Journaling Through Grief
When you’re grieving, you can feel very disoriented. On the outside, you may be faced with a million new tasks both immediate and long term. You may have to decide what to do about the funeral; how to tell your friends, family, or children; what to do about work, school, or childcare; how to handle the finances; and how to make sure you stay fed and taken care of in the midst of all the chaos. While juggling the logistics, you may also be trying to manage what’s happening inside of you. Your feelings may be all over the place and your thoughts may be racing and disorganized. It can be difficult to make sense of all the internal and external chaos. Journaling through grief is an activity that can help with this in a number of ways.
For those familiar with journaling:
Many people were introduced to journaling as a kid. Keeping a diary was a common practice for many of us, especially those of us raised and socialized as “girls.” However, the practice of journaling for therapeutic purposes differs slightly. For example, as children we may have attempted to write down an account of the latest “drama” in our friend group, or how embarrassed (or mad) we got at our parents’ most recent antics. It was an attempt at record-keeping and remembering. For therapy, we want to use journaling as a medium to better understand ourselves. There may be less recounting of things that have happened, and more focus on current thoughts and emotions that arise while we’re writing. We can focus less on cause and effect, organization, or accurate accounting of past events. In the following sections, I’ll describe in more detail how we move back and forth between recounting what happened and writing about feelings when journaling through grief.
For those new to journaling:
On the other hand, journaling may be brand new for some people. The idea of journaling may feel trivial, childish, or uncomfortable. For those who experience those reactions, I encourage you especially to try journaling! You, more than anyone else, have a unique opportunity to tap into a more “childish,” vulnerable side of yourselves that can bring forth more raw emotions and memories that can lead to great insight. It might be quite difficult to start, in part because writing may make you feel exposed or might intensify your emotions. Instead of backing away, try moving toward those feelings, toward the intensity. Observe your reactions and write them down. Below, I’ll provide more step-by-step guidance for how to begin journaling through grief.
How to journal through grief:
To begin, find a time in your daily routine that you can consistently dedicate to journaling through grief. Immediately after bereavement, this can be difficult because your whole routine is thrown off and you may have even struggle to find time alone as others try to keep you company and attend to your needs. Friends or family may be staying with you, making privacy somewhat difficult to come by. However you may still be able to find small, 15-minute slices of solitude. Are you finding yourself waking up very early, before the rest of the family? Those early morning, quiet hours can be perfect for reflection and journaling. Alternatively, you might excuse yourself to go to bed and take 15 minutes to journal before bed. If neither of those options seem feasible, can you carve out time in other free spaces during the day by excusing yourself to “take a nap” or for some quiet alone time? If a consistent time is too difficult in the beginning, finding space wherever you can is also a great approach. To make the best use of journaling, set aside a specific amount of time to write. I recommend about 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes is enough time to break through the initial discomfort or rigidity, and to move through some of the big feelings. But it is not so much time that it’s impossible to fit into an already busy daily routine. If you find after 15 minutes that you have more to say, by all means continue! Less than 15 minutes may prevent achieving much depth and may prevent new insights from coming to the surface. Try to do this for at least four days in a row to really bring out those deeper thoughts and feelings.
When you sit down to write, it helps to use your favorite pen or pencil and notebook. You may also want to sit near a window to look outside, or have a cup of tea next to you. These are simple ways to create a comfortable environment to be expressive and feel safe exploring thoughts and feelings. I do recommend that you write on paper versus using a computer or phone if at all possible. Writing forces us to slow down our writing, and therefore our thinking. If writing isn’t possible due to a disability or other reasons, I recommend typing with one hand or making a video or voice recording purposefully slowing down from your normal speed of communicating. Slowing down will allow you to explore your thoughts and feelings more intentionally, while also having a calming effect. Some people like to keep a specific notebook for all their journal entries in order to look back at them and see their own progress or change over time. If this feels too risky for you, feel free to write on free pieces of paper and throw them away afterward. If this is your preference, you may even explore ways to ritualize this practice. Perhaps you want to use water to dissolve the pages and “let go” of the pain the pages might hold. You may simply kiss the page, thank it for holding your thoughts and feelings, and throw it away or shred it. Perhaps you want to burn the pages after as a way of sending the message to your deceased loved one. (If this is your preference, make sure you’re safe. Find a place outside that is clear of debris or dry leave or brush. Burning on concrete or in a fire pit are safest options. If you decide to burn the paper inside, use a well-functioning and maintained fireplace. Always ensure good ventilation wherever you burn!)
As you begin journaling through grief, try to write your deepest thoughts and feelings without filtering. Begin with an account of what happened. What are the facts of the relationship or the loss, from the very beginning? Then write about your emotional, physical, and cognitive reactions to those events. Don’t think about what is appropriate or acceptable. If you felt relief, for example, don’t give into the urge to omit that feeling from your journal. Write about the relief, and your reaction to that feeling. Allow ambiguity, confusion, and contradiction into your writing. Move back and forth from a factual accounting of what happened, and your emotional reaction to it. Write what you rarely say out loud. Write what you have never told anyone, and couldn’t imagine telling anyone. Write without focusing on grammar, spelling, handwriting or organization. This retelling of the story of loss can be deeply emotional. Even if it has been some time since the loss occurred, it can bring up feelings that might be similar in intensity to when you first experienced the loss.
When you’ve finished journaling, check in with yourself. Reflect on what came up for you when you were journaling. What purpose did the journaling serve for you? How did you feel before and how do you feel now? Did you feel a cathartic release? Is there something you were able to let go of? Is there something more that you need to process? Were there ideas that surfaced while you journaled that you want to take action on? Did you learn something? How can you take what you wrote about and move forward? Journaling through grief can be deeply healing, but it can also be challenging in the moment. Make sure that you have a way to ease back into your day afterward. It may help to go for a run, do some yoga or meditation, listen to uplifting music, or take a shower before continuing on with your day. Whether the loss is recent or you’ve been living with grief for years, taking the time to intentionally process and explore emotions can be a great way to open up to new insight and learning. This is certainly something that can be practiced alone, but if you’re interested in a grief therapist to help make sense of some of the things that come up in your writing, or become a barrier to journaling, feel free to reach out to us at (215) 922-LOVE or click here to schedule an appointment. If you’re in search of community in your grieving process, ask about our grief group.