Several different emotions emerge in the wake of a loved one's passing. Numbness. Sadness. Emptiness. Pain. Regret. Nostalgia. Fear. Anxiety. There are too many to list, let alone process. These feelings can seem insurmountable. There are, however, some straightforward ways to begin to process feelings of grief. One such technique is the practice of journaling.
"Why would I want to journal my pain?"
If you've ever heard of the notion of journaling or perhaps dabbled in the process, writing about your pain may seem like the last thing you want to do. However, there are many incredible benefits to journaling about your feelings when in grief.
Active Processing of Emotions Into Words
The emotions associated with grief often feel incredibly raw. In many instances, this is because they are — completely unrefined, unprocessed, like wheat not ready for consumption. However, as you sit and consider how to begin to put your thoughts and emotions into words, this act helps to process your feelings. Like wheat in the mill is crushed to make flour, passing your feelings through the prefrontal cortex of the brain to label them and transform them into words can help defang these feelings for heightened processing. One brain imaging study even found that when specific labels are attached to negative emotions, this decreased the activity for these painful concepts in the amygdala — the section of the brain responsible for the perception of emotions.
"Sometimes, the only way around suffering is to go straight through it." - Anik Sarkar
Feeling Heard Without "Inconveniencing" Anyone
If you're like many people in grief, you may feel like expressing your pain makes you a "Debbie Downer" — inconveniencing others by bumming them out. Even though you likely have people close to you who are willing to lend an ear or shoulder as well as grief counselors, you may still feel odd about expressing your heartfelt pain to another. During these times, pouring out your emotions to a journal can be immensely therapeutic.
Think of a journal as the least judgemental friend. Your journal will never tell you to "snap out of it" or give you cues that they're tired of hearing all about your internal turmoil. They will stick by you for as long as you need to pour out your heart, to process your emotions, and to capture your tears. Even if you were to discard a journal entry immediately upon writing it, for the moments spent crafting every word, you were heard — by the pen, by the pages, by every line, by your fingers, and perhaps most importantly, by you. For this reason, journaling can begin to feel like a gift of relief you give yourself — permission to be vulnerable and to process your innermost thoughts and emotions.
Journaling Can Help Capture Memories
When prepping friends and family to interact with a grieving loved one, one of the most commonly asked questions is whether or not to mention the departed. The fear is that bringing up cherished memories will only reopen emotional wounds. As someone grieving, you likely understand that there's nothing you'd rather relive than the beautiful moments you spent with that one who has died. Journaling gives you a chance to not only relive these moments but also to capture them on pages for safekeeping.
When journaling, feel free to recall the details of a great day you shared with this loved one. Recollect every detail you can, the sights, sounds, sensations, smells, actions, and feelings — putting them into words on the page. Give these moments a chance at a second life in a way you can go back through later — just like you would with a photo album or older home movies. Not only is the act of reliving these moments immensely enjoyable, but putting them into words can help you process associated grief in the ways we discussed earlier in this piece.
What Journaling Can Look Like
There's no wrong way to journal.
Perhaps the only wrong way to journal is to not journal at all. Whether you only write a phrase or fill pages with emotions and memories, you're in charge of how to start journaling any time.
Typing vs. Handwriting
If they are faster typists, some individuals choose to type their journal entries for the speed of getting ideas out. They may also like being able to carefully organize journal files and use search functions for recalling certain days, topics, or concepts. For the majority of people, they prefer the cathartic act of putting pen to paper. Something about thinking carefully about each word that will be written without the escape of a backspace key can be very appealing. Either method is up to your preference.
Journaling Using Prompts
There will be times when you want to write in your journal, but feel stuck. For these occasions, there are many grief-related journaling prompts that can help. Some may journal by writing to their departed loved one in letter form. Some jumping-off sentences can include, "I remember the time...", "That time you made me laugh...", and "The greatest thing you taught me was..." One particularly useful prompt some recommend is writing the narrative of your loss, but in the third-person — from the perspective of a fly on the wall, so to speak. As you write this story, leaning into an outsider's perspective, list recommendations and consolations you would give yourself if you were someone else looking in.
Sometimes, you won't want to be given a "homework assignment" in your journaling practice. These instances are great opportunities to just let feelings spill onto the page. If you're totally stuck and don't know what to write about, write about that and how that makes you feel. Follow that emotion wherever it goes. Don't feel the need to use correct spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Just use the page as a release valve and follow the internal narrative wherever it takes you.
Bonus: Beginning to Heal With a Gratitude Journal
At times, having an assignment can significantly affect our frame of mind. One such task is by writing a handful of things you are grateful for that day. Try to keep it fresh — thinking of a new item or concept to list every day. As you run out of the main items, such as health, family, employment, food, and housing, you will have to search deeper for things you appreciate. These can be as immense as closing a massive deal at work or seemingly small as someone opening the door for you. As you continue your gratitude journaling assignment, you will subconsciously start keeping an eye out for new instances or concepts to add to your gratitude journal. Over time, this practice will make you more conscious of the pleasantries of your daily life.
For additional help navigating the grieving process, the friendly professionals from CURA HPC Hospice & Palliative Care in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can help.