When Linda Kallas’ youngest son died in a car accident 10 years ago, she thought the grief might swallow her. Instead, she found a way to keep moving through the pain, learning to process her emotions by expressing herself through art.
“It was devastating; it changed me,” Kallas said about her son’s death at age 26. “I don’t think you ever get over it, you just learn your new normal. There are still days when it’s overwhelming, like it just happened yesterday, but thankfully those days are getting further apart.”
A turning point, she said, was taking the online Healing Through Art course offered by the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care. The course helped her identify triggers that could send her spiraling into grief and then “gave me a way to work through them.”
“I’ve practiced other helpful coping strategies – meditation and counseling – but creating art is what really worked for me,” Kallas said. “It changes the way you look at things.”
Another benefit, she said, is that “when you’re doing art, particularly when you’re using different mediums, you really have to focus at the task at hand. It frees your mind to just explore and you feel lighter as you’re working.”
No artistic experience or skill is necessary for the Healing Through Art course, she added, because it’s not the quality of the work that matters – it’s the process of creating it.
Exploring Memories and Experiences
Kallas said the course also opened her eyes to how many people around her are experiencing some type of grief and gave her skills to support them. The course teaches participants how to lead their own art healing workshops.
“I realized there are millions of people grieving like me and maybe I could help others work through some things too,” Kallas said. She has since led two small workshops in her hometown of Oceanside, CA, with a third one planned through her church.
In the workshops, students create a simple art project designed to reveal something about themselves or identify a painful emotion and then reframe it.
A student in the first workshop was a retired pilot whose wife recently died. He made a collage using tissue paper, fabric, and other materials to simulate a wide-open sky, with a very thin strip of land at the bottom of the page because “he always felt the most free when he was up in the air.”
At the end of each workshop, each student shared their work and described its meaning. “The conversation was very light and airy,” as if a weight had lifted, Kallas recalled. “You could tell everyone felt really good about what they made.”
Kallas talks about her own art in that same spirit. One piece is a colorful snail she made during her favorite activity in the Healing Through Art course: creating a multi-medium collage about childhood.
“My collage is small, but each of the fabrics I used has a different meaning for me,” she said. “There are pieces of burlap that represent the roughness of my childhood; there’s a small swing off to the side and other things that bring me joy. The whole assignment really spoke to me.”
Another of Kallas’ pieces, “Grief of Nations,” explores how the shared experience of loss and grief can connect and uplift us. She used permanent markers to create the colorful drawing, full of small images that look like teardrops from one angle and balloons from another. Many of the images contain flags, each from a different country.
Kallas said the piece took months to complete and still resonates with her.
“I see other people suffering all over the world and I realize I’m not alone – there are so many mothers just like me,” she said. “This piece represents those other moms and countries and cultures. Somehow, we find our way through and I think it’s because we focus on tolerance, healing, hope, and co-existing in love.”
Kallas said she’s grateful she found the Healing Through Art course and hopes others will experience it for themselves.
“I think anyone who is interested in finding a new way to look at the world or look at yourself would benefit from this course,” she said.
“I have another friend who took it who is recovering from breast cancer and has a chronic health problem that causes her a lot of grief,” Kallas said. “This course helped her tremendously to get in touch with those feelings, those triggers, and to feel more empowered.”
The Institute’s online, 6-week Healing Through Art course is an instructor-led program that allows learners to complete weekly assignments on their own schedule. Limited space is available in each cohort. Learn more.