How journaling can help with grief

5 min read

Important tips for keeping a grief journal

  • Grief experts agree that writing down your emotions can help you understand, confront, and ultimately heal from them.

  • Write however and in whatever format feels most comfortable for you, as long as you do it regularly.

  • You can choose to put away past entries forever, or look back at them when you are ready to process more.

  • If you have trouble getting started, writing prompts can be a big help.

After losing a loved one, you may experience intense, often painful emotions in your grief. Particularly at the beginning, these feelings can be destabilizing and make it difficult to get through the day. Grief is a process that is different for everyone, and it has to be gone through in order to heal from your loss. There are no shortcuts. But there are coping mechanisms that can help deal with the strong, overwhelming emotions. One activity that has been found to be very beneficial is keeping a grief journal, which can help you explore your emotions and work through them during this incredibly difficult time.

Journaling can help you process grief

Experts in the field of grief agree that journaling can help people as they navigate the wide range of feelings that accompany loss, especially if it is done on a regular basis. Journaling can have different benefits for different people—some find the simple act of writing itself therapeutic and meditative, while others find it helpful to write letters directly to their loved one. For many, the practice of putting their emotions into words is an important step in understanding, processing, and recovering from those feelings. But a grief journal does not have to be filled with sad thoughts. Rather, it’s a space where you can explore, without judgment, the whole range of your experience. 

In an interview with Brain and Life Magazine, Lisa Shulman, professor of neurology at the University of Maryland and author of Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain, spoke about her experience with loss, and how journaling helped her manage: 

It wasn’t just effective for getting things off my chest. It was also meditative and allowed me to get at the heart of what I was so distressed about. It was also extremely helpful to read my own words about what was happening. So often when we experience emotional trauma, the enormity of it is overwhelming. Giving it a concrete description causes it to feel more manageable. And taking the time to put my emotions into words helped me get in touch with and identify the distress I was feeling.

As Dr. Shulman notes, a journal can be a tool for you to understand and come to terms with what you are feeling, as well as a source of comfort and emotional regulation. 

How to keep a grief journal 

Keep your grief journal in a form that you feel comfortable writing in. This might be a paper notebook for you, or it might be a password-protected digital journal. Maybe a bound book gives your entries a sense of gravity that you want, or maybe you prefer a legal pad. After his mother passed away, French essayist Roland Barthes kept a diary written in ink on small individual slips of paper. There is no wrong way to keep a journal; experiment until you find a way of writing that works for you. 

Similarly, how you practice journaling is up to you. Many people write in stream-of-consciousness paragraphs. But maybe you prefer jotting things down in bullet points. You might feel like trying out some creative writing, like a short story or a poem. Or maybe you find yourself combining all of these, or switching off, depending on the day and the emotions you are processing.

While it may feel good to write in your journal whenever you are inspired to, it is generally best to set aside a regular time for doing it, whether that is every day or less frequently. Journaling is beneficial, but it is also part of the work of healing, and so sometimes it is going to feel like an effort. Working through grief isn’t easy, nor should it be; try not to give up on the practice just because it feels hard some days;

Looking back

As with the format of your journal, what to do with your entries is your decision. You might want to write them and then never look at them again, or keep them until you are ready to revisit them. Or perhaps you find it healing to reread your entries, and even to annotate or rewrite parts of them as you look back.

Grief becomes more manageable with time, as we slowly begin to integrate the painful feelings into our lives in a way that we can handle. In the same way, looking back with some distance and a new perspective on your early entries, you may find that you have something important to learn from them, or that you are encouraged by how far you have come in your ability to cope. 

Rereading your entries can help you affirm your feelings and thus contain them better. Nobody else can speak for your individual experience of grief, and being able to read your own writing about this time in your life, when only you know exactly what you were going through, can be extremely comforting and validating. As Dr. Shulman says:

My entries became a kind of therapy. I looked for meaning in the words I chose and the themes I described. Sometimes I remembered something I had totally neglected in telling the story. I would ask myself, “Why did I emphasize this and neglect that? Why did I leave out this whole part?” Each of these steps was a formative step toward healing and emotional restoration. At some point, what had been overwhelming became part of my life story.

Writing from a prompt

If you don’t know where to begin, it can be beneficial to use writing prompts. A prompt is generally a simple lead-in to a thought, meant to inspire you to fill in the blank and so start writing.

There are lots of journaling prompts on the internet and elsewhere to help you get started. You can even buy a paper journal to write in that comes with its own prompts, exercises, and meditations. Here are are some sample prompts that might help ease you into writing:

1. Today, I am really missing…

2. I am having a hard time with…

3. The hardest time of day is…

4. I have been feeling a lot of…

5. I could use more of…

6. I remember when…

7. The most confusing part is…

Of course, these are just suggestions; always feel free to write in your journal however you feel inclined to.

However you decide to set up your journal, remember that even when it feels like an obligation rather than a pleasure, the act of writing is therapeutic. It takes time to unravel the emotions and memories buried deep within you. Often the biggest benefit of journaling is finding a way to articulate ideas and feelings that you were previously unable to express. Putting those painful emotions into words helps you understand them (and yourself) better ●