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Giving space and time

Art Therapy

Giving space and time

An art therapist’s encounter with a patient was able to help him leave with peace of mind.

I received an urgent request to see a particular patient, whom I shall call Ah Seng for this story. The doctors were unsure how many more days Ah Seng would have and wanted to ensure he got a chance to see me for some psycho-socioemotional support. I remembered meeting Ah Seng for the first time, sitting at his bed, looking rather energetic. He was in his early 60s, a typical Singaporean-Chinese uncle who had his chest exposed due to the warmness in the ward. Ah Seng was friendly and invited me to have a seat while he switched on the lights and turned up the fan speed as a form of greeting to his guest. He did all these despite feeling physically uncomfortable and having slight breathing difficulties.

Many patients decline sessions with an art therapist and Ah Seng was no exception. However, he expressed a strong interest in verbally engaging with me.

Ah Seng shared that life at this current stage was tough for him, and it would be better if he could pass on soon. He spoke of how his physical symptoms were unbearable, making him emotionally depressed. Ah Seng has even talked to his son about a simple ritual and gave money for his funeral arrangement plans. He started to reflect on how he was not a good man to his wife and parents, hence the reason for his current retributions of suffering.

An art therapist’s guidance allowed Ah Seng to appreciate and remember how he was still acknowledged, cared for, and loved by his friend.

With all these recent emotional experiences, Ah Seng said he even thought jumping off the top of the building. However, it was his best friend who knocked some sense into him. His friend advised him not to escape reality and the consequences he was facing, as it would not solve his current issues. This advice drove Ah Seng to change his perspectives, where he decided that he should now maximise each day instead of ruminating on his negative thoughts.

The mood shifted as Ah Seng fondly spoke of his best friend, whom he had grown up with in the same kampung at Geylang. Even though his friend was unable to visit him in person, he still had his ways of rationalising with Ah Seng and showed his care. Ah Seng started to share how he genuinely looked back on those good old times when they were children and played all sorts of games together without having any stress or worries. I saw this as an entry point with Ah Seng and asked him to look at various photos and make them into a collage with him.

Ah Seng chose four different images that were popular Singaporean games during his childhood — marbles, mancala, chapteh, and hopscotch. He spoke fondly of these games and how he used to play them with his best friend. Ah Seng chose to add one word — “friendship” — into the collage. When Ah Seng and I completed the artwork, Ah Seng took his time looking at it and smiled. He shared that the artwork reminded him of his best friend and his cherished “good old times”. It was also a reminder that he still had someone who currently truly cared about him. I gifted the artwork to Ah Seng. He expressed his appreciation and gratitude to me for giving him a listening ear and the meaningful gift.

That night, Ah Seng passed away. It came as a shock for everyone because Ah Seng had been energetic and engaging throughout the day. On reflection, I felt comforted that I managed to see Ah Seng that day. Being present allowed Ah Seng to comfortably share his life stories, emotions, and what gave him strength. An art therapist’s guidance allowed Ah Seng to appreciate and remember how he was still acknowledged, cared for, and loved by his friend. At the very least, hours before he passed away, he was still able to smile while he reminisced on memories that comforted him.

Tribute to you, Ah Seng, painted by Chew Jia Yu, Roxanne, acrylic paint, canvas board, 40cm x 28cm

This humbling encounter with Ah Seng shows the importance of being present and creating a comfortable space for the patient to share meaningfully. 

For closure with Ah Seng, I created an artwork as a tribute to him. I hope that he will be in a comfortable space wherever he is.

Photo: Roxanne Chew; Canva

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