This week is Halloween, but it’s also All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead. Traditionally this is a time to let all our ghouls and ghosts and skeletons out. We celebrate them, give them sweets and lay them to rest. Children love this time of year, but some adults find the rituals morbid. For creative therapists, October is an important chance to mark the death and rebirth archetype in sandplay.
I have a lot of ghouls, ghosts, skeletons and coffins in my sandplay collection. This can perplex clients and students on my sandplay therapy training. The adults I work with often shudder when they look at these symbols of death. The children of course love them.
Death in this ‘modern technology can do anything’ age remains the last taboo. If our smartphones can be brought back to life with a charger and upgraded when Santa comes, why can’t we? We are animals at heart, our breaths are finite and accepting that can be an enormous challenge.
It’s important when building up a collection of sandplay figures to have some that represent the death and rebirth archetype for two main reasons. First of all, obviously we can represent our losses, our bereavements, in a very poignant and often visceral way. We can use a headstone and put some flowers or a crystal on it. We can show our feelings in sand (or art) in a way that suits us and goes to whatever depth we want to go. There’s no need for a brave face or to be grateful for the time we had in this kind of work. We can just go for it and express whatever sadness, anger or fear that loss has left us with.
It can be hard to buy symbols like skeletons and coffins
When children are bereaved, they may not be able to find the words to express how they feel. Symbols are a good way for them to show their emotions instead. Sandplay therapy is very effective with bereavement and serious illness. Bereavement charities were among the first places in the UK to embrace creativity to help children and adults connect to their feelings.
A skull in a sand tray is a way of saying goodbye
But there’s another reason to have skulls on your shelf. A more symbolic one, which I think is a deeper meaning behind Halloween or the Day of the Dead. In every life, there are times of growth and times to say goodbye to old patterns and ways of being. Especially when we are in therapy, there are times to ‘shed a skin’ and to let go of adaptive and superegoic ways of walking this planet. As we begin to find our authentic voice we put aside those of our parents or the voice we pretended to have in order to fit in. This can leave us with feelings (and dreams) around dying or killing someone. These are sometimes accompanied by signs of new life, such as an egg or an acorn.
A death symbol can be the end of something and the start of something new
These death and rebirth archetype in sandplay cycles can be very alarming to clients and students, but they are a sign of psychic health. To Carl Jung, and especially in the process of alchemy, a mortificatio is simply an end to one way of being and the start of another one. This is shown in sandplay by, you guessed it, things like corpses, skeletons and gravestones. Death and rebirth is also symbolised by figures representing life and death next to each other.
These pairs of figures can be a very fruitful way of working with change. The miniatures can have dialogues which are useful when you are working with someone facing a major change. Popular combinations include a skull and an egg (or a snake, as above), a coffin and a nest or as here, a dancing woman paired with a figure from the Lord of the Rings. Gollum was in this case being brought back to life by the zest and vivaciousness of the Spanish dancer.
The dancer can talk (or even sing) to Gollum, who can begin to imitate her and to talk or sing back. Because it is being represented by toys or figures, change doesn’t seem so frightening. This is the joy of symbolic work. The therapist is not asking the client to do more than they are comfortable with. The Flamenco dancer is taking the strain.
This kind of interplay is especially effective with children in sandplay therapy
A classic processing for a young boy would be fights between two or more figures. One of the figures ends up dead, then is magically reborn. Then dies again in the next therapy session.
The figure who died will eventually survive as the sandtrays progress over a few months. Something traumatic has been processed and energy released.
Children can ‘kill’ or ‘be killed’ over and over in a sand tray.
They move through that process of ending something and beginning a new one. Adults however take more persuasion to just go with this. Children are more spontaneous and able to just go with play therapy without having to cognitively understand it.
They have a trust in the sandplay therapy process, which helps them deal with change. Eventually, Batman will survive that car crash in the sand and find something else to do. It just takes time.
Clients come to terms with death or change.
We also realise that we use festivals like the Day of the Dead in order to connect to ancient rituals around that last taboo. Death is something that we as a society dont really want to talk about. So, symbols, figures and drawings have an important part to play in processing grief and mourning. Carl Jung accessed myths around death from all over the world in order to help create the symbolic language sandplay therapy uses.
Sandplay figures can connect us to something very powerful, archetypal and eternal. A longing for connection, feelings, emotions and memories that transcend time. Human beings have always lived and died, seasons have always turned and we have sought to mark that by painting figures on cave walls, making death masks and carving pumpkins.
Burying figures is hiding or protecting something precious
We feel something special when holding a figure in your hands and place it in a tray of sand. Burying figures is also a sign of hiding or protecting something precious. Clients often create graves with stones, flowers and crosses to honour the symbols they have buried. Sometimes those figures ‘come back to life’ and dance on those graves, just as in the Day of the Dead ceremonies. This signals the end of a process for the client. This is also the opportunity for another cycle of the death and rebirth archetype in sandplay.
As society moves further away from allowing us time to process, swiping left past difficult emotions, we need the quiet space of sandplay. Those ghoulish figures can help us to breathe, connect to the earth and mourn. Please God let no-one create an app for sandplay.
We teach these many potential meanings of symbols on the Introduction to Sandplay, Certificate in Integrative Sandplay and the Diploma. We are now taking bookings for our Introduction To Sandplay Weekend Course on 12th & 13th October 2019 – click here to find out more and book.