When I saw the title, Coloring Your Way Through Grief, by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times (5-16-16), I thought of my friend Rebecca, who lived about three blocks away. For most of our 30-year friendship, we went for weekly walks. We admired gardens, chatted about our lives, and she told me Zen Buddhist stories. She became a Zen priest and I attended some of her classes on Zen architecture. I helped take care of one of her five children while she went to school to become an elementary teacher. Later I visited her classrooms and played kids’ requests on the piano. She started a butterfly garden at one of her schools and taught me a lot about raising and feeding them. Rebecca was an enthusiastic and bubbly 7-Adventurer in the Enneagram, an artist, a traveler, and much more.
In her later years Rebecca changed. She became more forward with people we’d pass on our walks. She’d be a bit inappropriate. When she removed dead leaves from plants in gardens we passed, I worried their owners might think she was hurting them. One day she knocked on my door, having become lost on her way to visit a friend who lived nearby. I knew then she was not well. She had Alzheimer’s.
Rebecca was sociable and loved people. Friends visited often at first, and took her to the Zendo. But it became difficult for her to socialize. She became anxious and missed her friends terribly.
One of the many ways Rebecca’s loving family thought of to help her was to buy her some artistic coloring books. Some were composed of mandalas, which related to her Zen studies. She was calmer when she was coloring. Coloring was the perfect activity for her.
The Brody article describes another use of coloring books—for people who’ve had shattering losses. After Deborah S. Derman suffered the suicide of a boyfriend, the airplane crash death of her parents, her husband’s early death, and a rare form of breast cancer, she became a professional grief counselor. She has produced an adult coloring book of illustrations for her clients and others. Every other page is blank, for writing down feelings.
Brody writes: “While art therapy has been used for decades to help people express what they can’t put into words, filling in the spaces of a coloring book has a different kind of benefit: enabling people to relax and be more focused.... Coloring within an outlined structure can help to contain and organize feelings of distress and helplessness. Today, there are adult coloring books to help alleviate stress and anxiety, release anger, induce calm and enhance mindfulness… [They can] help people with losses of every kind, including illness, divorce, financial ruin, post-addiction—anything that might force people to redefine their identity.”
They can help those with Alzheimer’s too.