How to Make a Grief Art Journal
by Sue Steiner
Table of Contents
Sometimes you just need to find a way to get things out. Grief often is overwhelming and can become crippling if a person is not able to find outlets. Art journaling can be a very effective way to help you process your grief. Let me get a couple myths out of the way first.
You do not need to be an artist to make an art journal.
You do not need to have great drawing skills or artistic talent to make an art journal.
You do not need fancy or expensive supplies.
Your art journal does not need to be ‘pretty’ or artsy.
The process is the important part of making an art journal.
Your art journal, like your grief process, will be unique to you. The beauty of journaling and art is that there are no rules or one right way to do it. It is a tool for you to use to help you process and express what you need to in your grief. It can be made for your eyes only if that is your decision.
Art journaling can help by giving you a safe place to express painful emotions. Bottled up emotions without outlets can become destructive so this is a way, over time, to help lessen the pain of loss. It can help you separate out and release the pain which makes room to hold on to the good memories. The same techniques of art journaling, when you are ready, can be used to make a memorial to your loved one. First thing is to deal with the pain of loss and the swirling of emotions. This is how the art journal can be helpful.
Word of Caution
If your loss is very new and raw please use caution in this process if you are doing it alone. The numbness and shock is there at the beginning as a protective measure. The grief needs to be expressed but you want to be sure you have your support system in place while doing this. It is always recommended that you seek out professional counselors if your feelings get too overwhelming. Getting emotions out faster, harder or deeper unfortunately does not mean you get thru your grieving faster. Grieving takes time. Strong emotions come up but they pass too. The journaling, along with counseling and support groups, help you to find productive ways to deal with the hurt and pain.
gesso- this prepares the paper to be painted on, found in the paint section of art and craft stores.
brushes- cheap bristle brushes are fine
colored ink pens
Options for journal pages and backgrounds:
copies of photos
There are many different styles of journals. You can go as elaborate as you’d like or as simple as you’d like. The main thing is to just get started. I will provide information on basic materials so as not to make the process seem overwhelming or complicated because it is not.
A basic mixed media journal like this is fine:
These can be bought at the link above or at arts and crafts stores like Pat Catan’s, Michael’s or JoAnne Fabrics.
A simple school binder can work too. Sturdy cardstock and a 3 hole punch can be the pages inside. The binder can be written on with Sharpies or a decorated paper slipped into the clear sleeve on the cover.
If time, energy and focus is limited please keep in mind the objective of doing this journal is to get feelings out so simple is fine if that is all you can do right now.
There are tons of links online on how to make journals using recycled materials. Working on the preparation can be in itself healing too for some people. Try to remember this is adaptable to whatever works best for you.
Here are some examples of handmade journal covers made from cardboard, tissue paper, paper scraps and Mod Podge. If you make the covers the same size as a standard paper size it will become easier to make the pages for inside. On a good day I hate to measure so on my bad days I was lucky to just get in the ball park as far as measurements and thats okay too.
Duct tape cleans up rough edges really easily and strengthens flimsy cardboard.
Above are the covers of my actual journals. We’re not after perfection. The wax paper is put in between just finished or prepped pages so they don’t stick later.
The cover below was made from recycled plastic grocery bags.
This was made by layering cardboard and placing plastic grocery bags with parchment paper on top and then ironing it with a regular clothes iron. The plastic bags will melt and adhere to the cardboard. You iron all over the surface then let it sit and cool for a few moments. Peel the parchment paper back and decorate. I painted and stamped this with acrylic paint and ink. If the surface is still warm melting crayons are fun to work with also.
1. Get 3 or 4 plastic grocery bags
cut the seams so bags can lay somewhat flat
cardboard goes on the bottom, wax paper on top
then iron.... the plastic bags melt, when cool the wax paper will peel off
Glue melted bags to cardboard, cut the ragged edges that extend over cardboard to fill in blanks spots, glue and then weigh down with books to flatten over night.
