Journaling Can Help the Grieving Process. Here's How
Writing in a journal can help you heal from grief. Find out how.
Writing About Grief
I feel like I've been in a constant state of grief for the last few years. My grandpa declined quickly in 2016 and, two days after he passed away, we found out my mom had both stage IV lung and endometrial cancer. Lung cancer was the same thing that killed her mom when I was just 18. My mom died nine months later. The two year anniversary of her death is in two days.
My family had a small of window peace. My brother got married to a wonderful woman named Danielle - his college sweetheart - and I was honored she chose me to be one of her bridesmaids. Two months shy of their first anniversary, she was diagnosed with colon cancer at 26. While Danielle went through surgery, chemo, and radiation, we lost my dad's cousin to cancer. She was one of the kindest people I've ever met. My grandma, my personal hero who the family jokingly called "Saint Doris," died two months later. Danielle held on until the end of November and passed away on her mother's birthday. Her wake was a week later on my birthday.
I've gone through some really difficult things in my life, but the last few years have been the hardest. I'm incredibly lucky to have wonderful people to lean on when I need them and hope they know they can rely on me to. However, one of the things that's gotten me through my grief the most is journaling.
I began journaling in earnest while my grandpa was dying. Watching him deteriorate was excruciating but I didn't feel ready to talk about it with anyone. I needed an outlet though, so I grabbed one of the blank journals I had and wrote. I wrote pages and page, letting all my emotions and, eventually, my grief fill my journal.
I'm far from healed. Grief is one of those things you don't really come back from. Journaling has helped me immensely though and I'm much better off than if I'd never began. I'll teach you how to make a grief journal too.
The Benefits Of Writing About Grief
It may seem daunting to get started while you're hurting, but there are actually many mental and physical health benefits to grief journaling, which can allow you to dedicate your time to healing rather than worrying about your health.
Dr. Robert Niemeyer, author of the book Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping, says, "Especially when losses are traumatic, they may be difficult to discuss or even disclose to another. And yet the psychological and physical burden of harboring painful memories without the release of sharing can prove far more destructive in the long run."
Writing about your pain can benefit your overall physical health. Several studies find that people that regularly write in their journal find their physical pain reduced, are less likely to get a cold or the flu, and have both a lower heart rate and blood pressure, which reduces stress.
The consequences on one's mental health can be detrimental as well. People are often much more stressed out when they don't process grief in a healthy way. According to studies, writing about grief actually helps people feel like they have control over their lives again by coming to terms with their loss. It can also help you make sense of what you are feeling and attempt to work through your thoughts.
According to Dr. Niemeyer, "Revisiting the loss seems to promote meaning-making in a way that a single telling does not. David Fireman, LCSW, adds that, "As you continue to write, you may begin to gain clarity of where you have been, where you are now, and where you want to be in the future."
How To Start A Grief Journal
The good news is that you really don't need much to begin a grief journal, just a few items you may already have around the house. The key is to make sure your materials are ones that you actually like so you'll be more likely to keep journaling.
• You favorite pen
• A journal you like
Set aside a few minutes to write each day. Sometimes you may not find yourself very inspired and that's okay. Other days, the days you really need to write, you'll be glad for that time block. My favorite time to journal is before I go to bed after I've had the chance to process my dad, though I'm not opposed to writing at other times either. Some people find themselves most productive when they wake up in the morning, which is also a really good time to take a few moments to reflect.
If writing during a time block doesn't work for you, then don't. You have to do what's best and feels most natural for you or you won't get as much out of grief journaling. Carry your journal with you and write whenever the mood strikes. Jot down a few thoughts during your lunch break or in the waiting room at the doctor's office.
You may find yourself journaling less as time goes on, and that's okay too. You're healing. You might not need your journal as much, but it will be there for you whenever you do need it. If you're feeling brave, reread what you've written and see how much you've grown since you first began journaling. I'm sure you'll surprise yourself. I know I did.
If you ever get stuck, Natalie Goldberg offers some advice in her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
• Don't stop writing. Don't reread what you've already written, just keep writing.
• Don't worry about your spelling, grammar, punctuation, or how neat your handwritting looks. It doesn't matter.
• Don't cross out anything you've written. Just let it be.
• Allow yourself to lose control while writing. Stop thinking so much.
• But most importantly, go for the jugular. It will probably be scary to do this and make you feel raw and exposed, but that's okay. That is healing, that is growth.
Don't worry if you're really get stuck while writing. It happens to all of us. We've got you covered - here's a list of grief journaling prompts to help you out when you need to write but just need a nudge in the right direction:
• Write a letter to your loved one.
• Make a list of everything you loved about them, everything you miss about them, or everything that annoyed you about them. (Part of the grief process is remembering that they weren't perfect. People tend to idealize the dead.)
• Write about your favorite memory with your loved one.
• Write about what grief has taught you.
• This is what you taught me about myself.
• Write about a memory with your loved one you've only recently recalled.
• Make a list of every emotion you're experiencing at the moment.
• How knowing you changed me.
• Write about what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. This is a grounding technique and is particularly good for anxiety.
• Write about your emotional triggers and what helps you feel better.
• If I had the chance to tell you one thing, it would be...
• Write about how you plan to honor your loved one's memory.
Grief is a really difficult thing to go through and can be a long process. If you find yourself struggling, don't be afraid to reach out to someone close to you or a therapist trained to help you through grief.
Let's Keep the Conversation Going...
Do you keep a grief journal? Are you likely to start one?