At age 12, Danica Thurber lost her father to a sudden heart attack. She then experienced a string of other losses, including her desire to hold it all together. Thurber says that “grief threatened to engulf me.”
Always an artist, she began painting pain and death alongside the beautiful parts of life and discovered that this would be a healing process for her. “It took me years, and a lot of support, to find personal healing,” she said, “and along the way, I began to reach out to others who had experienced loss.”
Thurber is now a Therapeutic Art Life Coach, a fine artist and art teacher. She and her husband founded Project Grief, an online school that teaches art as a tool for personal grief recovery. The school is for anyone who’s experienced a loss and shows them how to translate intangible, painful feelings onto a visible canvas. In the words of Thurber, “You don’t need to be an artist to be a ‘grief artist.'”
LEARNING ABOUT GRIEF: How did you get involved with art?
DANICA THURBER: I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. My family was all artistic, and I was a very quiet kid, so it just worked for me. Art came to me naturally, and I was lucky to have family and teachers who supported my artistic growth.
LAG: What made you blend art alongside grief?
DT: Because I was quiet, and probably because I am also the oldest child, I didn’t feel I had permission to express my grief back when my dad died at age 12.
Then, my grandma died and in the following years, my aunt died too. By then, our little family was just trying to cope.
The only way I could express myself was through drawing and painting.
However, when I was making art back in my teen years, I was always sure to include an element of light or hope. That way people wouldn’t see the pain that was inside of me, which was very difficult for me to admit, much less, express. I spent most of those years vacillating between survival mode and numbness.
I experienced an emotional breakdown when I was 19, and my grief came crashing in. It was after this break down that my art reflected grief in a way that felt honest, and that allowed me to finally express how I felt. After much personal healing, counseling, ministry, and art, I begin to mentor others with whom I had become friends.
” … grief in my art became honest, and I finally could express how I felt.
When we would talk and hit some thing that they struggled with, I would take out a napkin and crayons and ask them to draw how they felt. From there, I’d ask questions such as, “Why did you draw yourself this way? Why this big? Why that color? What else is going on around you? What can we change? What can’t we change?”
I discovered that even those who didn’t see themselves as artistic found much help from expressing their emotions and thoughts creatively.
That was the first sign that what I had done for myself could be extended to help others.
LAG: Why do you think it helps us ease our pain?
DT: This is my favorite question! I have many theories as to why art can help people who are grieving, and these are only a few:
- Because loss takes us beyond words, it only makes sense that we must go beyond language to heal.
- Grief is a long-term process and art is also. Finding a breakthrough in one process often leads to a breakthrough in the other.
Grief and art are both abstract concepts. We can encapsulate great meaning in a simple scribble.
- Externalizing the thoughts and emotions of grief allows the griever to see what’s going on inside, evaluate what is true and what is not, and then begin to imagine the possible changes they can make in their life. The list of explanations and pictures are vast.
LAG: Does your paintings and grief always walk side by side now, or are you able to separate the two when needed?
DT: I actually studied grief art and used my own work as an example for my undergraduate senior thesis. After spending so long analyzing my work, writing the paper, and creating my own exhibition, I finally presented my findings at my opening gallery show. I felt this great release as if my work could move on from grief and loss and onto other topics I cared about.
However, in the following years, I experienced grief in my job and then lost my beloved grandpa. I went right back to art to express what I was thinking and feeling.
I think that we never truly get over our grief, and loss is just a part of the human experience.
I think it’s important to express the full breath of the human experience in whatever ways we creatively need; so, grief and loss will probably always be a part of what I create.
LAG: How did you get started with Project Grief?
DT: When I realized I had something to offer others, I was thinking that maybe I’d create an art journal or a book of some kind. However, my brother and my husband teamed up to present another idea: an online school with courses where I’d work with people through video and written instruction. I wasn’t sure at first, but when I sat down to write the curriculum for what would become Master Your Grief. I became so excited because I saw the potential for real transformation in someone who’s grieving.
LAG: What’s your vision for it?
DT: I envision building Master Your Grief up to become a thriving community of grievers and what I call a “grief artist,” someone who is able to help support another. I’m working on incorporating coaching into the courses to help aid with accountability and provide greater support to those who need it. I also envision more and more grief art courses than I can possibly keep up with, but I want to keep focused on growing what I have now.