When dry and flat you will have a sturdy cover for a journal.
To prepare the journal page:
Typically gesso is applied first to seal the paper to make it non porous and Mod Podge can be applied over the finished page to seal and varnish. In a pinch you can use Mod Podge for both uses.
When I seal the paper I like to apply the gesso or Mod Podge using an old bristle brush because I like the texture of the bristles. This is what my brushes look like-- nothing fancy here! I like having a large and a small brush. Let gesso pages dry. A hair drayer can be used to help it dry faster. Expect edges to curl- this is okay. You can flatten out before working on them or use painter’s tape to tape edges down while working on them. .
Markers, gesso, Mod Podge, sharpies, oil pastels, crayons, watercolor or acrylics are some of the materials you can use in your pages.
Preparing the background:
I place some scrap paper under the pages I am sealing to keep my surface clean.
You can prepare several pages at once if using the loose 3 hole punch pages in a binder.
At this point you can veer off in several different directions.
There does not have to be a ‘plan’ or agenda - you can just write or draw whatever is on your heart. Or you can use journaling prompts. More on that later.
If you don’t have words scribbling, gluing torn paper, or painting colors can be releasing in and of itself.
Making a paper collage is also an activity when emotions are raw that can be helpful. To do this you gather some old magazines, newspapers and any other printed material you have laying around. Look thru the stack and just randomly cut out whatever picture or words jump out at you. Then you can paste them on your page with the Mod Podge. This activity can be very enlightening too because what often happens is what needs to be expressed seems to come out.
This is a photo collage I did while journaling to heal from trauma several years ago. The images have special meaning to me and symbolize a feeling or situation I was in and didn’t have the words to describe. Your photo collage does not have to be ‘neat’ or pretty by any means. Again the purpose is to help convey feelings that are hard to express.
If your loss is very new and raw please use caution in this process. The numbness and shock is there at the beginning as a protective measure. The grief needs to be expressed but you want to be sure you have your support system in place while doing this. It is always recommended that you seek out professional counselors if your feelings get too overwhelming. Getting emotions out faster, harder or deeper unfortunately does not mean you get thru your grieving faster. Grieving takes time and the loss will be sad. The journaling, along with counseling and support groups help for you to find productive ways to deal with the hurt and pain.
Grief Journaling Prompts
My sorrow- sometimes these kinds of strong feelings can be expressed with scribbles or splashes of color or photo collages. Go slow or have support if it is too hard. You can skip over any activity that does not feel okay to continue.
As you write the above pages it is good to go back later and see what you were feeling and where you are at now and then write about that.
What has been hard about this journey?
What would you like people to know or do?
How can you let your support people know how you are feeling?
Have there been any blessings from this loss - such as special people who were there for you in meaningful ways?
Writing and Journaling Exercises
Redirecting Circling, Negative Thoughts
Depending on what stage in the grief process you are in you are probably familiar with the circling thoughts that are so burdensome when grieving. This can be a way to release and redirect them. Like I said, I try to think of releasing the unproductive thoughts to make room for the good memories and the love that carries on no matter what.
I am sharing my own personal pages. The point of this exercise is to recognize how your thoughts can take you places-- good and bad. That’s not to say feeling sad is bad-- expressing sorrow is entirely appropriate in dealing with a loss. My own personal goal was to express whatever emotion close to the surface is needing to be expressed. This exercise helped me to sort out the thoughts in my head that tormented me. This was a way to deal with it so in time I would not get quite so overwhelmed.
Sorrow is a given-- yes, loss IS sad-- no denying that. What was not helping in my own journey was the guilt, the denial (did this really happen???), the cloudy thinking, numbness, anxiety, depression and so on that kept me from experiencing my loved ones, here and in heaven, in a good way. In my pages I have used my faith and God to help me redirect but you are free to adapt this to suit you and your situation. Use what you see here as a jumping off place to make this your own.
