These walls tell stories

Art therapy provides a much-needed outlet for children that lose a parent to cancer

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DRAWING IT OUT: (l-r) Lucia Spaziana, Haley Toll, Marie Butler, Olivia Pennell and Giorgia Spaziana work together on art projects at the Cross Cancer Institute.
Photo by Jessica Fern Facette

The walls in Marie Butler’s office are covered from floor to ceiling with paintings, bright textiles and uplifting quotes. The tables are filled with paints, crayons and a thick heap of rainbow-coloured felt. There’s a purple-felted wizard perching on her desk and “Grandmother Willow,” a chair Butler made from bent willow boughs, rests in the corner like a queen’s throne. It’s a visual feast for the eyes, a place for creative expression and an emotional refuge for families struggling with the overwhelming grief of losing a loved one to cancer.

Since 2011, Butler has been working as an art therapist at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute, providing arts-based therapy services and support to children as young as two years, to teenagers, and even their parents. Most of Butler’s clients are children who start working with her when a parent, diagnosed with terminal cancer, is days away from dying. Losing a parent is a traumatic event for a child, shattering a sense of self-identity and well-being and leaving them with a feeling of abandonment. At the Cross, Butler uses art therapy techniques – painting, sculpting, building and doll making – to help kids express what they’re feeling, often without words.

“The girls were able to create and just be children in an environment that was safe for them – where they could express their feelings,” says Corinna Spaziana.

“The art therapy is how we can meet the needs to keep kids ‘glued together,’” says Butler. “We use a lot of glue and sparkles, but the metaphor is the glue. You could walk into a room and wonder why a kid is pouring out half a bottle of glue, but that glue represents something to the psyche. So we work with the metaphors of art. The therapist introduces the tools of art as the medicine.”

Butler first discovered the healing power of art while working as a special education teacher in northern Saskatchewan. There, she saw the need to integrate creativity and life skills into the curriculum to help inspire a different kind of right-brain learning amongst her students. Butler saw the positive effect on her students and she, too, was inspired to tap into art making during her personal time. “I wasn’t making pretty things,” she recalls, smiling at the memory. “But I was shaping myself as a woman. A huge piece of my identity was formed through my art making. It led to starting my own business and, eventually, to pursuing a master’s [degree] in art therapy.”

Butler has been working with children at the Cross Cancer Institute for more than four years, and has seen the positive impact that art can play in helping a child heal from the loss of his or her mother or father to cancer. She attends to families at the hospital, facilitating “goodbye rituals” with children and their parents to help ease the process, and works one-on-one with kids on a weekly basis, helping them to heal and build resilience.

Corinna Spaziana first sought out the art therapy services at the Cross when her husband Joe was diagnosed with an inoperable glioblastoma multiforme or GBM, a rare and aggressive brain tumour, in December 2011. The doctors told Joe and Corinna to prepare for the worst: that he wasn’t likely to make it through the treatment, and if he did, he’d only have nine to fourteen months to live. Their daughters Giorgia, then three years old, and Lucia, two, began to attend and participate in one-on-one art therapy sessions with Butler.

“There was no cure for the cancer, so we had to prepare the girls for their dad’s death. I think for them it was the difficulty of anticipating when it was going to happen,” says Corinna, reflecting on the initial days of her husband’s diagnosis and treatment.

Despite the odds, Joe underwent rounds of radiation and chemotherapy and outlived the doctor’s prognosis by more than two years. He attributed his success to the “three Fs” that had governed his life: faith, family and friends. Corinna and her daughters were with Joe every step along the cancer journey. He died on January 7, 2015, at the age of 40, leaving his family with many inspiring memories.

“I don’t know where we’d be today without the art therapy support services,” Corinna says. “The girls were able to create and just be children in an environment that was safe for them – where they could express their feelings.” She believes that art therapy helped her daughters build strength to endure and slowly overcome the challenges the family continues to face.

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CHILD’S PLAY: Toll and Butler have been working together at the Cross since March 2015. Their work in art therapy helps children understand and change the trauma they experience.
Photo by Jessica Fern Facette

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that kids will do a lot of the inner work that’s painful because [making art] feels good,” says Butler. “Sometimes kids can’t talk about their pain because the psyche immediately goes into shutdown, for good reason. We’re built to flight, fight or freeze. But the art coaxes out the pain and the story because it’s actually pleasurable.”

It’s what Haley Toll refers to as the theory of neurobiology. Toll is a pediatric art therapist and Butler’s newest colleague at the Cross Cancer Institute. She began work in March 2015 and has already formed a supportive working partnership with Butler.

“Neurobiology is a huge trend in art therapy, to help us to ground our theory,” explains Toll, who received her masters of art therapy at Concordia University and has extensive experience working as an art therapist in northern British Columbia and Botswana. “The body relaxes when we are making art, providing some safety for the brain to recall traumatic images and make sense or meaning of these painful experiences,” she explains.

One therapy technique that both she and Butler use with children is making dolls from felt or cloth – the soft material is comforting for a child to touch and hold. Children who’ve lost a parent may feel a range of emotions – from fear or anger to shame and sadness – stemming from a sense of abandonment. A doll becomes a transitional object, something they make and take home with them to help a child through a difficult transition. Toll and Butler have seen children create all kinds of dolls, like wizards, police officers and even family members.

“When a child creates a character, they relate to it as an aspect of themselves, or someone they would like to be,” Toll explains. “A firefighter, for example, could be a metaphor for stability. Someone to protect them, their home and all of the losses they’re afraid of experiencing.”

Art therapy helps children change the story of trauma they’ve experienced.

“Sometimes kids can’t talk about their pain because the psyche immediately goes into shutdown, for good reason. We’re built to flight, fight or freeze. But the art coaxes out the pain and the story because it’s actually pleasurable,” says Marie Butler.

As therapists, Butler and Toll are enabling kids to put aside the story of shame and sadness that they are likely to feel after losing a parent to see things in a different light: that they are full of integrity, strength and capable of cultivating resiliency in any difficult situation.

“Once a child learns how to make meaning from the loss – that’s resiliency. Children have a profound understanding of themselves due to pain. We teach them that although you can’t take away the pain and you can’t prevent pain from happening in the future, they have the ability to know they can withstand,” says Toll. “We teach them that they’re beautiful in their vulnerability – and that it’s okay to be vulnerable.”

This summer Corinna’s daughters will take part in a summer camp called “Good Grief,” designed to bring together a small group of children who’ve lost a parent to cancer. Funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, it’s the first time Butler and Toll will offer the camp and they are excited to witness the impact of kids coming together.

“Building that connectedness between children is a wonderful skill for them to learn at such a young age,” says Toll. “The camp will give them an opportunity express their emotions and share it with one another. It’s about building an identity that they aren’t alone.”

One Response to These walls tell stories

  1. k wheler says:

    I am amazed at the work you are doing with kids and their families.How wonderful for them to be creative in spite of the toll that cancer takes in every way. You are all truly a blessing to them all. Wishing you all success in future activities.
    Hello to you Marie ,so happy to have met you also your wonderful PAPA. I feel a great love for you all. Kay Wheler

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