LAG: What’s a typical class at Project Grief like?
DT: There are different courses, so it depends on which one, but Master Your Grief is the biggest. It’s focused on helping the griever in a more long-term capacity.
There are 10 lessons in Master Your Grief and it leads the griever through 10 different mindset changes that will help them move forward in their healing journey (because real-life application makes it all worthwhile). In this master course, we use many different types of art mediums and spend each lesson learning a concept, then putting it into practice in the following art project.
Other Project Grief courses are smaller and are focused on one topic or medium, like Holidays After Loss, which helps grievers deal with specific grief triggers around the holidays. Another one is Memorial Pencil Portraits, which helps people remember their loved ones by focusing intently on their face and drawing their portrait using easy beginner tracing and shading techniques.
LAG: Any advice to those who do not consider themselves creative? Where should they begin?
DT: As an artist, I make “fine art,” which is all about the final product that I create and the value that people assign it when they see it.
Grief art is different; it’s all about the process. If the final product turns out ugly or messy, great job! You’ve just expressed what grief looks like.
When I am doing grief art, I am often drawing with stick figures or using kid stuff like crayons. I do this on purpose so that those I am leading don’t feel the pressure to create something perfect or beautiful. As I found when I was mentoring my younger friends in college, and as I continually find in my teaching with Project Grief, you don’t have to be artistic in order to benefit from using art as a therapeutic tool in your grief journey. All that’s required is a willingness to try something new, and a desire to do something creative and constructive.
” … you don’t have to be artistic in order to benefit from using art as a therapeutic tool in your grief journey.”
LAG: What words of comfort do you have for the bereaved?
DT: I’m sorry you’re here. I know this is the club no one wants to join. But now that you’re here, I challenge you to see the opportunities that still lie before you. It’s so easy to fall into isolation, depression, a victim mentality, or develop unhealthy coping habits. It’s harder to channel all that negative mess into something constructive and creative, but I promise you, it’ll be worth it! You have the rest of your life to live. Let’s make it good.
To those in deep pain, I see you. I’ve been there. I wish there was an easy button that could take away your pain but until then, I’d love to walk with you through the process, the messy and the beautiful.
LAG: Is there anything you wish you had known in the thick of grief?
DT: I wish I had an example of what healthy grief looks like. I wish I had known that it’s OK to struggle. I thought I was odd for struggling, and I tried to hide the fact that I was grieving, which only made it worse. As a grief advocate and influencer, I try to live my life as an example of how to grieve, and to use my work to offer healthy and constructive ways of expressing yourself by being honest about the struggle.
LAG: We love bereavement education because the culture around it is to keep quiet, push people into happiness, and move on quickly. This isn’t helpful. What words of wisdom do you have for those supporting someone in loss?
DT: This is another of my favorite questions! People often say things that are intended to be helpful, but I think they really don’t know what to say! I call these words “Band-Aids” because they don’t help the wound heal, they only serve to cover up the loss. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at first! Show up and be a present in that grieving person’s life. Offer hugs as needed. Offer tangible help, like babysitting, fixing things, or gift cards to convenience stores. Don’t try to fix their grief. Be a safe place for them to express their thoughts and emotions. One day you will need this from them.
Don’t try to fix their grief. Be a safe place for them to express their thoughts and emotions. One day you will need this from them.
LAG: Any lasting words, thoughts, comments surrounding grief?
DT: Many people hear about my courses at Project Grief and think, “Wow! That’s a great idea, I should do that sometime,“ then walk away.
I think people who are grieving feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of their thoughts and emotions, and even though they know it won’t get better by avoiding, it feels easier to stuff the motions down.
What I want to say is that you don’t have to tackle grief all at once. Grief is a long-term process that’s not going to go away. So why not take one step today, one step tomorrow, and one step the next day? You can take small steps right now toward your healing journey. When you feel overwhelmed, take out a piece of paper and scribble down how you feel.
Wouldn’t it be great to keep going, keep expressing, and get all that mess out of you? I want you to be able to live your life in full color, knowing that your loved one is proud and happy that you are living again.
But that all starts when you choose to grant yourself permission to grieve, to feel, and to let the tears come. It’s not fun, no, but in it’s own messy way, I think it is exceedingly beautiful.