Journal writing & grief

(March 26/15)


Because our writing…is a concrete object, it becomes a memorial and a testimony to the resolution of the mourning process…[it] permits us to pass from numbness to feeling, from denial to acceptance, from conflict and chaos to order and resolution, from rage and loss to profound growth, from grief to joy[1]." (Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing)


I have always kept a journal, but when my Mom passed away a year ago I couldn’t write. Quite frankly I didn’t want to do anything that would remind me of my sadness and pain. When I finally attempted to put pen to paper none of it came anywhere close to expressing how I felt about Mom. The loss seemed indescribable. I felt like author Isabel Allende when her daughter Paula fell into a coma (and later died) and she said she couldn’t write because something inside had broken. She felt she’d never write again.[2]

Allende’s agent Carmen Balcells knew better. Balcells dumped some writing pads in Allende’s lap because she knew, Louise DeSalvo says in her book Writing as a Way of Healing, “that without the release of words, Allende’s health would be seriously compromised” (37).


My soul is choking in sand. Sadness is a sterile desert…I plunge into these pages in an irrational attempt to overcome my terror. I think that perhaps if I give form to this devastation I shall be able to help you [Paula], and myself and that the meticulous exercise of writing can be our salvation” (DeSalvo Pg. 38). (Isabelle Allende on writing Paula.)


Allende admitted after her daughter died, “I had no choice…Was I going to commit suicide...Or was I going to write a book that would heal me?” (39).


Conventional wisdom confirms, like Allende, we write our grief when ready. Expressive writing researcher Dr. James Pennebaker says in an article in the University of Texas at Austin website that he does not recommend trying to write about a trauma too soon after it happens. Seems sensible. If a topic is too hard to handle put it aside because, says Pennebaker, the effects of writing can be subtle, but also dramatic[3].


Denver based psychotherapist Kathleen Adams—who founded and has directed the Center for Journal Therapy for 30 years—observed in her work that many clients writing about deep grief or trauma had difficulty writing about their pain. “They found it difficult, frightening, overwhelming or counterproductive,” she writes[4].


Adams closely examined the writing process these clients were undertaking and discovered most tended to pour themselves onto the page in an unstructured, boundless, “free writing” way that paralleled  “the process of catastrophic grief, which is in itself oceanic, endless and formless” (100).  What they might need, she discerned, were structure, pacing and boundaries, which she provides with journal writing techniques that are time-limited and have clear intentions and tasks.


Journal writing helps when dealing with grief, says Calgary’s Chris Carruthers PhD, who based her doctorate on research into the use of expressive writing for healing, “Because as we write about trauma, stories get smaller. We gain insight and awareness from our words and things begin to make sense from a higher perspective.”


“We show we have cared about someone by letting ourselves engage in the act of lamenting their loss or death. But we show we have cared about someone, too, by “crying out with”—by using grief to understand our connection to others…” (DeSalvo Pg. 54)


It was Sigmund Freud who first recognized that shell shocked soldiers experiencing repeated, detailed nightmares represented the soldiers’ unconscious attempt to try to master its horror and so overcome it, writes DeSalvo (55). Then Lenore Terr, M.D. started analyzing the art and stories of severely traumatized children and agreed with Freud that all of us possess an emotional righting mechanism, similar to our body’s ability to heal wounds (55).


DeSalvo goes on to quote David Aberback in Surviving Trauma who observed that writing—or journaling—“allows us to move through the most important aspects of mourning—but at a safe and symbolic distance” (56).


Pennebaker offers the example of a young woman who sought solace in writing after suddenly losing her husband in an accident and was transformed. “Within two months the woman had quit graduate school and moved back to her hometown. The writing experience had made her realize she was on a life path she no longer wanted and that she had been putting on a false, cheerful front with her friends…It was a dramatic change, and it sounds like a failure. But from her perspective, it wasn’t”[5].


Adams offers as a suggestion to write about your life one year after a loss. “Sometimes the only way to get through devastation is to imagine a time when it might not hurt so much,” she writes. The exercise is meant to fast-forward you to what she calls the healing side of grief: “Imagine your life as if you have wheeled around through four seasons, and you are one year distant from the losses you are experiencing today,” (104).


It took me and my sister a year to be able to talk about my Mom’s death again and we did it in writing. My oldest sister wrote about how the palliative care staff held space for us while we faced our excruciating journey in the kind of detail that DeSalvo says “is crucial if our narratives are to be healing” (Pg. 58).


“Putting words to the memory of that nightmarish last day with Mom has most definitely been a freeing experience for me. It's a way of 'holding space' for myself as I begin the difficult process of releasing some of the pain, giving myself permission to move beyond that moment, that day. To remember happier times with  Mom, times of smiles, laughter, hugs and most of all love.” (My sister on journaling about Mom’s death)


I wrote a tribute to Mom as a powerful, but quiet person. In the process I was able to release the anger I felt for those who had exploited her soft approach to articulation as prescribed for her sex by the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s. I also felt her presence as a kind of muse when I wrote, “One year after your passing I miss your voice and your hugs so very much. But days like today when I find myself sobbing over the stupidest thing, I know if I just sit down and write I will hear and feel the whisper of you and know that everything will be alright.”


Like Allende I use expressive writing as a way to survive the nightmare of loss and to discover the joy of Mom’s continued presence.


If you, or a group to which you belong, are interested in a Life’s all Write workshop on Journaling Grief drop me a line at samcleay10@gmail.com


[1] DeSalvo, Louise A. Writing As A Way Of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press. Boston: 1999. Pg. 57.

[2]   DeSalvo, Pg. 37.

[3]   Pennebaker, Dr. James. Writing to Heal. The University of Texas at Austin. https://www.utexas.edu/features/2005/writing/

[4] Adams, Kathleen. Scribing the Soul.  The Center for Journal Therapy. Denver: 2004. Pg. 100.

[5] Pennebaker, Dr. James. Writing to Heal.

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