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Kristen's Drawings

Introduction To Kristen's Drawings

When I first met Elisabeth Kübler-Ross — one month after Kristen died — she asked if I had any of Krissie's drawings from a month to two months prior to her death. Elisabeth said she was very interested in the subconscious in children's drawings and had for years studied the art of terminally ill children. She added that symbolic language may be expressed in the artwork not only of children who are consciously nearing death, but also of children who die accidentally.

Elisabeth wanted to show Kristen's drawings to a Jungian analyst, Dr. Gregg Furth (author of The Secret World of Drawings, for which Elisabeth wrote the Introduction). Both had learned their technique for studying children's art from the pioneering work of London psychoanalyst Susan Bach, who had worked with Carl Jung establishing this nascent field. Bach's studies of thousands of children's drawings led to several books, among them Life Paints Its Own Span (the source of several quotes in the captions below).

Scholarship in this new field had led to surprising and by-now well-documented discoveries. Some (not all) children's drawings revealed not only the origin of their illness (the exact location of an undiagnosed tumor, for example), but also the specific treatments they would undergo and their prognosis after the treatments.

Elizabeth and Gregg emphasized that these kinds of drawings are only one tool in the process of understanding death and should not be used predictively. Parents should not attempt to consult the drawings of their children as a portent of death. They also made it clear that most of the research (Bach's especially) dealt with terminally ill children rather than those who had died suddenly.

Still, Elisabeth believed there was a possibility that the images Krissie drew might demonstrate subconscious knowledge of her own impending death. Not only that, but the colors and the subjects Kristen chose, as well as their placement on the page, were all important. And not only that, but each of the four quadrants of every drawing would have its own meaning, and the direction that figures were facing within those quadrants would have additional meaning.

As an artist, I found Elisabeth's interest fascinating and raced home to deliver many of Kristen's drawings to her hotel room the next day. Looking at the package, she stressed that no single drawing would provide a complete picture, and that Jungian symbols are never static — they gain in meaning as relationships between images become clear. But if there was a message in Kristin's drawings — an expression of her inner world that might reveal knowledge of death drawing near — she believed it could be found. My heart leapt when she said this.


The following interpretations of her drawings were given to me by Elisabeth and Gregg. Each one is followed by the conclusion I carry with me to this day.

The Drawings

kristen drawing

1a. Everything Ends at the Doorway: This is the first of Krissie's two Halloween drawings, both done at home within two months of her death. Colored-in areas indicate completeness, so it's interesting, Elisabeth thought, that Kristen chose to keep the house — her sense of home, safety, permanence, self — unfinished, while the door or passage away from home is solid. All of the colored-in objects stop at the height of that door, including what appears to be an open coffin, guarded by pumpkins. Floating above, a smiling spirit-like witch (not colored in) is flying away, out of the coffin, and toward the upper left quadrant, which Bach associated with the setting sun, the place where things move "slowly toward the beyond."

My conclusion: Life as we know it ends at a doorway to another world, where new life begins.

kristen drawing

1b. Black Cross in the Passageway: Krissie put this drawing on the back of a drug advertisement form, which is why some of the lettering is backward. What faces us on this side of the paper is both curious and revealing, Elisabeth felt, coming from a Catholic girl like Krissie. This time the passageway is formed by two pumpkins on each side of the central figure — a witch, whose arms are outstretched, forming a black cross. The two cats on top of the pumpkins again face the direction of the setting sun and "the beyond."

My conclusion: Krissie was subconsciously aware of the passageway she'd soon be taking. Death stands in the passageway, saying to me, "Your child is on the other side, but you can't see her."

kristen drawing

2a. Soul Window: This is the first of Krissie's four-part tree series. Here the tree (life) is in transition — it has new leaves for photosynthesis and appears strong and bulky. The house (self) is fully colored in and given a central place. The barn at right, however, is not solid. The X markings in red (danger, caution, inner passion) appear everywhere except the windows, and the only color comes from the upper window or hayloft opening. This, Elisabeth felt, could represent the soul window, bright and illuminated from within. (In Swiss lore, the soul window is the place where the recently deceased leaves a house. It is often found in the eaves or roof.) The horse could represent Star, a horse Krissie loved and identified as a part of herself when she rode him. Star is protected by a fence, also in red, and partially marked out by blue (heaven, distance).

