Grief and the Power of Memory Objects

Kara’s mother was concerned that her 13-year-old daughter was not able to talk about her feelings. Her father had passed away six months ago and shortly after that, she lost her childhood cat. Death had become a looming theme in this adolescent girl’s young life and she found herself unable to express herself. Her grief has turned into a dark silence in her heart.

I invited Kara to bring a few small, ordinary objects that had belonged to her father, as well as one or two found objects that had meaning to her personally. I thought it might help her to express herself and prompt stories about her dad’s objects. 

We spent several sessions working with the stories these objects had provoked, using painting, pastels, drawing and letter writing, as the medium of expression. 

At the end of her course, Kara had created a journal with memories of her dad, as well as things she thought that she still wanted to say to him but did not have a chance to do so. She ended up with a rich grief journal that she was able to share with her mother and brother. Her silence was broken, she was able to talk about her dad when she missed him, and she had constructed a meaningful memorial to her dad in the form of her journal.

Objects often hold personal significance, and in the healing process, they become symbols and metaphors for deeper emotions. A small stone might recall a walk on the beach with your loved one. A feather might symbolize the lightness of letting go. Engaging with objects on a symbolic level provides a non-verbal language for expressing complex, often fragmented feelings.

Neuroscience suggests that working with found objects in a therapeutic context can have several benefits. Here are some of the scientific insights:

1. Sensory Stimulation:

 Engaging with found objects involves sensory experiences, activating neural pathways associated with touch, sight, and sometimes smell. This sensory stimulation can promote overall well-being.

2. Creativity and Neural Plasticity:

 Working creatively with found objects encourages the brain's plasticity, allowing for the formation of new neural connections. This supports cognitive flexibility and adaptability.

3. Emotional Expression and Regulation:

Creating with found, or memory objects, may tap into emotional expression, activating brain regions associated with emotion processing. This process can contribute to emotional regulation and stress reduction.

4. Mindfulness and Focus:

The focused attention required to work with found objects aligns with mindfulness practices. This engagement may influence neural networks related to attention, concentration, and present-moment awareness.

5. Symbolic Meaning and Memory:

Found objects often carry personal or symbolic meanings. Exploring these meanings may engage memory-related brain regions, fostering self-reflection and understanding.

6. Reward and Pleasure Centers:

The act of creating and manipulating found objects can activate the brain's reward centres, releasing feel-good chemicals and contributing to a sense of accomplishment and pleasure.

Without realising it, Kara had stimulated positive neural pathways through which to grieve the loss of her pet and her father – this was the first time in her life she had had to go through the death of a loved one. This means her references for how to do this thing called grieve, was non-existent. We had created grief rituals for her during our sessions; something our ancestors knew how to do, but we sometimes forget in our modern lives.

(Kara's story is based on a real-life case study, reproduced here withe permission, a changed name and details to protect her privacy.)

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