Art Therapy With Holocaust Survivors: A Case Study

By Tatiana Kastner, MSW, RSW

“Art is a powerful tool of communication,” as C.A. Malchiodi says in her Handbook of Art Therapy (2003, p. 3). Its therapeutic benefits for the person’s emotional well being have been reported for diverse populations (Canadian Art Therapy Association, 2017). The multi-faceted approach of Expressive Therapies can be very appropriate for Holocaust survivors, who present with complex issues related to genocidal trauma, aging, identity, grieving, and other issues. In the case presented in this article, art therapy was used to facilitate traditional individual verbal counseling.

I originally met Mrs. A about a year and a half ago when she contacted Jewish Family Services seeking home support services after having a stroke. She was slowly going through a rehabilitation process trying to increase her mobility. Despite her efforts, in the next few months, I saw her losing some of her independence, especially in decision-making processes due to diagnosed stroke-related Dementia, which manifested in poor insight according to her medical evaluation. So, within a short period of time, Mrs. A experienced a very dramatic change in her life, going from being an independent and active woman who could travel and drive a car to being someone who had to rely on the help of a live-in caregiver. The most painful loss for her, though, was one of losing power and control of her life.

For quite a long time she was fixated on getting back that power, contesting the diagnosis and resistant to living with a caregiver or accepting guardianship. She was extremely angry and could not shift to any positive thought. I visited her on a weekly basis and worked closely with her family, doctor, live-in caregiver, and JFS home support team, but did not see much progress in her emotional state.

Since Mrs. A had been a talented and very passionate painter until her stroke affected the mobility of her right hand, I decided to try to bring this passion back into her life in order to manage her anger and frustration. The client agreed to paint together every week at her place. Thus, we formed our Friday painting club, where we painted and had a conversation about matters important to her. I often asked her to choose the color or shape of her mood that day, and, as we painted, we talked about different associations she might have come with. After a couple of months, I was lucky to find a volunteer art-therapy student who replaced me and continued the counseling sessions. We tried different techniques and materials, but Mrs. A remained loyal to watercolor, which she had very much admired in the past.

She has never regained the ability to use pencil and brush as she used to, and she is still grieving this loss. However, having a completed painting at the end of the session has never been our goal. Art has served this client in the following ways: First, it is one of a few familiar activities from her previous life, before the illness. It meant that she did not lose her life completely and was able to regain some of it back and to keep it. Second, since it was one of the core activities, being able to perform it helped her to restore her identity. She lost so much of what she was like and now was mainly identified with Dementia and stroke. Being an artist, therefore, helped her to regain her lost personality. Third, it facilitated the conversation around difficult subjects like conflicting relationships with the family and the caregiver, the diagnosis, the childhood traumatic experiences, immigration difficulties, etc. For example, we discussed the long-lasting estrangement between her and her husband, which usually provoked a lot of anger in other settings. Yet, while going through the art objects the couple collected during their marriage, Mrs. A. relived some kind memories about her husband, such as what painters he preferred and why; on what occasion he bought a particular wooden sculpture; or why they decided to buy a particular china set. When recollecting these events her voice softened and her anger subsided. These were moments of her reconciliation with her once existing love.  To witness this transformation in her was very rewarding.

While painting, Mrs. A felt more relaxed and was more open to talking about those matters. Fourth, the painting session became a safe space, which was under her control. It was almost the only time when her caregiver was not around and she could freely speak about certain things without being overhead or monitored and told what to do. She was free in analyzing her mood and feelings and free in expressing them in a way that was most comfortable for her. It helped her to vent her anger towards the caregiver and the family. Fifth, painting allowed her to be free of her fixation on negative thoughts. While I expected her to be more liberated from negativity from the session, her negative emotions were very dominant and it was hard to make even a small shift towards positive thinking. For all that, even in the most depressing mood, art was the only subject that was able to animate her. Sixth, painting provided physiological benefits in that it was an exercise for her arm affected by stroke and, combined with verbal communication in English with the art therapy student, it also stimulated her brain.

To summarize the case, I would like to say that art therapy for Mrs. A became a true guiding light in her journey. Through all the ordeals she went through in the last year, art therapy sessions have become one of the very few things that she was able to rely on, maintain and plan on. It was that anchor that helped her to have some stability in her life of loss and pain. The therapeutic relationships she developed and strengthened with both the art therapy student and myself facilitated her adaptation to every challenge life presented to her.

References

Canadian Art Therapy Association. Retrieved from               https://cata15.wildapricot.org/resources/Documents/CATA-ACAT%20Fact% 0Sheet.pdf

Malchiodi, C.A. (2003). Handbook of Art Therapy. New York: Guilford Press,

 

 

 

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