person. The shock of the trauma is still raw as I write this—I haven’t yet fully accepted that it has happened. We had chatted regularly over WhatsApp before that day. Weekly, we would communicate through glitched video and broken sound (the poor internet connection and mobile reception where I live in the country made the formal parameters of technology apparent through their breakdown), sharing the ins-and-outs of our daily lives. These once magical tools of communication, now commonplace, have enabled us to develop a closeness despite our geographic distance. I never thought I would have to share such an intimate moment—a final goodbye—over a digital platform”.