If your emotions are especially raw and your loss is very recent please be mindful of the best timing to use these techniques for you. I personally had to wait several months because things were too raw. I use my art journal as I need- sometimes that is in spurts and sometimes it feels better to close it up and put it on a shelf. That is all fine and serves a purpose in helping you in this process.
The page on the right I did as part of an online exercise in gratitude journaling which led me to the page on the right as I realized where my thoughts were taking me. I really couldn’t ~feel~ gratitude yet which is okay. What happened is I was able to recognize how my thoughts could take me in a downward spiral. The deeper into the spiral the harder it is to get out so being able to recognize this was helpful. Writing this out gave me a sense that I had some control over something.... not the loss- that was out of my hands- but the way in which I think about it. This theme of being able to hold the good and the bad and me being able to choose how to view it came up in future pages. As you work thru your grief you will find personal bits of wisdom also that you didn’t know you had. Now I am not saying I conquered directing my thoughts completely and 100% of the time but that was a piece of personal information I had not been able to tap into yet. My goal in all of this, since my loss, is to remember all the good qualities of this person. I did not want his legacy in my life to be one of destruction (by way of poor relationships or depression in the aftermath of his death) but to carry on in my life the good I saw in him. Not letting myself sink into a depression I know will be my own personal battle. You, in your life journey, likely have a battle as well that is uniquely yours so to tap into the insights that are there for you is a way out of this maze of
I applied a transparent piece of cellophane over the writing to represent this new insight I gained while writing this. It wasn’t the words I wrote so much as it was the insight I gained to do what was important to me. It was up to me what this person’s legacy would be in my life. I am at this point believing this is the turning point to finding avenues in how this grief and loss will play out in my life. This exercise helped to clarify in my mind that even though I may have lost control of a lot of things I can control how I view this loss and what I do with the pain. We can not escape loss and pain in life but we can look for a greater meaning or higher purpose in everything. Every life has value and a reason for being here. Somehow, someway I can honor that. Journaling helped clear some of the clutter I was tripping over. Being aware of how the negative thoughts take you on a deeper downward spiral is very important to know. If you find yourself here a lot and can’t get out of the hole it is extremely important you tell a counselor or someone else in your life who can help you. There is NO shame in asking for help- especially at a time like this. There are people who want to help so reach out and receive it. The loved one you lost would want you to do that.
Upward Spiral - finding my center and moving out
The Downward Spiral writing helped provide a bit of release and insight so I thought I would then take it to the next step and find what is my ‘center’ and go upward and outward. If your loved one was always your ‘rock’ and sense of security you can use that as a starting place and think what they would want for you and the people you both loved in this time? Maybe words of wisdom will come from an unexpected source? If you feel strong enough to go with the process you likely will get some insight that will be helpful.
I decided to start with ‘God’ and end with “I am a child of God and deeply loved”. This helped me with the anxiety I was feeling over our loss and the sense of being out of control. I had a lot of fear for the future and for my family. The anxiety was crippling. I was walking around in a haze and experiencing terrible memory loss. I was not functioning well. This writing exercise helped to give me the realization that I did not hold the power of life and death in my hands and although I could not control the death I could begin to control my outlook on my life and this loss. My insight in doing this exercise was realizing I had a choice in how I reconcile life’s big questions and mysteries about life and death. Each person will encounter times when life feels out of control so to find a truth that resonates with you will be one way to help bring a sense of peace and meaning into your loss.
You are welcome to use my prompts or again use my example as a jumping off place to make it your own. I needed the reminder that God was in control even when it didn’t feel like it to me. These two exercises done together helped me realize what was in my control and what was beyond my control. I would recommend that the two exercises be done at the same time.
