From Kidney to Bird: A Sibling’s Art Experience

As school approaches, I find myself reflecting back on the summer and all the patients and their siblings who joined us at the art table each day.  Summer is sometimes the only time when siblings are able to come along to their brother or sister’s medical appointments and many siblings look forward to the opportunity to make art.

Last week a patient who had undergone surgery to have one of her kidneys removed came to the clinic for a check- up. She brought her brother with her and they both spent the morning playing with model magic (a kind of squishy dough similar to play-dough). Each time the sister went back for her medical treatment her brother would start to mold and color his model magic to resemble various body parts.

Coloring the Model Magic

Coloring the Model Magic

At first the model magic was colored and flatted to look like skin, which he playfully flopped onto his arm. A few minutes later the skin was colored and balled up to resemble a little heart. The little ball was then colored blue, resulting in a grayish blob he decided looked like a liver. After more marker was added the model magic started to take on the form of a little pink bean.  He spent a while perfecting the tiny form until he finally identified it as a kidney. As he held the kidney in his hands he talked about how worried he was about his sister and how scared he felt when she had undergone surgery.  He talked about how he felt different from his sister because he didn’t have anything wrong with his body.

Creating the kidney

Creating the kidney

After sharing his feelings he then decided that he wanted to make a gift for his sister and he morphed the little kidney into a bird.

bird for his sister

bird for his sister

This is a good example of why sibling participation in art therapy is so important. At the art table siblings are given a voice to express their own feelings, concerns and/or misconceptions of their brother or sister’s medical condition.  Being able to make a gift or special token also provides siblings with a meaningful way to contribute to their sibling’s recovery process.

A Day for the Kids: Those in Treatment and their Siblings

Throughout the year Life with Cancer provides day long programs for children being treated for cancer and their siblings–those who are between 5 and 12 years old. This day combines education, art therapy, medical play, discussion and various additional programs from the community. These have included: yoga, music making, musical performances, storytelling, movement, therapeutic dogs and horses, and recreational games and activities. The goal of the day is to bring kids together who have similar experiences–either because they are in treatment or because they are dealing with the illness and treatment of a sibling. At one point, the kids in treatment break into a separate group from their siblings; this allows for the siblings to talk about their experiences without their ill brothers and sisters partaking in the conversation. It is a chance for the siblings to share with peers who are going through similar experiences and understand their perspective. Often these children share similar feelings and ways of coping, and enjoy the chance to relate to each other in a way that other peers might not be able to.

The experiences of the children in treatment are often better understood than that of the siblings. Providing support to the patient is generally–and logically–the primary focus, as treatment is extremely difficult and sometimes traumatizing. Due to the severity of the illness and the challenge of treatment, the primary focus of doctors, therapists and medical teams is inevitably–and necessarily–on that child. However, the  journey that the siblings go through is also incredibly challenging. They often experience a myriad of feelings, along with many changes at home. These children are often impacted by the shifts in the emotional makeup of their families. There are many changes over which they have no control and siblings, in turn, often feel left out, forgotten, jealous and angry about the toll that cancer has taken on their lives. They are also scared and worried about their ill brother or sister. Giving voice to these feelings and this journey seems extremely important, and these days provide an opportunity for these experiences to be expressed in an arena where these feelings are validated and supported by staff and by peers.

As a group, the brothers and sisters of cancer patients are free to share their thoughts and true feelings related to their experiences. Some siblings are especially open and clear about how disenfranchised they feel. Although there may not be a lot that can be done to shift the focus off of their brother or sister in treatment, they often find some relief and satisfaction in being with like-minded children, sharing their feelings, and having them validated. The opportunity to speak in confidence, free of their siblings or other family members, provides an opportunity to speak the truth and name the many feelings they have that may be considered unacceptable or unkind.

"I feel left out, for all the attention is on Natalie."

“I feel left out, for all the attention is on Natalie.”

Siblings hold a significant place in the journey and the puzzle pieces represent their part in their families experiences. These pieces also provide a vehicle through which many of their thoughts and feelings are expressed in an open and supportive environment.

Kid and Sib puzzle-3