Grief is a strange landscape: The world is the same, but you are not. You are still you, but the world is not. Everything has collapsed and gone cockeyed and reassembled in ways that only you can see. Even those who have lost the same person have still lost someone different than you have. It’s easy to feel like Alice, dropped down a dark rabbit hole. Are you small? Are you big? Which way is home? However, when grief leaves us shocked, broken, and lost, the mere act of putting words on a page can, slowly and gently, guide us back to ourselves.
Throughout history, people have used diaries and journals to hold memories and seek understanding. Researchers now document the physical and mental health benefits of journaling and expressive writing, from strengthening immune cells to reducing stress and improving mood. In fact, people who write about their trauma seem to report fewer illnesses and symptoms of depression over time.
Now, I am not suggesting that writing is a road map out of grief. That would imply clear roads and a fixed destination. Nor am I suggesting that you sit and write only about your loss and your feelings, although you might choose to do that. Rather, the act of writing – quickly, honestly, and without too much thought — serves as a compass that tells us where we are and points us where we need to go. Whether your words come as truth or fiction, from memory or imagination, in prose, poetry, letters, or conversations, they will allow you to meet yourself where you are and point the way toward clarity and emotional release.
As I am not a therapist, I cannot offer therapeutic writing assignments. But I believe that we are more likely to write our necessary truths when we have the freedom to write anything. Resistance is a common obstacle to writing, even more so when we are grieving. Sometimes writing about a loss can make it feel too close to the bone, and sometimes it can make it feel too far away. Therefore, it helps to address one obstacle – facing a blank page – before addressing the other – facing deep grief. The surprise, of course, is that sometimes when we are writing about something mundane, like carrots or the kitchen chair, we slip right into the feelings and memories that matter.
These suggestions are designed to help you begin writing with a sense of safety and freedom.
- Use a timer. When emotions are overwhelming, it helps to keep the commitments small. Start with just five minutes and build up slowly to 10, 15, or 20.
- Give your mind a focus. Start with an intention or prompt. I rarely give topic-based writing prompts – write about this person or that feeling; that can be an invitation to overwhelm or overthinking. I prefer random prompts and descriptions, which simply launch you in a direction without expectation. For instance:
- Turn your head. What is the first thing you see? Write about that.
- Write from your body. What hurts? What does it feel like? What is it trying to tell you?
- Make a deck of 15 random words, a mix of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Pull two or three and go where they take you. (This will keep your brain busy and let your heart say what it must.)
- Find a family photo and describe what you see.
- Start with the phrase, “I wish there was a photo of…” and make a list of moments that were never recorded.
- Take one moment from the list above and write about it.
- Write a letter to your loved one. Tell them about your day. Write their response.
- Keep the pen (or keys) moving. Once you start your timer, keep writing. Write the whole time. Write as many words as you can before the timer goes off. All the words – everything and anything that comes. Without judgment. Without revisions. Without worrying about spelling or grammar. Writing quickly gives you a chance to surprise yourself. If you don’t know what to write, write about that. If you don’t want to write, write about that. Write until the timer stops.
- Experiment with point of view. Sometimes writing about your loss can feel overwhelming. You can get lost in the tall woods of your emotions, and then resist the writing itself. At these moments, try dropping into the third person. Tell your story as if it were happening to someone else. It can make the journey feel a little safer and give you a different set of insights.
- Find a safe audience. One of the benefits of writing with others is the sense of being witnessed, of knowing that someone will hear your words and receive them safely. You might not really know the value or importance of what you have written until you read it again – to yourself or aloud to someone else. If your words are too private to share, then revisit them in a month and “hear” again what you had to say. The message isn’t complete until it’s delivered.
- Trust your process. There is, in you, a self who knows where you are and where you need to go. To quote the poet Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Let the page be the field where your heart meets your Heart. Trust that it knows where you’re going.
Deborah Edler Brown is an award-winning poet and journalist, as well as a well-respected author and teacher. Information about her work and her classes can be found at Deborah Edler Brown’s website.