My conclusion: Krissie is represented in every image of this drawing except the barn, which is saying, "Don't enter: Kristen is no longer here." A glimpse of her departing soul may be seen in the only illuminated part of the barn, the soul window.

kristen drawing

2b. Swinging from Tree: In this second tree drawing, Krissie begins showing people swinging from a tree (life), in this case another bulky, strong tree with new leaf growth. A friend who had recently undergone foot surgery (thus the different-colored shoes), is swinging from a very strong limb. The fireplace is also colored in solidly with red (a chimney can be a sign of anger or inner tension), and above, in the quadrant of the setting sun or "the beyond," Krissie has crossed out and given the sun a sad expression. When I asked her why, she said, "because smoke got in his face" from the chimney.

My conclusion: Krissie is a happy little girl who is not afraid of life, but she has a subconscious awareness that something's out of order in the future.

kristen drawing

2c. Earth-Heaven Connections: Now the trunk of the tree is not at all colored in, while the leaves and limbs above have taken the form of a bird (a Jungian symbol for moving and changing) that's holding our friend and me as we swing. We're much higher up, and the limbs holding us are thinner, as if we're about to fly away with the bird. A ladder on each side contains seven rungs (Krissie's age at death).

My conclusion: Life is always on the verge of going (flying) away, and those who go with it will be protected (never dropped).

Note: Elisabeth stressed that Krissie did not, of course, have to understand Jungian theory to use images that held symbolic meaning beyond her consciousness. The reason symbols come about is that images are used repeatedly over time, not only in art but in dreams and fantasies, to indicate the same or similar psychic idea. I'm sure Krissie did not know the story of Esau and Jacob in the Bible, or that Jacob's dream has angels ascending and descending a ladder. Indeed, the idea of the ladder as a connection between Earth and heaven is an archetype with universal meaning, coming from the collective unconscious. The treetop bird nearly flying away with my friend and myself may have similar meaning: A bird can also be symbolic of a messenger between humanity and God, as a symbol of the soul.

kristen drawing

2d. Weakened Branch: Here a little girl — probably Kristen in her big boots — is swinging from a tree with strong expanding branches. However, the area where the swing is attached is now so thin and delicate that it could break at any moment, endangering the swinger. Like Susan Bach, Elisabeth focused on the meaning of numbers and felt this drawing was especially revealing: The weakened branch of the tree separates the other three branches (me, her dad, her brother Michel) from the larger branch (Kristen), carrying a growth of four new branches in the "setting sun" or "beyond" quadrant. If the limb breaks, these four new branches could represent the new relationship of the four of us. Here again, the sun is not only sad but almost crossed out.

My conclusion: When the limb gives way, Krissie will fall out of view and the day will grow dark.

kristen drawing

3a. Rainbow Series: Like most little girls, Krissie loved rainbows — another ancient symbol connecting heaven and Earth and here she shows a preference for blue, a color that Jung associated with the sky, the heavens, spirituality. The border that flows around the right corner (the here-and-now quadrant) is also blue, as though to protect the rainbow.

My conclusion: Many 7-year-old girls have a fascination with rainbows, and Krissie was no exception.

kristen drawing

3b. Kristen and the Rainbow: The blue part of the rainbow has turned into a swing, which divides the drawing into two parts: On the bottom half are Kristen swinging, with a slide to her right; on the top half are the bright and happy sun looking toward the only cautionary or danger sign of the painting — Kristen's name in red.

