Journaling the Bereavement Journey
Journal writing can be a simple and practical way to relieve stress. Several studies show that the practice of writing provides both a sense of well-being and health benefits that include:
• Pain reduction
• Immune function improvement, including raised T cell counts
• Resistance to minor illnesses such as colds and flu
• Relief of physical stress shown by lowered blood pressure and heart rate
• Generally improved physical health
How Journal Writing Helps Us Cope with the Feelings of Grief
Anger, sadness, regret, fear, loneliness, confusion, hopelessness and helplessness are our companions on the grief journey. Putting words on paper allows us to express those painful feelings rather than stuffing them and carrying them around inside of us. We can pour our hearts out in a journal any time we feel like it. Our journals are always there to receive our thoughts and feelings. Unlike structured grief workbooks, they give us room to progress through our healing process at our own pace and in our own way.
In addition to giving us a chance to express ourselves and reduce stress, regular journal writing provides a way to make sense of life events, find meaning in them and learn the lessons they have to teach. Because journal writing helps us to focus inward, it fosters coming to terms with bereavement and regaining a sense of control over our lives. Journal writing also helps us to clarify our thoughts and make better choices.
Journaling our grief journey can aid us to get in touch with our basic values, to rediscover the positive qualities and strengths we had forgotten as well as to uncover new ones. Journal writing enables us to accept our loss and gain new perspectives so we can use this time of sorrow in order to grow.
Although fancy journals are available in most bookstores, raw grief often doesn't fit on those pretty pages. Chances are you already have the most effective materials for starting a journal in your home. Use your favorite writing instrument. If keyboarding is easier for you, consider keeping your journal on your computer. Spiral notebooks, composition books and sketchbooks allow you the freedom to be yourself without worrying about penmanship, spelling and grammar.
Your Right to Privacy
If you are afraid that someone will read the words you are writing without your consent, you may censor what you put on the page. However, this will decrease the benefits writing brings. Be clear with others about your right to privacy. Decide where you will keep your journal when you are not writing so that others will not be tempted to read it without your permission.
You may share passages from your grief journal with others if you wish. What you share and what you keep to yourself is up to you. Some journal keepers save their writings in order to reread them or pass them on. Others throw them away. The choice of whether to keep or to discard your journals is also yours alone to make.
What to Write About
There is no right way or wrong way to journal. What has been shown to provide emotional and health benefits is writing about what happened to you and setting down how you felt about it. Your entries need not be long and involved.
During the early phase of grief you may not have the energy to set down more than a word or two each day to track your feelings or what you did. That’s fine. Every little bit helps.
As time passes, writing about the person you lost and the loss itself will become easier. Some ideas you may want to try are listed below. Experiment to find out what works best for you.
Making lists is a good way to get started. You might want to make a list of all of the things about your loved one that you miss or all of the ways in which knowing that person changed your life. Write down 50 ways you can nurture yourself or 50 things your grief is teaching you. The possibilities are endless.
During grief we often may agonize over unresolved conflicts or think about all the things we wished we had said or done while our loved one was still living. Writing unsent letters in journals is a powerful way to finish old business, say what needs to be said and heal our hearts.
If you are a spiritual person, you may want to try writing letters to God or your Higher Power in your journal. Many people find written prayer provides solace during grief. You may even want to try dialoguing with God or your Higher Power and see what that brings.
Write about an earlier time in your life when you faced the challenge of deep loss with courage and your experiences with learning about death as a child. Write the story of how your loved one came to be a part of your life and continue with stories about your experiences together.
Before you go to sleep at night set the intention to remember your dreams. Write them down first thing when you wake up. Even though they might not make sense at the time, when you record your dreams and reread them later, you will be surprised at the insights and guidance they contain. Often people report that their loved ones visit them in dreams. Keeping a log of those and similar dreams can give you comfort.
When you want to journal, but can’t think of a single thing to write, respond to the words of others. Collect sayings and quotations that move you. Many people use the sympathy cards they have received as a way to reflect. Others write about passages from spiritual books or things that members of their grief group have said.
Counting Your Blessings
Just because you are bereaved and are keeping a journal, doesn’t mean you are limited to writing only about your grief. Be sure to keep an account of the good things in your life as well as the painful ones. Writing down your daily blessings – a glorious sunrise, a smile from a stranger, a letter from a friend – can boost your mood.
If as you write, you feel overwhelmed by your feelings or stuck in a downward spiral, try changing the subject to one that evokes better feelings for you or take a break and set your journal aside. You can always pick it up later. Should the out-of-control feelings persist, schedule an appointment with your grief counselor to explore other avenues of healing.