Joyce Hocker Ph.D.

Building Resilience

Writing for Healing

Writing it down will help you work through difficult times.

Posted Mar 17, 2018

Writing Supports Healing From Trauma  

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Source: JoyceHocker

Three therapists and twelve women who are surviving partner or stranger violence, accidental trauma, and rape sit in a wide circle, not too close to each other, on a Tuesday evening.  Our class, sponsored by a local non-profit, will present the modalities of meditation, Qi Gong, art therapy, and writing, in the service of healing from trauma.  When it’s my turn to introduce writing, several women protest:

            “I have no privacy.  No way I can write anything honest.”

            “Why would I write that $@&%!!  I’m living it, isn’t that enough?”

            “I’ve never been a journal writer.” 

I explain the physical and mental health benefits of writing about difficult life experiences, drawing on the research of Pennebaker and Smyth (2016.) 

While all the women in the group also work with an individual counselor, I encourage them to write during this group, saying “Sometimes you are your own best counselor.  Give writing a try, and see whether this is one of the modalities that you find helpful.”  Next week, Katie* brings her journal.

            “OK, you asked for it,” she warns.  Reading aloud, Katie describes her rape with vivid, sensory, emotional language.  The participants sit in silence for a while before responding.  At the end of the session I suggest that she write using one or more of several approaches; help she wishes she could have called on, what she is learning about her resilience and toughness, or an alternate ending that interrupts the violence.  She chooses the alternate ending.  When Katie reads the new ending a few weeks later, she sits in silence then says, “I am going to give that

ending more time in my imagination.” 

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Source: gettymediaimages

Writing Through Grief

Not everyone wants to write after experiencing the loss of a beloved other.  We seem to benefit from writing if we have sought bereavement or other counselingTraumatic or complicated grieving presents an ideal opportunity for writing to process loss.  Attachment style makes a difference.  When the purpose of writing is to process the permanent loss of a beloved other, writing can heal the gaping identity wound of a loss.

I experienced four family deaths in a short period of time.  When my younger sister died suddenly of brain cancer in 2004, as a long-time journal-writer I naturally began to write as a way to seek meaning and solace.  With no thought of publishing this writing, I explored my obsession with my sister’s belongings, our sister relationship, my anguish at not knowing how I would restructure my identity after the loss of my best friend and confidant, dreams that arose in which my sister and parents, who had also died, appeared, and imaginary dialogues with my family members.

Joyce Hocker
Source: Joyce Hocker

  When my sister’s colleagues asked me to write her biography to give background to an academic journal honoring her work as a communication professor, I eagerly searched my memory for stories that illuminated her younger years and later academic writing.  In the process of writing, my own shattered heart began to mend.  This year my book-length memoir, with stories of loss and resilience, will be published.  While I did not begin with the idea of writing for others, I experience satisfaction in detailing my individual response to grief and healing. 

Benefits of Writing

Across many experiments, people experience a positive effect from employing expressive writing to cope with difficult life experiences.  Even though a traumatic or grievous experience comes crashing into one’s life unbidden, through writing, one can shape and explore the difficulty.  Writing takes time.  Taking time to write of one’s own life experience provides a way to respect, hone and understand the trauma or loss.  We dignify our lives by taking seriously, in writing, the unwanted experience.  We can make meaning of tragedy.  Simply writing emotively, without telling a story, is not effective.  Creating a narrative helps one write with authority in the face of unwanted change.

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Source: Getty Images

What Writing Formats Bring Relief?

People respond differently to trauma and grief.  Some will journal,write personal essays honoring someone, explore imaginary dialogues, or write letters to the departed.  All these forms of writing help create healing continuing bonds with the lost person.  The sense of self disrupted by trauma begins to mend.

*Name changed

References

Hocker, Joyce L, The Trail to Tincup:  Love Stories at Life’s End.  She Writes Press, Berkeley, CA. 2018.

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M.  Opening Up By Writing it Down:  How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. (3rd. ed.)  Guilford Press, New York and London, 2016. 

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M.  Opening Up By Writing it Down:  How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. (3rd. ed.)  Guilford Press, New York and London, 2016. 

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M.  Opening Up By Writing it Down:  How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. (3rd. ed.)  Guilford Press, New York and London, 2016. 

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M.  Opening Up By Writing it Down:  How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. (3rd. ed.)  Guilford Press, New York and London, 2016.