Exploring the Mixed-Up Emotions of Grief: Art Activities for Kids

We humans often think we have to feel one way or another.  Either we are happy or we are sad. We are brave or we are afraid. We are weak or we are strong. We are lonely or we are loved.  You get the picture.

Consider the example of the person who finds themselves having fun for the first time after a loved one’s death and suddenly feels ashamed thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be miserable. How can I laugh when my loved one is dead?” Though the person may know that one emotion doesn’t cancel the other out, they still may find themselves feeling guilty or confused when they experience things like happiness, joy, growth, or hope for the future in the midst of their grief.

But the reality is, we often feel many different things at one time. This was true in your pre-grief life and it is especially true now.  Grief encompasses so many different emotions and these emotions are constantly changing, intertwining, and evolving.  It’s a lot!

Something people have an especially hard time with is when they experience seemingly conflicting emotions. People tend to assume these emotions must cancel each other out, but that’s not how things work. Two (or three or four) contrasting emotions can indeed exist at the same time.

For example, on important days and milestones, you may experience feelings of celebration and happiness and also sadness because your loved one isn’t present. Another example, you may feel extremely loved by your support system and also lonely when thinking about your loved one’s physical absence. Finally, you may feel extremely scared at the thought of living life without your loved one, but also brave when facing challenges and painful emotions. 

Sometimes it seems like living with grief is like living one lifelong paradox, so getting comfortable with the dissonance created by certain emotional experiences can be benficial.  When a person can accommodate and cope with a wide spectrum of human emotions, they may feel less inclined to run from them or to label them as wrong.

Though kids are more black-and-white than adults in many ways, I also think they tend to be more flexible in some respects.  Adults often throw up arbitrary barriers in their thinking, whereas with kids the concrete is a little less settled. So now is a good time to help kids understand that complex emotional experiences are okay and normal.

The following two exercises are geared toward helping kids increase their flexibility, acceptance, and understanding of emotion.  This is a grief website, so we’ll be focusing on grief, but really these work for any type of emotion and experience.  As you will see, we’re just going to provide you with the foundation for these activities and leave it up to you to fill in some of the details.


Activity #1: Using Paint to Explore Mixed Emotions:

For this activity you will need the following supplies:

  1. Washable or finger paint
  2. Paintbrushes
  3. Cups for mixing paint
  4. Paper or canvas
  5. Something to write with
  6. Emotion list or chart (You can download our list here –> Emotion List for Kids)

The Concept:

As we’ve discussed, it is often true that a person might experience more than one emotion at one time and sometimes these emotions seem in conflict with one another.  When two emotions exist, they don’t cancel each other out, but they do come together to create a whole new experience (For example, an experience that is bittersweet or happy/sad).

Below we’ll provide you with the basic steps for this activity, but we recommend watching the video at the end of this post for further details if needed. Once you get the gist of what we’re going for, sit down and fill in the details based on the child(ren) you are working with and their specific needs.

Begin with a conversation:

Before starting this conversation, think about the ways you can help kids explore this concept.  How you frame this conversation will depend on things like your group’s age and experiences. You may wish to ask questions, explore whether they think certain emotions are opposites, etc.

No matter what, we recommend brainstorming the many feelings, experiences, and sensations kids experience in their grief. If you are doing this with a group and have a whiteboard or chalkboard, write the answers down where everyone can see them.  It may be useful to have that emotion list/emotion chart on hand for this conversation.

Write down everything kids share, even if they aren’t technically emotions. If the kids suggest somatic experiences like a stomach ache or a lump in their throat, that’s okay too.  These may be emotional experiences that they do not have the emotion-related vocabulary to name.  If appropriate, help them to label the emotions related to this somatic experience (like fear, worry, sadness).

Mix the emotions:

  • Get out your supplies.
  • Have the child think about the experience of grief in general, or about a specific experience (ex. think about a memory you have with your mom)
  • Next, ask them to name an emotion that comes to mind when thinking about this experience (ex. sadness).
  • Next, ask them something like “If this emotion were a color, what would it be?” (ex. blue).
  • Squirt some of that color into one of the empty mixing bowls
  • Then, ask them to name another emotion that comes to mind (ex. love)
  • Then, repeat your earlier question, “If this emotion were a color, what would it be?”  (ex. pink)
  • Squirt some of the second color into the same mixing bowl
  • Now that you have combined two colors, have the child mix them together
  • Talk to them about how the colors exist together, they don’t cancel each other out, rather they mix together to create something new.

Paint:

There are a few different things that you can do with your new paint colors. Below, you will see that I chose to paint the mixed up colors into circles and to have children name their new color.  If you’re doing this in a group, have a little show-and-tell where children have the opportunity to show the group their favorite color and to tell the emotions that created that color.

If you prefer to give the kids a little more freedom, provide them with a sheet of paper and either give them a prompt, draw an outline for them to color inside of, or let them paint freestyle.


Activity #2: Using Sand to Explore Mixed Emotions:

For this activity you will need the following supplies:

  • Colored sand
  • Transparent glass or plastic container (must have a lid)
  • Funnel

The Concept and Conversation:

This activity is even more basic than the last one. The idea is to think about the many different emotional experiences related to grief, choose corresponding colors for their specific emotions, and fill their hearts (or containers) with these emotions. With this activity, you’re going to want to have a conversation similar to the one mentioned above, however, this activity lends itself best to focusing broadly on the general grief experience.

Fill Your Container with Grief Emotions:

  • Get out your supplies.
  • Have the child think about grief and ask them to name an emotion that comes to mind (ex. sadness)
  • Next, ask them something like “If this emotion were a color, what would it be?” (ex. blue).
  • Pour some of this color of sand into the container.  Have the child do the pouring if possible.  Tell them it’s up to them to decide how much of each color/emotion they want to add to their container.
  • Next, ask them to name another emotion that comes to mind (ex. love)
  • Then, repeat your earlier question, “If this emotion were a color, what would it be?”  (ex. white)
  • Pour some of this color into the container. Again, let the child determine how much.
  • Repeat until the container is filled.
  • Talk to the child about how the emotions all exist together.
  • If you (or the child) prefers, leave a little space in the container and let them shake it up because grief is messy and sometimes everything feels all mixed together (obviously, if you shake the container up, the end product won’t look as neat and tidy as the one pictured above).
  • If you’re doing this in a group, give children an opportunity to share about the emotions they added to their container.

For a more detailed explanation of these activities, check out the video below:

September 29, 2018

1 responses on "Exploring the Mixed-Up Emotions of Grief: Art Activities for Kids"

  1. I LOVE these ideas. I will be trying both of them with my clients. The paint is perfect for the children I see and the sand will work great with the adults. Thanks for posting these.

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