Getting the Words Out
I find I often can’t settle down and get on with my job and daily life if my head is too busy with stuff jumbling around in it. We all know grief can be paralysizing. This writing technique has helped me to just get it out and to get unstuck. I write what is rambling around in my head. I find I usually get some relief for a bit. I found over time and doing this exercise over again, I often had the same themes or worries rattling around in my head. It doesn’t matter as much WHAT you write but that you write it down in your journal and get it out. I like the end effect in the journal of the writing being kind of blocked out, unreadable and in some cases making an interesting pattern. Some of what I wrote were things I felt I could not say to my family for various reasons. As you probably are experiencing each person will grieve in their own way and those early months of grief felt very isolating. This exercise also reminded me to not let that stuff get bottled up because, in all honesty, it makes it hard for me to think and do what I have to do each day. My load feels a bit lighter too not carrying around all those thoughts. In the months following our loss I experienced a lack of concentration and focus, along with memory loss but I found when I was able to ‘unload’ a bit it on the journal pages it helped so I could do what needed at home and at work. One of the hardest things is trying to get back into your new normal after a loss. I had a job, family responsibilities and other family members who needed me to keep going. You have people, pets, friends, responsibilities too that are calling to you to be present with them. This helped me to be able to keep a job, feed my kids and just put one foot in front of the other.
I have used this technique over and over on different pages it has been so helpful. The artist in me likes the added texture and the pattern that develops without me trying to create it but the real beauty is that I get what needs to come out - out. Again, the idea is to get out the stuff that is taking up room so the good memories have a space to come out. The legacy in your life develops from these good memories. I also want to say this is not meant as pressure to only think ‘good thoughts’. Thoughts come from emotions and emotions are just what they are. But it’s been my experience that I need to clean house so to speak and take out the garbage and lies that circle around in my head. This is a way to let the emotions be expressed but to redirect the thoughts so they don’t become self destructive.
I have several examples of what this getting out looks like on different pages. I use colored ink on a gessoed paper. I go from lightest ink to darkest ink. From there it varies so I will comment on the individual pages.
On the page to the left I wrote a rambling trail of words to show my journey from a very dark and scary place to somewhere better. I wrote in big text as an overlay my big overall question in my grief and that is- different variations of why. I acknowledged I may not ever know the why’s until heaven. Somehow I need to release that. I needed to tell my brain somehow I could stop asking the question and stop trying to figure out what I ‘should of’ and ‘could of’ done to stop this terrible loss from happening.
The page on the right was just more of whatever needed to come out. The actual words at this point don’t matter as much as the process of getting them out.
I used 3 dimensional paint that comes in a little bottle with a thin spout for the yellow border.
I wrote with ink as I mentioned earlier and then used a blue oil pastel to go over top. A crayon would work too. Gloss Mod Podge sealed the paper and provides a glossy, sturdy finish.
I gessoed the paper then used paint to give it a yellow background. Ink writing in different directions came next. A oil pastel border and opaque markers and sharpies created the big lettering.
A dark background painted on a gessoed paper with gel ink pen writing. I used an oil pastel scribbled over top. Scribbling is good. Scribbling and/or finger painting can release some pent up emotions pretty effectively too when things are raw and words are hard to find.
Different sized and colored text on a dark, painted background.
Different colored ink written in different directions.
Releasing and Holding On
All of this writing got me to the point where I realized there were things I needed to release and things I wanted to hold on to. I used envelopes to make pockets on different pages for places to put pieces of paper in which I wrote out the different aspects of grief I needed to work thru in order to hold on to that which was most important. I realized the more I held on to what needed to be released the less I could experience what I wanted to keep. This exercise helped clarify what was what.
Before I did this my thoughts were pretty jumbled with all the hurt and pain just tangled up in one big knot in my brain. I know this may sound strange but after this journal exercise I felt a physical ‘shift’ in my thinking- as if the writing of the different things I was grieving, moving the pieces of paper around and deciding what needed to be held on to (my memories of his kind and gentle spirit and his appreciation of nature and the outdoors) or let go of (guilt and feelings of responsibility) helped me to rearrange the thoughts in my mind. The more destructive ways of thinking began to take a back seat.
