Recovering From Grief, One Color at a Time

New coloring book helps with healing after a devastating loss
By Conan Milner, Epoch Times
June 20, 2016 9:46 am Last Updated: October 2, 2016 10:20 pm

Guilt, anger, despair, a sense of injustice, and a river of tears: These are some of the emotions and states that can haunt a person who has suffered a devastating loss. People say the hurt will fade with time. Yet for many, the emotional wound never seems to heal.

According to grief counselor Dr. Deborah S. Derman, Ph.D., time alone is not enough. 

“You have to understand that grief is normal, but it’s not something you can go around or avoid,” she said. “You have to go through it in order to get to the other side of it.”

In her counseling practice, Derman has helped many children and adults through the grief recovery process. Because of her own traumatic losses, it’s work that is very close to her heart.

Derman’s first major devastation came at 27 when her boyfriend committed suicide. Ten years later, she watched as a small plane crashed at a local airport, killing both of her parents. Then when she was 39, her husband died of a sudden heart attack on the rugby field, leaving Derman alone with two toddlers and pregnant with a third child.

“When I was widowed in 1992, there was no such thing as cell phones. There were no online groups. The resources were very poor,” she said. “So I decided that when I got my feet on the ground, I was going to go back to school, get a doctorate, and figure out what really happens to people after a loss.”

(Africa Studio/Shutterstock)
(Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Derman has led group and individual grief counseling sessions for over 20 years, but her latest tool takes a surprising form. “Colors of Loss and Healing” is the first coloring book designed for grief recovery. 

Epoch Times spoke with Derman about her book and the struggle to process grief.

Epoch Times: People can suffer for years when someone close to them dies. Why is grief recovery so hard?

Dr. Deborah Derman: It’s the cost of love. When you have really loved deeply and that person isn’t with you anymore, you will miss them really forever.

One of the things that happens with patients in my practice and certainly myself is that if you remarry, nobody teaches you how to love two husbands at the same time.

We’re taught to love one person at a time, but when you’re widowed and marry again it can create a lot of very uncomfortable feelings. You’re so grateful to have love in your life again, but there’s a conflict. You think, “Am I being disloyal to one or the other?” When you love two people at once it can be very confusing until you figure out that this is how it is.

For example, my first husband died 24 years ago, and I’ve been remarried for 17 years. But when my children graduated from college, I really, really missed my first husband. I wished so much that he could be there to see them.

I also missed my parents terribly on graduation day. They were the most wonderful grandparents you could ever wish for. I know how proud they would have been of my children had they lived to see the kind of people they’ve become.

Years ago, people could have said to me, “Oh, you haven’t resolved your grief. You should have tied that up and let that go a long time ago.” But that’s not true. I will miss my parents and my first husband for all of these things, and it’s normal.

Epoch Times: So it’s not as if your love for them ever goes away, it’s just that your ability to function can improve with time.

Dr. Derman: That’s exactly right. At the beginning of a loss it takes over every waking and sleeping moment. Everything seems to be controlled by feelings of despair, sadness, loss, or trauma, whatever the circumstances are. That’s at the beginning, and then very slowly you can move away from it because you can more easily transition between the feelings of sadness and feeling alright. At the beginning everything is sad. Grief controls you. As time goes on, you can still feel it, but it won’t ruin an hour, a day, a week, or an entire month anymore.

Epoch Times: How did you discover that coloring would be a helpful activity for grief recovery?

Dr. Derman: Well, my birthday is on Christmas Day, and it’s a hard birthday because everyone tends to forget it. But my best friend gave me a coloring book. I looked at these illustrations with a gazillion spaces and lines and thought, “How does one even begin?” But I picked up a pencil and I colored a space. I picked up another pencil and colored another space. This light bulb moment went off for me and I thought, “Oh my goodness! This is exactly how life has proceeded with all of the things that have happened to me in my life.”

Coloring is about one thing at a time. You don’t worry about the whole page or the whole book. You just keep going one step at a time.

This goes hand in hand with how I see a person processing grief. As I picked up the pencils, I looked back at my own life, and my private practice that I have had for more than 20 years now, and I distilled the elements of healing that I think are important for someone at the beginning of a loss throughout a lifetime.

(Courtesy of Deborah S. Derman, Ph.D.)

