WE ASSOCIATE MANY different emotions with grief — from anger to guilt, denial to sadness and despair, and numbness to excruciating sensitivity.
According to a Psychology Today article by Ralph Ryback, M.D.,
“Part of the reason that our experience of grief is so painful is because we must learn how to let go of our attachments following a significant loss. . . .In our protest of separation from our bond with our loved one, we may have anxiety and difficulty comprehending the loss, an experience known as numbing, which can lead to feelings of shock, denial or disbelief, especially when the death occurs unexpectedly.”
I would add that whether your grief stems from the loss of a loved one or from another trauma or significant loss, that sense of being severed from the object of your attachment — and the resulting bewilderment and confusion of emotions — is much the same.
Learning how to express your feelings when you’re grieving is an important part of understanding and processing your loss, and it’s crucial to healing. But it can also be complicated. How do you even begin to grasp or label your emotions? And how do you deal with them in a healthy way?
This is where your journal can help. By putting words to what is happening emotionally and physically and naming the craziness you feel, writing can help you gain clarity and understanding. It’s also a safe space — a private place you can explore and express your feelings without judgment or worry about making someone else uncomfortable. Unless you decide to share, no one else will read what you’ve written.
Here are five ways you can use your journal to express, explore, and learn from your emotions:
1. Write a letter — three approaches
- If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, write a letter to that person. In your letter, tell them all the words that are in your heart to say. You can be conversational, talking about your day and the little things you’d say if that person was with you. Or you can write about your feelings, how much you miss them, and what you would say if you could.
- If you are grieving the loss of something else — a home, job, or dream — or are experiencing grief as a result of trauma, you can also use letter writing as a way of processing your feelings. Write the letter to that object or dream. Write it to your former boss. Or, as a way of looking at things from another perspective, write the letter from whatever you have lost to you.
- Write a letter to a friend or family member letting them know what you are experiencing and how they could best support you. You don’t need to send the letter — the simple act of writing it can clarify your emotions and thoughts, or help you prepare for an in-person conversation.
2. Use Sentence Starters
Choose one of the following sentence starters and freewrite for 10 minutes without stopping in response:
- In this moment I am feeling ___________ and this means . . .
- The most difficult time of day is _______, because . . .
- When I am feeling most anxious, the ways I can nurture and calm myself include . . .
- I feel angry when . . .
- I wish my friends would . . .
- I miss ________ the most when . . .
- If my grief was an animal, it would be a ____________, and it would . . .
- I remember when . . .
- Whenever I feel overwhelmed by my pain, I will repeat this mantra: __________
3. Journal in color
Sometimes words fail us. Either they don’t come or they just don’t seem adequate. Instead of (or in addition to) words, use colored crayons or pencils or paints to express your feelings on the page. This method, also known as visual journaling or art therapy, can help you express the inexpressible and process complex emotions in the aftermath of loss.
You don’t have to be “artistic” or have any drawing skills. You can draw images or abstract shapes, overlay and blend the colors until the page becomes an expression of your inner landscape in this moment. You can paste pictures cut out from magazines or newspapers, combine them to form other images, add speech bubbles and text, or color over them.
If you are working with a therapist or support group, sharing your visual journal expressions can also facilitate the process of understanding the deep, subconscious knowing expressed in your work.
4. Create a ritual
Rituals can also help us come to terms with our grief. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2014),
“Participants who were directed to reflect on past rituals or who were assigned to complete novel rituals after experiencing losses reported lower levels of grief . . . and the benefits of rituals accrued not only to individuals who professed a belief in rituals’ effectiveness but also those who did not.”
In other words, rituals work to increase our sense of control and reduce the intensity of grief — whether we believe in them or not.
Most of us engage in mini-rituals on a daily basis — specific routines that ground us and provide a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic world. Even our bedtime or Saturday morning routines are types of rituals.
Rituals created to process loss are mindful and specific actions that represent, honor, and connect us with the person or subject of our loss. A ritual doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It can be as simple as observing a moment of silence and reflection at the same time each day. You could create a small altar with a picture or object and light incense or a candle, wear a specific piece of jewelry or clothing that connects you with your loved one, or create a small ceremony that both honors and represents letting go of a person or object.
What ritual could you engage in that would help you honor your loss? Complete the following sentence:
In honor and memory of _______________ I will . . .
5. Write the story of your loss
Write what happened, but write your story in 3rd person as if it happened to someone else, as if you were on the outside looking in. Writing about your loss or traumatic event in this way can be liberating and empowering. It engages your imagination and ability to verbalize your experience in a way that writing about your loss in first person doesn’t, which in turn helps you gain enough emotional distance to begin to make sense of it — or at least to wrap your brain around what you are going through, provide a different perspective and perhaps some solace.
I hope that you find these prompts and ways of writing about your feelings helpful. Above all, remember that there is no “right” way to grieve, no right or wrong way to feel, and no correct ways of responding to the prompts. Choose what feels right for you to explore and then trust your intuition to guide you toward healing.
Previous articles in this series:
- Journaling Through Grief – Introduction
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 2 – A Conversation with Grief