You can print off verses or quotes that are meaningful to you. The little bird represents something meaningful to me. I went thru my little card stock writings and placed them in the appropriate spot. You can seal up the letting go envelope if you want to or leave it open to add to it when you want. I sealed up my envelope as a way to symbolize I did not need to keep revisiting the destructive stuff in my head anymore.
One of the things you will probably notice if you keep working at your journal is a story will begin to grow. If you can, let it happen because there are rich, rich memories and life lessons in these stories. One story about the sunflowers that grew outside my kitchen window that summer prompted a story or theme that has even more meaning to me now as I reread it months later. I think that will be even more so as more time passes and DY’s legacy in MY life grows.
I’ve been watching a couple large sunflowers that just appeared outside my kitchen window grow all season. Today I could see they were withering, drooping and would soon go to seed. It made me feel sad - especially since I could feel the underpinnings of depression trying to get the better of me. I sat down and drew the sunflower and reminded myself about the cycle of life. To all things there is a season.... and when I finished I cried. Saying goodbye is hard... so crying felt important this time for some reason. I drew the tears after I cried and then in looking at the picture thought they could look like seeds. This got me thinking about how our tears of today become the water for the seeds of what is to come tomorrow. It is the cycle of life... and one we all will experience. The hearts came from a random paper clip bent this way that was in with my pens. It looked like a heart so I got more to add to the page. It was a reminder to me of how I want to hold on to love as I work thru this pain. My pain can grow into bitterness or my pain can grow into deeper compassion (in time). If I allow myself to feel love and beauty in the midst of the pain of loss, a legacy of something greater than myself will come from it, in its season and time.
As you work in your pages keep yourself open to incorporating bits and pieces of things that have meaning to you. Pieces of jewelry or postcards, letters, knick knacks, photos of favorite flowers, foods or interests all can be used in your pages to make it more personal and meaningful to you. To someone else the paper clip hearts may just look like stupid paper clips but this is not made to please others. It’s purpose is to process thru what is trying to come out ~ either to be released or acknowledged and held.
More Ways to Honor a Loved One:
a collection of poems or quotes that are meaningful to you
copies of photos
an unsent letter to your loved one
an ongoing ‘conversation’ with your loved one
Qualities of my loved one I want to carry on in my life
Ways in which I am honoring the memory of my loved one
Other ways to remember a loved one:
Planting a Special Tree
Planning a special activity on their birthday
Making a Shadow Box using a photo of them and special keepsake items in the box
Having people who you can bring their name up in conversation as memories come up
Grief Journaling Links:
My name is Sue Steiner. I am an artist, physical therapy aide, horse nut and a trauma survivor. I am a mother to 3 amazing children and a wonderful step son. I have been married to my loving husband for 23 years. I have had other losses in my life but this grief journey has been the most difficult. I will forever be grateful to the Lord, my church, family, community, and friends who helped me in our time of need. We could not of gotten thru this without them. You can contact me here on my art studio page on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FreeReinArtStudio
This ebook and the grief journaling activities I do in person are dedicated to the memory of Dustin Yoder who passed from this life on Nov. 13, 2011. I will always remember Dusty’s kind and gentle spirit, his warm smile and beautiful blue eyes. I will also always remember his powerhouse soccer kicks that seemed to come out of nowhere, his big blue truck, love of God, music, nature and the outdoors. He is very much loved and missed by so many people.
My prayer is that this ebook may bless you in some way and that you know you are not alone. In spite of the pain you have the strength to get thru this.
Copyright and Permission for Use:
This information is copyrighted by the author and can not be reproduced without permission. If you would like to use this individually or as an activity with a counselor or support group you may do so as long I am listed as the author and the the information is not resold as your own. Thank you. If you have enjoyed this and wish to make a donation in your loved ones honor or in memory of Dusty you may do so to Palliative Care, Good Mourning Program, at Akron Children’s Hospital, One Perkins Lane, Akron, Ohio 44308