Immersive Therapy

Immersive Therapy

The process of creating — whether through art or cooking — helps people process grief and other pain

Everyone copes with grief and pain differently. For some, therapy comes in the form of using the arts. And for others, it comes through the kitchen. 

Don’t expect to sit on a couch during a therapy session at the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, based in Evanston. Instead, people play the drums, make paintings, or dance in the large open space. 

“Aside from the waiting area, you wouldn’t recognize our centers are associated with therapy,” says Jenni Rook, executive director and a music therapist at the nonprofit organization. 

Creative arts therapists use music, art, drama, and dance/movement therapy to engage individuals creatively, as a way to access emotions and thoughts that aren’t always easy to put into words.

Younger people, in particular, might find creative arts therapy more fun or accessible than sitting across from a therapist and talking about how they feel.

The act of creating something new helps individuals process grief and trauma, which so many of us have been experiencing in various ways during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sometimes people have had a painful past, like maybe a trauma history or something that’s happened that’s difficult 

to talk about,” Rook says. “But we can draw. We can make music together. We can create stories and metaphors, identify where memories and feelings are stored in the body, and sort of work through it that way.”

Rook often fields questions about whether someone needs to be good at art to participate in creative arts therapy. The answer: no.

“It’s not about teaching art,” she says. “It’s more about teaching coping skills,” such as using the arts to promote relaxation or stress management.

When starting therapy at the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, people meet with an intake coordinator and have a chance to experience art, drama, music, or dance/movement therapy. They can decline participation in any aspect of the session if an outlet isn’t the right fit or causes discomfort, Rook says. 

In addition to its clinics in Evanston and Highland Park, the organization provides community programming at hospitals, assisted living centers, and other locations in the Chicago area. It accepts some insurance plans and also offers sliding-scale payments, funded by donations to the nonprofit organization. 

Cooking through grief

The loss of a loved one is likely something we all experience at some point in our lives, but how we process grief differs. Heather Nickrand, a hospice regional bereavement specialist with AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Hospice, noticed how certain activities and memories complicated the grieving process. 

“Time and time again, the same theme continued around cooking and mealtimes,” Nickrand says. She identified a need in individuals who had lost loved ones and were having difficulty adjusting to meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking for one. 

“Many expressed feelings of loneliness and depression when grocery shopping and cooking for themselves alone, which led to many painful memories of the loss of their loved one,” she says. 

“These feelings of grief lingered throughout the day and had a negative effect on subsequent meals, leading to avoidance of the activities, skipped meals, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, binge eating, snacking on junk food throughout the day, and eating fast food in place of grocery shopping and cooking at home.”

To address this need for grief counseling, Nickrand created the Culinary Grief Therapy program. She then partnered with chefs at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn to run workshops in its Culinary & Hospitality Center.

With cooking at its center, culinary grief therapy encourages self-exploration, socialization, and healthy coping and support strategies. It helps individuals adjust to a new normal without their loved one as they discover a renewed sense of meaning, purpose, and happiness in life — key objectives in the grieving process.

Like arts-based therapies, culinary grief therapy doesn’t take place on a couch. Instead, therapy happens through demonstrations and labs, with counselors at the ready. 

“The labs are hands-on, process-based, live format, with the participants on the stoves,” Nickrand says. “This form of therapy is interactive and engaging. It empowers individuals to express their grief in healthy, rational, and positive ways. The kitchen provides us essentially with a grief support group in a culinary setting.”

Attendees often participate in multiple workshops for a year and then move on to a cooking support club. Workshops are currently on hold, though, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, the holiday cookie exchange and summer barbecue classes have waiting lists because those activities often evoke strong emotions and memories.

Yet, because everyone grieves differently, Nickrand is mindful of how each person needs to process their grief. 

Depending on the situation, Nickrand might recommend that individuals consider changing routines to reduce grief triggers and painful reminders. “You do not need to make drastic changes, just simple ones, such as having your meals at a different time of the day, in a different room, or serving foods you typically do not have,” she says.

Therapy using art or cooking can be a powerful way for people to process what’s happening in their lives or find a way to communicate. 

In the end, Rook says, “It’s not about product, it’s about process. We don’t care what the end product is. It’s about what happened while you were creating and the benefits of being in that creative state and turning off the part of your brain that’s worried about all the other things in life.”

The activities help people be fully present, Rook says. And that helps them attend to the issues at hand.

“Creating is always more powerful than consuming the arts,” she says. “Your brain is going to be more active and engaged when you’re creating something.”


Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 print issue