My conclusion: Krissie feels her body separating from the life she has known, but she's not sad about it.

kristen drawing

3c. Caution Rainbow: This drawing is almost identical to the last except that the blue part of the rainbow has changed to a thin red (danger, caution), and the swing is painted black (death, grief), a color Krissie almost never used. Again the drawing is in upper and lower parts, this time with Kristen's name in yellow (intuition), the same color as the sun and her (now fading) body.

My conclusion: The sense of separation continues as earthly things begin to disappear.

kristen drawing

3d. Child Engulfed in Ocean: The last rainbow image Krissie painted has the little girl no longer swinging but engulfed in green, blue, and mauve or violet, the colors of water and to me, of course, the roiling ocean that consumed her. That she herself appears to be immersed in a violet color could have two meanings. Studying the drawings of terminally ill children, Susan Bach found that violet "can reflect, physically, a state of being 'seized' (epilepsy or spastic symptoms) or being 'gripped' by illness, perhaps irremediably as in metastasis. Psychologically, it may express the feeling of being 'held,' supported (as for instance in the ecclesiastical use of the color) whether protectively or suffocatingly." To me, this describes almost exactly what has happened to the little girl in the painting — she has drowned (suffocated) in the grip of the ocean yet seems animated and enduring. The black line (death) now seems to shut out the brightness of yellow, and the sun is a faceless, greenish-gray, surrounded with stabs of intense reds (danger, passion, anger). Kristen's name is gone, but the four dots on the rainbow that surrounds her may be symbolic of her family (Michel, Krissie, John and me) reorganizing around her.

My conclusion: Kristen has to leave us, but she has found a way to stay. Her smile gives me peace.

kristen drawing

4. Floating Flower: The flower that drifts in a sea of green appears to have one red petal. When I asked Kristen why, she said, "It's not a petal. It's the stem." Elisabeth took this to mean the stem (mother) has broken away from the flower (child) but is still in the (upper right) quadrant of the here and now. However, the center of the flower is surrounded by the color violet again, that feeling of being held or supported. Flowers were personally symbolic of Kristen. She gave flowers as an "I love you" gift and never to my knowledge painted them with any part missing.

My conclusion: My child, my floating flower, whose last item of clothing was a purple jacket, was suspended in the ocean for 10 days before being washed ashore.

kristen drawing

5. Kristen and Mommy Separating: The color violet now combines with dark blue (sky, heaven) and presents a line that bisects the drawing, separating the "k" (her) and the "c" (me) with a weeping heart in between. Her message to me, "I Love You," is black, again a color she almost never used. Elisabeth was quite taken by the fact that the separation of "mom" from "mmy" makes the letters look like the wings of birds flying into the horizon, toward the quadrant that Bach defines as "the immediate past or potential future."

My conclusion: There is now a separation between us, but the K and weeping heart symbolize a message from Kristen: I'm with you, but in a different way.


kristen drawing

6. Name Obscured: Krissie was a tidy little girl who threw away many more drawings than she kept. Anything messy or unfocused had to go. In this highly emotional drawing, her name is barely decipherable, splattered with paint and lost in confusion. The pumpkin house is unusually amoeba-like and seems to reflect a change of mind, anxiety, removal of purpose. There is vivid movement here, so much so that at any moment these images could disintegrate and disappear.

My conclusion: Krissie's subconscious allows a moment of anger at impending separation.

Thirty Years Later

Almost 30 years after Krissie died, my husband, Bob, and I brought these drawings to Thomas Singer, M.D. and another psychiatrist at the C.G. Jung Institute in San Francisco. I had met Tom at a social gathering and told him about Elisabeth's interpretations of the drawings. I hadn't gone into detail because Tom and his colleague offered to look at the same drawings with a fresh perspective and give me their reactions from a modern Jungian's point of view.

Much had happened during the intervening years — I had worked with Elisabeth at her center for death and dying, earned my Ph.D. in psychology, and practiced as a psychologist specializing in crisis and bereavement for 24 years. My relationship with Elisabeth grew closer during her increasingly controversial career, when she became fascinated with paranormal phenomena, much to the delight of critics who believed she had lost her gifts as a scientist. Jung's teachings, however, had not changed.

