Symbolically, trees represent our growth and development through life. Roots are our foundation, the trunk our source of strength and power. Limbs represent our talents and abilities. And leaves are the many manifestations of our gifts, the results of flowering or producing in the world. The enduring beauty and stillness of trees invite us to absorb their essence so that we can gain understanding of who we are.

Several years ago I developed an art workshop called “Creating an Essence Tree” based on tree symbolism. I have reconfigured the original self-exploration-based workshop as a grief support activity.

As a grief support activity, the essence of your relationship with your loved one and the essential elements of your loss experience – emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, change in circumstances and more - can find visual voice in the making of an essence tree.  Your tree can be depicted realistically, metaphorically or symbolically, and the meaning conveyed as marks, lines, shapes, colors textures or images on any part of your art creation: background, roots, trunk, limbs or leaves.

Getting Started

There is no right or wrong way to make an essence tree. To get you started, here are some helpful suggestions and options.

The size you choose to make your essence tree will depend on what you wish to express and the materials you choose. Some recommendations:

  • 3’ x 6’ large/doorway size sheet of heavy duty paper or– wood, house wrap, cardboard, or canvas   
  • Small 18” x 24” sheet of heavy duty paper or  – canvas if you are going to paint. Heavy duty paper is all that is needed if you are only going to use color markers, colored pencils or crayons. Some heavy paper will also allow for paint.

Materials can be layered in whatever way feels right to you; try and make choices based on whatever colors and materials you sense will best express the feelings, thoughts, and sensations you are experiencing in your grief. If you are new to creating expressive art, work in whatever medium – crayons, markers, pencils or paints – that seem most manageable.  

  • Your choice of coloring implements: acrylic paints; oil-based paint sticks; color markers; crayons; color pencils; glitter paints and glue  
  • Paint brushes: various sizes 
  • Optional embellishments ideas: stencils; glitter; any small objects that can be attached to your tree with strong glue

Steps for Creating Your Tree

Once you pick out your materials, think about the background and/or context within which your life is set and in which your loss has occurred, such as: history (traditions, meaningful experiences etc. that you shared with your loved one); environment (where your history with your loved one was shared); spirituality; and culture. The background of your tree can be filled in once your tree is completed, done as a first element on which to build other elements, or added to as you go – whatever feels right to you. 

Step 1: Drawing the roots of your loss
Roots are symbolic of stability and being firmly established and can also represent blood relatives/ blood ties. When a loved one dies, it can feel as if the stable ground on which your life rested is now lost. Consider these questions as you draw or paint your roots:

  • In what way am I/was I rooted to my loved one?
  • What is at the root of my sense of loss?
  • What does the establishment of new healthy roots look like?

Step 2: The trunk - drawing that which supports you
As a grief support activity, the trunk of your essence tree represents your core, your values, your vision and version of how you became you and what role your loved one played in that formation. The trunk is also symbolic of your strength – what holds you up, gets you through in difficult times.

Consider these questions, as you draw or paint your trunk:

  • What are my strengths and how can those strengths aid me in processing and healing my grief?
  • What are my core values and how can those values aid me in processing and healing my grief?
  • What role did my loved one play in helping me form those strengths and values?

Step 3: Branches and leaves – reaching out
The branches and leaves of a tree cycle with the seasons of the year and life; buds emerge in spring and grow to fulfillment during summer, reaching out to accept the sun’s offered warmth and nourishment. In fall, leaves turn brilliant colors, and then fall. In winter, trees hibernate to rest and renew. Then in spring, the cycle begins again.   

The branches of your grief essence tree reach outward, representing your need to reach out or accept help from others at this time, to express your grief, and to grow as your grief journey unfolds. The leaves represent those people and things that are helping to lead you back to a sense of healing and wholeness.  

Consider these questions, as you draw or paint your branches and leaves:

  • What is the current season of my grief?
  • What must I shed to move forward in my grief? 
  • Who and what is helping to nourish my growth and healing at this time?
  • What continues to cycle through my life even in the midst of my loss? 


Marie's Tree

“I have always had an affinity for trees. I am a true tree hugger! The essence tree workshop made me even more aware of why trees mean so much to me. I was so fortunate to take the class with my daughter and dear friends.

Within the roots of the tree you can see fire and water. The fires of life are the fires I’ve been through and those that sustain me. The water is the water that quenches my thirst for fulfillment and the storms I’ve weathered/am weathering.

The words on the tree say: ‘Take me to your forest, waltz me in your song, lift me in your branches when the night is long. Let the trees witness the life I have lived. Fires stoke passions that are left in me to give. Let the waters wash the darkness of my soul and dance me to the end of love.’

In Germany people pick out a tree in a memorial forest they want their ashes to be buried next to. A plaque is put next to the tree with their name on it. I am nearing the end of my life and we have a small forest on land I love. Our family has decided that it will be our own memorial forest so we can nurture the ground that nurtured us. I need to pick my tree!”

Julie's Tree

From the bottom, the beginning: my strong roots and foundation. Rather dull but intense color. 

The blue vein through the middle represents God – how He holds everything together throughout.

The light green aura along the sides is family support. 

The Ts and white dots in the middle present all the turbulent crossroads and highlights of finding my way.

And the glorious bright colors and flowers are the harvest, the result of keeping on keeping on. 

And the growth, the reaching for the top continues today.

The pink and yellow drips from the top represent continual blessings from above that have nurtured my tree always.