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How Journaling Can Help You Grieve

The healing power of the written word.

Green Chameleon/Unsplash
Source: Green Chameleon/Unsplash

When in the throes of grief, we are fortunate today to have access to any number of resources and activities that can be used to ease our pain. There are many books and blogs available on grief. There are grief groups both in-person and online. We can talk to friends, family or therapists. We can join in activities such as grief yoga that engages our body in the healing process.

However, one of the simplest and cheapest things we can do is to journal. While some may decide to use their phone or computer to record their thoughts and feelings, as long as you have some paper and a pen or pencil you are set. The cost is minimal.

Journaling was introduced to psychotherapy by psychologist Ira Progoff in the 1960s, and it has been proven to be an effective therapeutic tool.[1] People keep dream journals, food journals, gratitude journals, therapy journals as well as grief journals. Journaling has been found to make positive changes in both the physical and psychological effects of grief as well as other emotional and physical issues.

One of the primary benefits of journaling is that it helps to relieve stress. A few of its long term effects include improved immune system functioning, reduced heart rate, blood pressure, improved sleep and less frequent visits to the doctor for stress related illnesses. Emotional benefits include a sense of well being, reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and tension.[2]

Now that we know that journaling is beneficial, how do you begin? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Perhaps the first thing you need to decide is what medium to use. Do you want to write out your thoughts and feelings, or type them? If you are writing, you may want to have a book or pad just for your journaling. There are some grief journals that consist of blank pages while others provide prompts for you to provide some structure to your thoughts. Some prompts might be; “I remember,” “the happiest time,” “the hardest time of the day for me.”
  2. Next you may want to find a comfortable place where you can do your writing. Make this your special place for journaling.
  3. Journaling may be hard to begin. If at first you can only write for 5 minutes, it is a good start. The studies that revealed beneficial results found that writing for 15 minutes produced positive and lasting effects.[3] Only you can decide what works best for you. Some choose to write everyday, while others may journal only two to three times a week. Of course, the more often you can journal, the greater the benefit. After you have been journaling for a while, it is always helpful to go back to see your progress over time.
  4. Pick a time of day that works best for you. Are you a morning writer or are you better in the evening? It is important to consider all the above factors to maximize the impact that journaling can have for you.
  5. Keep in mind when journaling that spelling, punctuation, and wording are not important. This is not something for others to see or critique. Actually, the more time you spend focused on spelling and grammar, the less likely you are to be focusing on the important issues that need to be addressed. Journal writing is like a stream of consciousness that flows from you to the page, allowing your inner thoughts and feelings to come through. Journaling helps us to face our painful issues while focusing on punctuation and spelling contributes to our avoidance.

Many times it is hard to share our inner thoughts with others, or we may feel that even those close to us tire of listening to what we have to say. As a result, often when someone asks us how we are doing, we will reply “fine” when we are anything but fine. Journaling serves as an outlet for those times. In Pennebaker’s original work,[3] he hypothesized that it was the revealing of secrets that produced the positive changes in journaling. Just as in therapy, it is cathartic to reveal something that troubles us and that we do not share with others.

When we are grieving, we experience a myriad of emotions. Writing about your loss and what you are experiencing is bound to be upsetting. Just know that journaling initially may intensify your sadness and tears but that in and of itself can be beneficial. By confronting our distressing thoughts, it will gradually decrease the angst that we feel.



2) Bailie, Karen A. and Wilhelm, Kay (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol.11, 338-346.

3) Pennebaker, James W. (1997) Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science,8,162-166.

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