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Grief is part of the human experience. It can show up any time in your life when you suffer the loss of a relationship. The relationship could be with someone or something, but the common thread is losing a meaningful and personal connection. Once grief sets in, it can impact your personal and professional life. Understand that grief is different for everyone. Take the time to find support and process the emotions associated with each stage of grief while giving yourself grace. Doing so can help you heal, whether you are at home or teaching art in your classroom.
Defining grief is an important step in understanding its complexity. According to Mayo Clinic, “Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Grief is both a universal and a personal experience. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature of the loss.” You or someone you may know could be experiencing this deep and powerful emotion. Becoming aware of how grief shows up in life and what it may look like can help you better understand and recognize when support is needed.
The grieving process is personalized. It does not follow a linear path. It can show up for anyone at any time and stick around as long as it needs to stay. However, there are common stages of grief. You may experience all of them, some of them, and even repeat the stages. Working full-time as an art teacher can make grieving feel even more complicated than it already is. Showing up in your art room while trying to put your best self forward may be overwhelming. Familiarizing yourself with the common stages of the grieving process can be a way for you to recognize when grief is present. Let’s identify the stages of grief and what they may look like for you as an art teacher.
You may feel utter shock and not fully believe that the loss has happened. While loss can seem surreal, some people may pretend it hasn’t occurred at all during the stage of denial. You might find yourself doing mindless activities, becoming distracted easily, or telling yourself and others you are doing just fine when you are really falling apart. This hit home for me last fall when I suddenly lost my mother. I thought I was ready to return to school, but my emotions took over as my first class arrived in my art room. The students ended up going back with their teacher, and I went home because I needed more time to grieve.
Anger is a common emotion you may have experienced in your everyday life. As a result of loss, anger may mask your true feelings of pain and be directed towards others in your life. You may start losing your temper and feel short on patience when dealing with misbehaviors in your art room. After a full day of giving your energy to your students, a short fuse may appear when interacting with your loved ones.
Bargaining is a stage full of deal-making and finding ways to control what’s happening. It may also be a way to delay or avoid feeling the emotions you are experiencing. When you enter this stage, you may recognize it if you feel anxious, worrisome, judgmental, or engage in shame, blame, or guilt. An example may be, “If only I had fought harder to keep the art room, I wouldn’t be teaching from a cart in the gym.”
Feelings of sadness and overwhelm occur in this stage. Depression symptoms can vary from person to person. You may find yourself wanting to stay home, avoiding school or social situations, feeling tired, or having low energy to do normal tasks. If you are unsure of how you will find the joy you had prior to the loss, you may be experiencing the stage of depression.
Entering the stage of acceptance invites understanding, hope, and growth into the new chapter of your life. While you may still experience emotions of sadness or have some bad days, acceptance gives you healthy ways of coping and self-compassion. You may feel more comfortable having a coffee with a colleague or visiting an art museum with others during this stage. There may be a sense of normalcy returning to your life—even if it is a different version of your normal.
Experiencing the grieving process is a necessary part of the human experience. You don’t have to navigate it alone. At first, you may feel emotionally raw. You will need time to be present with those emotions so you can begin healing. Finding a balance between your grief, personal life, and teaching art will come in your own timeframe. Working through the healing process in healthy ways will help you grow in and release the pain that comes with grief.
Grief is powerful and complex. With the depths of this complicated emotion, seeking the support of a trained mental health professional can help you when you don’t know how to move forward. According to betterhelp.com, “Grief counseling is a type of therapy designed to help people who have experienced a loss, find meaning, and move through the stages of grief to begin the healing process.” Finding a therapist who connects with you is important, and the type of therapy approaches therapists offer can be varied. There are often options for in-person sessions, phone call appointments, or online video conferences.
When you go back to teaching art, working a full-time schedule while grieving may be overwhelming. Memories of a loved one, students talking about their personal artwork, or something someone says can stir up emotions at any time during your day in the art room. It can be helpful to talk with your principal or your colleagues to let them know that you are still feeling emotional. They may be able to support you when you need it during your workday. Having a plan in mind to redirect your thoughts and feelings when you can’t escape to a quiet place is helpful. When I feel grief creeping in during my workday, I quietly think to myself, I am not thinking about that right now, or I envision myself in one of my happy places so I can focus on my art students at that moment.
3. Time Off
Healing from grief happens on your timetable and not anyone else’s. The emotions you experience will be personalized, and so will the time you need to process and heal. There are options beyond taking sick days for you to explore if an extended leave is what you need. It is common for school districts to offer bereavement days when teachers lose a family member. These days are different than your sick days and do not count against you. Another option may be to talk with a medical professional about health sabbaticals or FMLA time. Both options may provide you with longer leave time while keeping your art position in place when you are ready to return.
4. Creative Outlets
As art teachers, we have a natural desire to create. Taking the time to create and exercise our imagination can help us process grief healthily and heal. In his article, 3 Forms of Grief: Experiencing Grief and Loss in the Art Room, Jonathan Juravich shared how the artistic process can benefit the grieving process. He says, “We can use our art for personal growth as we explore the depths of our experiences.” If you have a small visual journal or diary, bring it with you to school. Take it out whenever you have a break during the day and let out whatever is on your mind or heart. Externalizing inner pain through artmaking or writing can be a powerful tool to have at your fingertips.
Focusing on your needs is the most important part of the grieving process. Grief is personal, and it takes time, but you can heal from your loss. Look for a strong support system, talk with trusted friends, and take time to process the pain in healthy ways that work for you. Being present with your emotions and leaning into those feelings is an important entry point into your healing.
What advice do you have for art teachers experiencing grief?
How has exploring the creative process helped you navigate powerful emotions?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.