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Processing and Containing Grief through Memory Boxes

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC


When someone we love dies, we go through a grieving process that is unique and personal to the person who has lost a loved one. When a loved one dies, we go through a range of intense and confusing emotions. Some people are able to work through and manage their grief effectively over time, while others may experience recurring periods of difficulty experiencing or expressing their emotions pertaining to the loss for many years. It is important to remember that there is not a right or wrong way to grieve and process a loss even when we might cycle through common experiences of shock and disbelief, anger, sadness, loneliness and acceptance. Whatever the case, it is important to have a way to express and contain our grief in a healthy way.


Art therapy can be a great way to achieve these goals of containment and emotional expression and catharsis. It can be hard to know how to cope with our pain, and even harder to find the words to express our feelings. This is where art therapy can be incredibly helpful.

In art therapy, we use creative expression to process our grief. Often in grief, we might be experiencing physical symptoms, or internal feelings that are difficult to describe. We might experience a range of emotions in a day and it can be a struggle to know how to verbalize these fluctuations in mood from content to deeply saddened. For those who desire an alternative to verbal expression, art therapy is a great way to attend to your emotional needs in a safe and non-intrusive way. With art, you have the power and authority to externalize what you want and how you want.


One art therapy directive that can be effective in aiding individuals towards containing these strong emotions while positively documenting the memories that they have of their loved one is known as a memory box. A memory box is a special box or container in which you store items that are associated with your loved one who has died. It can be anything from photos to letters to favorite objects and memorabilia. The purpose of creating a memory box is to provide a tangible way to remember and honor the person who has died while also providing the person who is grieving with a space to safely externalize these emotions and contain them when they are ready to collect the items back into the box.


There is a symbolic process that occurs when we physically organize our environment, we are also internally organizing ourselves. In this way we are learning to engage our emotions in a healthy way while also learning how to contain them so that we can continue to live a fulfilling life that is not solely focused on pain or suffering. Processing grief through a memory box can be a powerful way to deal with loss as it provides a visual container that can hold the heaviness of our emotions in a safe space that we can visit or safely put away and access when we need to.


In order to create a memory box for grief, you will need a box with a lid- this can be a box of your choice of any size or shape. You may want to consider items that you already have in mind that you might want to store in here- pins, photos, clothing items, cologne/perfume, jewelry, etc. and make a choice as far as the appropriate sized box. You might also want to consider how you want the outside of your box to look- perhaps there were special images or themes that you connect with your loved one. This could be food-related, a sports team, a skill they had, a fond memory that you shared, their favorite color or season. Consider painting, decorative scrap papers, and collage items that can be placed on the outside of your box and make this a slow process for yourself. If you decide to work on this type of project in an art therapy session, consider that this might take a few sessions and part of the therapeutic components of this would be the creation of the box.


On the inside, this is where you can store your fond memories of the person you have lost and the items that you would like to revisit on occasion. If you want this box to be a way to maintain bonds with your loved one, consider placing letters that you write to your loved one in here that you can read to them or keep safely. If you decide to add photo graphs, consider writing memories that you can recall on the back of the images, so that you can look back on them over time and recount those stories as needed. Each relationship with a loved one who has passed away is different and unique and that is the beauty of this art directive, as you can create a box that is truly reflective of your bond with your loved one.


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