So Bob and I visited the Jung Institute one morning and walked around a large rectangular table, carefully placing Kristen's drawings in the order they are presented above. Tom and his colleague took a long and scholarly look at every drawing, asking only about the circumstances of Krissie's life and death — not about Elizabeth's interpretations; that would come after — and finally sat us down to tell us their conclusions.

Each of them had come separately to the same ideas: These were charming and thoughtful drawings by a healthy and confident 7-year-old girl, they said, who was engaged with life and had a positive outlook about the things that interested her. This girl expressed emotions in her drawings over the usual things — Halloween, friends swinging, rainbows, a horse — but there was no dark theme, certainly not a death theme running through the images that they could see.

When I told them the extent of Elisabeth's exploration of Krissie's drawings, they were not surprised. Having read her books and articles, they knew Elisabeth often applied the expertise of pioneers like Susan Bach by using her own, unorthodox gifts. They also spoke honestly and bluntly about not pushing insight too far. Sometimes even visionaries tend to read their own meanings into the occasional use of black, or a sun circled with red, or the number four, and sometimes these meanings may be right. But as far as they were concerned, more drawings would be needed to make a definitive statement that this little girl was soon going to die, and that some part of her psyche knew it.

I was surprised but not crestfallen by their conclusions. In the intervening years, I had read every book I could find about children's drawings and knew that experts like Susan Bach had proven that the art of terminally ill children could be "prognostically indicative" — in other words, could forecast coming tumors, disease, infection and death — time and time again, long before doctors and laboratory tests made the same discoveries. Elisabeth had been careful to caution me against simplistic interpretations. She was so sure that even the smallest detail (four dots instead of five; a fat limb turning into a slim one) had meaning, and that I would forever feel connected to that very "inner world" that many others in her profession still find unknowable.

At the same time, I knew that the interpretations by Tom and his colleague of Krissie's drawings had equal validity. Both psychiatrists had been so objective in their scientific way that they could not have "read into" anything even if they had wanted to. When they came just short of telling me I had been the victim of wishful thinking all these years, I thought, well, that's exactly the point.

By the time of that first meeting with Elisabeth, I was so consumed with guilt over Krissie's death and so fearful that I would not be a good parent to Michel that I felt I was sliding into a black pit, a kind of living death. I had no energy to "get better", although I was trying hard to be strong for Michel. Kristen died because I wasn't there to protect her, a fact so ruinously true, I could not face the pain of her terrible, unnecessary loss, and so I slipped into the blackness a little more each day.

But Elisabeth looked at the death of my daughter in the context of the hundreds if not thousands of terminally ill children she had treated and seen pass away, and the hundreds if not thousands of parents she had counseled whose children had died suddenly. "Not all children are destined to live through their childhoods, you know," she told me. "But all children know — spiritually and intuitively — if they are close to death."

Suddenly my attention snapped to. This idea — that it might have been my daughter's time to die — came to me like a lifeline. The drawings were for me personally part of this revelation. Somewhere in that pit of blackness, I grabbed hold of the concept and would not let go. It was going to take months of grief work with Elisabeth to even begin climbing out of my sorrow, but at least I could see that life was worth living again. After many years of studying and practice, I learned for myself that we may all know when death is near, and sometimes we express that knowledge in out-of-the-ordinary ways (see Chapters 9 and 10 about paranormal events).

None of this would have been possible if I hadn't felt released from guilt and learned to look for unexpected resources of strength that exist for everyone in the throes of grief. In particular, I realized that if Krissie's impending death could be seen in her drawings, it must have manifested in other ways as well. (See Chapter 9)

The one thought I carry with me each day is that Krissie brought her own unique gifts to my life in the seven short years she was destined to live on this planet. I am grateful that her drawings still communicate the insights and joy that made her life so special.