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Journaling through Grief

by Jacki Andre June 18, 2018

Journaling through Grief

Dear Sparkly Unicorn Friends,

As much as I try to exude joy, I do know that life is not all sunshine and roses and washi tape. I know that life can be tough. I’ve been there. Who hasn’t? This thing called life, it’s not for wimps, is it?

I’ve dealt with: a congenital physical disability, being fired, being short on rent (and having money worries in general), totaling my car, serious family discord, mental health disorders, and loneliness. (Mr. Right, where the heck ARE you?)

But the toughest thing of all is losing someone or something that you love. The toughest thing of all is grief.

After my mom died, I read a bunch of self-help books to help process my grief. I got three valuable takeaways from those authors:

  1. We may go through anticipatory grief, which means that we start grieving before the loss actually occurs.
  2. While we tend to associate grief with death, we actually grieve other losses all the time. We grieve over divorce, loss of friendship, loss of job (including retirement), the diagnosis of chronic illness (loss of health), empty nests, and many other things.
  3. Grief is very personal. We each react to loss--even the same kind of loss--differently. And we each have different emotions mixed in with our grief, like anger, regret, guilt, and possibly even relief. Because grief is so personal, it can be difficult to get through. There’s no script or map for us to follow. We each have to work through it in our own way.

One of the tools that may help us work through grief is journaling. Several studies show that writing can help us process grief. And actually, journaling is often part of professional grief therapy.

Writing journals provide a safe space where we can express ourselves openly and honestly, without fear of judgment. They give us a place to say those things that we would struggle to put into words or have difficulty saying out loud. But even if we know how helpful journaling can be, it can be difficult to put pen to page while we’re grieving.

Some people just aren’t writers at heart, at any time. And for some--whether they’re normally comfortable writing or not--unstructured free writing can be overwhelming during grief. As Kathleen Adams points out in her paper on managing grief through journal writing, an unstructured “flow of thoughts and feelings ... parallels the process of catastrophic grief, which is in itself oceanic, endless and formless.”

But as I’ve said before, and will keep right on saying: there are no rules in journaling. Your journal can be whatever you want it to be--and whatever you NEED it to be. If you’re thinking about keeping a personal journal as you work through grief, the tips below may help.

Choose a journal that feels comfortable and that’s durable.

Grief comes in waves and it’s unpredictable. Carry your journal with you so that you can jot down things when you need to.

It’s worth saying it again: there are no rules.

Forget perfectionism. Don’t worry about punctuation. If you miss a day (or ten days), it doesn’t matter. No one says a lined journal is for writing only; if you want to paste pictures in it, you go right ahead. Your journal is YOUR tool--make it work for YOU.

If you’re experiencing anticipatory grief, start journaling NOW.

Your journal allows you a safe space to talk about your sadness and to start envisioning what your life will look like after loss. Right now, I’m going through anticipatory grief about my elderly dog. (Other pet guardians will understand. Losing a pet is comparable to losing a close family member or friend.) I spend a lot of time thinking: “I don’t know how I’m going to live without him.” I wonder what it will be like to walk one dog instead of two. I wonder if my other dog will be lonely. I wonder if I will remember how soft and silky his fur is. My personal diary gives me a place to work through all this, and a place to record those things I’m worried about forgetting.

If you BuJo, keep doing it.

It’s common for memory to be affected by grief. The list-making and tracking aspects of the Bullet Journal® system can be quite helpful. But, bullet journaling is somewhat structured and can be difficult to understand. If you’re deep in the grieving process, it’s not a good time to start. Instead, just make lists and carry your journal with you.

If you’re keeping a writing journal and you need prompts to write, seek them out.

We all get writer’s block at the best of times. When you’re swimming in grief, it can be hard to know where to start. An online search will give you lots of ideas for writing prompts, including things like:

  • I remember when ...
  • It made me laugh when …
  • If I could tell you one thing …

Write a letter to the person you've lost (or are losing).

In a wonderful piece, Dana Schwartz explains how she wrote letters to her mother in her journal. Letter-writing is a way to keep communication going and to say the things that you wished you had said.

If writing is not your cup of tea, that’s okay.

You can use a personal journal for all kinds of things. The website hellogrief.org has a terrific piece about keeping a grief journal when you’re not a writer. It suggests doing things like using your journal as a scrapbook, making art inside your journal, and making bulleted lists.

If it feels like keeping a journal is making things worse, seek professional guidance.

Journaling is not for everyone. Although widely used as a tool to work through grief, journaling does occasionally make things worse. Sometimes people get stuck brooding over their pain in their journals. If this is you, that’s okay. We’re all unique and how we experience grief is very personal. If there’s a better tool for you out there, take it. Life is tough. Grief is tough. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Your sparkle will come back one day, you sparkly unicorn, you. I know it. 

This blog was written in recognizance of International Widows’ Day, which occurs annually on June 23.

Photo by Ana Tavares on Unsplash

Jacki Andre
Jacki Andre

Jacki Andre has been journaling for over 30 years and still has her jam-packed Judy Blume Diary to prove it. Somewhere along the way, she started writing for reals, and is now a published author and Huffington Post blogger. In her spare time, Jacki supports dog rescue, advocates for disability rights, and educates other drivers via hand gestures about the importance of using turn signals. She keeps in shape by chasing joy (and her ‘80s teen idols) in earnest.


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