When you have had a devastating loss, whether it’s someone dying, losing a job, or an addiction issue, in the middle of these difficult challenges, I think that if a person can clear off a space—and that means no bills, paperwork, death certificates, or medical reports—and get your coloring book and your pencils out, for a small period of time during the day you have a respite, a quiet space, and it’s incredibly healing.

Epoch Times: How was this book designed to facilitate grief recovery?

Dr. Derman: I didn’t just do some psychological, social, or personality components. I just looked at the whole picture and thought, “What do you need in order to heal?” So I distilled each of these elements into single words or phrases, and then I conceptualized the illustration. I looked for things within my own life and home that I thought summed up the visual.

This was a very fun activity. I thought, “How would I draw ‘cherish?”‘ Well, when I used to walk on the beach with my husband or children we would give each other a shell or a stone at the end of the day. I’ve kept all those stones and shells and I cherish them. So I brought these to my illustrator and said, “Draw these.” That was the process. It was wonderfully creative.

The illustration ideas come from my own life. For example, I love gardening. So to illustrate “memory,” I thought of perennials because they come up every year. I had a beautiful perennial garden in my first home with my first husband. When I remarried, I moved, but I took all those perennials, and now I have them here. To me that’s a beautiful way to show continuity and memory.

I took my book one step further because as a grief counselor I give everyone a journal. I think journaling is very therapeutic. So in my coloring book, every page opposite of an illustration is a place for journaling.

Dr. Deborah Derman. (Courtesy of Deborah Derman)

Epoch Times: It sounds like the two techniques work together: coloring in allows you to get into a meditative space so you can start writing your feelings.

Dr. Derman: That’s right. Because it’s very hard to problem solve or figure out which way to go or what to do if your mind is racing. It’s a very chaotic, tough time. But if you take a few deep breaths, color, relax, and write, things become clearer. It’s a wonderful combination of things to do.

When a person goes through a very challenging time they do it in their own unique way. So this is why I don’t give an explanation of what I think this word should mean to you. I’m asking each person that holds this book to figure out what it means to them. For one person coloring in “friendship,” they could be writing down how much they value and appreciate their friends. But for someone else who is coloring in “friendship,” they could be thinking about the people who let them down. It’s very different for each person. This is why this is not a recipe book. These are just starting points.

Epoch Times: Can coloring really provide effective relief from grief?

Dr. Derman: I’ve not studied this as a scientific endeavor like we do in graduate school, but let me give you an example.

I’m working with a family right now where the husband just killed himself. This happened a month or two ago. The family members have all retreated into corners and no one is talking to one another, because they don’t want to see each other cry. I’ve seen this happen in families who don’t know how to talk, or they’re afraid to.

The other day, the mother said to me, “I colored with my daughter last night. And as we colored and wrote, we were finally able to talk about Daddy.”

Maybe coloring isn’t for everybody, but as a grief therapist, I only get an hour a week with someone. What do they do for the rest of the time? This gives them some structure in the rest of their lives when they’re not sitting in counseling. I look at this as homework. People bring their journals when they come to see me if they want to. Or they tell me what was up for them during the week. So an awful lot goes on outside your one hour of professional time.

So, if you’re at a loss, you don’t know what to do and you can’t stop crying, here is something that helps you focus and get it together. I think it’s very valuable. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a tool.

When I lost a dear friend to suicide, a coloring book would have been incredibly helpful. I was so isolated and alone when I was going through my grief that I never want anybody to feel that. I really have dedicated my life to it. This coloring book is just a way for me to reach more people.

Epoch Times: What is it about coloring in particular that makes it therapeutic?

Dr. Derman: I think there’s something about using your hands. I’ve read articles about knitting your way through grief. For me, it was gardening. Sometimes it was pulling weeds. I liked that it was repetitive.

In my book, I’m giving you a task to do. I need you to think through it, but also to sit, keep your hands occupied, and create something. I think it works.

When I lost my husband and I was too pregnant to do much, I took a watercolor class at the local art center. I sat in front of this watercolor paper and I just stared at it. I had no clue where to start. In a coloring book, the picture is already set up for you. You just start filling in the space.

Epoch Times: Why do you think coloring books in general have become so popular lately?

Dr. Derman: In our busy lives, when can we be creative? When do we get to experience beauty? How do we carve out some time that’s just for us? 

I think this is the core of it. It’s important that every day someone can sit down and create something beautiful.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.