Managing Grief through Journaling
by Nancy Elliiott, Jay’s mom
Conventional wisdom tells us that writing a journal in times of catastrophic trauma is a good and helpful thing to do.Â Â Two-thirds of people who have experienced traumatic stress, such as the death of a loved one, described writing in a journal as difficult, frightening, overwhelming or counterproductive.
IDEAS AND SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING THROUGH YOUR GRIEF
Most of these can be accomplished in 15 minutes or less, which is helpful for two main reasons. First, when grief is new, feelings are so close to the surface and pain is so raw that short writes are less likely to pitch you into overwhelm. Second, our culture doesn’t really support us in grieving, and we are expected to return to work and resume the mantle of everyday life almost immediately after even a catastrophic loss. For many people, shorter writes are friendlier and more adaptable to daily realities.
There aren’t any rules.
Journal writing isn’t like flossing; you don’t have to do it every day. And it isn’t school: You don’t have to spell the words right, or punctuate them, or worry about grammar. Give yourself permission to write whatever comes. You’re not being judged or graded by anyone else, so please don’t judge or grade yourself.
Choose a journal that fits your lifestyle. Some people treasure lovely blank bound books. Others favor spiral notebooks that can be chucked into a backpack. If you think at your keyboard, keep your journal on computer. There is excellent journal software available;Â LifeJournal, available at major bookstores, or on the internet (www.lifejournal.com). Or write your journal via e-mail to a support group or mailing list of chosen friends and family.
Get in the habit of writing three words that describe your feelings at the beginning and end of every journal entry. This helps you track your feelings over time and gives you an opportunity to notice that emotions shift with time and process.
Because it is common for memory to be affected with acute grief, make to-do lists, and keep them right in your journal.Â Make other lists, as well.Â Lists are great for organizing and categorizing, and their structure is comforting when things feel like they are spinning out of control.
Before you go to bed, choose something you’d like to experience the following day — a feeling of hope or pleasure; an item crossed off a to-do list; an experience such as a productive meeting or a gym workout. Write this “Choice du Jour” in your journal. As you go to sleep, reflect on your choice. How would you recognize success? What can you do to arrange your day to increase the likelihood that your choice will manifest? At night, write for five minutes reflecting on outcomes.
When you are aching with longing for your loved one, write “Captured Moments” –brief vignettes written quickly.Â Â Make them intense with vivid descriptions; the sight, smell, touch, taste, feel of things.Â A collection of Captured Moments becomes like a written photo album, preserving precious memories for all time.
Unsent Letters are an excellent way to maintain a sense of communication with your loved one and can offer deep opportunities for soothing and comfort.
Sometimes the only way to get through devastation is to imagine a time when it might not hurt so much. Write a “One Year from Today” entry in which you fast-forward yourself to the healing side of the grief. Allow yourself a glimpse into the future. Imagine your life as if you have wheeled around through four seasons, and you are one year distant from the losses you are experiencing today.â™¥
Scientific research shows that brief, intense bursts of emotional release writing — only 15 minutes a day, for only four consecutive days — is correlated with increased immune system functioning that can last for several weeks. Since grief often compromises the immune system and leaves you more vulnerable to colds, flu and infection, these writes can help your physical as well as your emotional health.