Art helps kids cope creatively with loss

Janelle Tyson couldn't get her twin 8-year-old daughters, Rianna and McKayla, to talk about their father's death.

The girls were stunned by Tyson's emotions after her husband died of a heart attack in August at age 43, but they would never open up about their own feelings, even as the stress of funeral arrangements and moving mounted.

The girls' teacher suggested resources to help the family, including Sutter Health's Children's Bereavement Art Group, a free community project that uses art therapy to help kids who have lost loved ones. The group has served more than 9,200 children.

Tyson was skeptical when the girls started attending the group's sessions in October, but she quickly noticed a change.

"It opened the door to let me talk to them about his death."

The therapy also gave Tyson, 32, a window into Rianna and McKayla's perspective on the loss.

"I try to match the types of art modalities and activities with what I believe are tasks of grief," said Peggy Gulshen, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been coordinating the program since it began in 1985.

Activities also are tailored to the child's age, since children grieve according to their cognitive, emotional and spiritual development, Gulshen said.

"Being able to identify with and be normalized and validated by someone their same age is important," said Gulshen, a certified art therapist.

The 10 sessions kids typically attend every two weeks within the first year after a loss conclude with an art show for parents.

The art from the program remains special to Russ Cunningham, whose children attended the group after their mother, Jolene Cunningham, committed suicide in 2002.

The family had created a box of some of Jolene's belongings and added the children's artwork to the collection. "For them to be able to articulate the things that hurt the most was good," Russ Cunningham said.