Pupils grieve together: ‘I learned a lot about grief, but perhaps even more about love’

The loss of a loved one, a job, a future or safe homeland. Grief comes in many scents and colors and everyone grieves in their own way. Some could use a little more help with this than others, says Ellen Dreezens, associate professor at Tilburg University and psychologist and photographer Gerdien Wolthaus Paauw. They therefore provide a special grief course for the students: “We give the students tools to find their own way in the grief process.”

William Duke, Self Portrait

Once every two weeks, ten students meet in the Zwijssen building. Led by teacher and psychologist Ellen Dreezens and photographer Gerdien Wolthaus Paauw, they participate in a special education: one devoted exclusively to grief. In addition to gaining theoretical and psychological knowledge about grief, this education also has an artistic edge. A special angle that turns out to be surprisingly effective.

Theoretical knowledge

Ellen Dreezens.
Image: Jeroen Stekelenburg

It is precisely this combination that Dreezens and Paauw – both experienced experts in the field of grief – find very important. “There are many unwritten rules about grief that society imposes on an individual. Think about necessary grief feelings and the right length of the grieving process. It is worrying because there is no plan for a good grieving process. Everyone deals with a loss in their own way. By sharing knowledge about grief and stimulating creativity, we give students tools to find their own way in the grieving process,” Dreezens and Paauw explain.

As a psychologist and scientist, Dreezens is responsible for the theoretical side of the course. Among other things, she discusses the Dual Process Model with the participants. Using this model, she explains that the grieving process has two sides. A side where sadness, emotions and memories are at the center and a recovery side: “Many students have immediately thrown themselves into the recovery side. For example, by fully focusing on their studies. Later, some students have mixed feelings about this because they think they have escaped the grieving process. When they then realize that this recovery side is also part of the grieving process, there is a sense of relief,” Dreezens explains.

Creative translation

Paauw, on the other hand, gives substance to the creative side of the training. She focuses on a passive and active art experience; where participants review and create art. For example, Frida Kahlo’s work is included in the education. According to many, this Mexican artist has expressed his mostly poignant life story in his work in an inspiring way. As a child, Kahlo contracted a paralytic disease that prevented her from walking normally. She was also involved in a tram accident and became infertile due to the severe injuries. A sadness that she carried with her all her life because of her desire to have children. Finally, her marriage to artist Diego Rievera was turbulent.

Gerdien Wolthaus Paauw.
Image: Alessandra Mignardic

“During her life she mourned several events. She found comfort and strength in her work. You can identify with her work, which has a soothing effect,” explains Paauw. “By looking at Kahlo’s work with the course participants, they come closer to their own grief process. They also receive a homework assignment at the end of each session. For example, a task where everyone writes down their feelings on a photo or a drawing. This also brings them closer to the core of their own grieving process.”

Student experiences

Dreezens and Paauw are now organizing the mourning training for the third time. An evaluation of previous training shows that the participants value the unique perspective – both from a psychological and creative point of view. They also enjoy meeting other people their age and sharing their experiences. One of the first participants, William Duke, says: “Four years ago I suddenly lost my father to a cerebral infarction. At the time, I was a first-year student at Tilburg University. I had difficulty sharing my story and grief with peers. I needed that.” A year after his father’s death, he decided to do a board year at the Student Party SAM.

On the initiative of Duke, the SAM Student Party presented a proposal to the university council, where the party asked for more support from the university for grieving students: “I think it is important that students can contact each other and professionals. In my first year at university I also needed this. Coincidentally, Ellen and Gerdien were in the process of setting up grief training. This allowed the university to organize it quickly.”

Duke himself also participated in the grief training: “I learned a lot about grief, but perhaps even more about love. Thanks to the training, I understood that grief and love are two sides of the same coin. The reason I’m so sad sometimes is because I loved my father so much,” he explains. “It is great that the education has a theoretical and creative side. I have always been creative myself. Drawing is an outlet for me and a way to communicate. Sometimes you can express a feeling better with art and creativity than with words.”

Healing effect of art

Dreezens and Paauw are not the only ones who give art and creativity a place in a care process. Scientific research is increasingly showing that literature, music, visual arts and film are good for the quality of life of patients, their relatives and people who are grieving. It concerns both a passive art experience, where you experience art (such as a visit to a museum) and an active art experience, where you make art yourself.

Ad Kaptein, emeritus professor of medical psychology at the University of Leiden, recently explained this during a Studium Generale lecture in Tilburg: “The passive and active expression of art has a stress-reducing effect and gives meaning to someone’s illness, loss, pain or grief. It makes the patient, relatives or next of kin more resilient.”

Because both science and their own research results show positive results, Dreezens and Paauw want to offer this grief training to PhD students and university employees as well: “We hope to find funds for this because we think it is important that the university can also support his grieving employees.”

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