Writing as Therapy to Ease Grief and Loss:
Moving on from the Painful Loss of a Loved One
It’s not always easy to voice your deepest feelings to another person, but you don’t have to be a writer to put them on paper or open your tablet or word processor and let the words pour out.
This was originally published in 2006 as a supplement to Barbara’s uplifting series of articles for widows and other grieving hearts; now republished as A Widow’s Thoughts and Advice (PDF document).
NOTE THAT THERE IS A difference between ordinary journaling and “expressive writing,” sometimes called “directed writing.” A journal, which is usually a record of significant experiences—more personal than a daily diary that simply notes what one has done each day—enables the writer to process thoughts and feelings in a careful way, whereas expressive or directed writing about stressful or challenging experiences allows one to privately disclose secret thoughts and feelings in a way that helps them make sense of what has happened.
“Studies have also shown that when people write about a difficult emotional event for just 20 minutes a day for three or four days, the function of their immune system improves.” – WholeHealthMD.com
In checking some of the advice being given to widows on the web, I see that many writers urge widows to move on quickly and forget the past. After the loss of a spouse—or any other significant person in your life—I agree that it’s essential to move on and make plans for the future simply because your whole life has now changed.
But forget the past? Not me. I relate strongly to Herb Caen’s remark, “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.” If you’ve already lived most of your life as I have—and if it has been a happy life—then it can only give you a sense of gratitude to remember all you’ve been given as you get on with life. To me, happy memories are as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night, and they continue to sustain me as I keep moving forward in life.
On the other hand, if your memories about the person you’ve loved and lost are those you’d rather forget, that’s a different story. But it will definitely help your soul and overall peace and contentment for you to dump any negative or destructive thoughts in your mind by putting them in writing. And don’t ever read this again.
Perhaps the secret here is to find a healthy balance between our past and our future so that we don’t have to give up one in order to have the other.
The Importance of Journaling and Letter Writing
BECAUSE I’VE JOURNALED throughout my life—starting with the little diary Mother gave me as a young girl (loved that it had a key)—I’ve naturally encouraged individuals and business owners alike to keep a journal of their daily activities, ideas, plans, and accomplishments. I guarantee that rereading your journals from time to time will prove to be both personally satisfying and revealing, and often surprising too. In rereading my journals from years past, I see things that weren’t obvious to me at the time I originally wrote them and, more important, I usually find a record of a life event I’d completely forgotten. It’s amazing how many memories of even our happiest life experiences can slip through the widening memory cracks in our brain as we age.
Being a writer by trade, it was only natural for me to want to share my husband’s life and accomplishments on my website and go on to write a series of articles for widows. For nearly a year after he died, I also wrote letters to Harry, and I found it therapeutic to dump all my secret thoughts and feelings in my “Dear Harry” letters and tell him things I never could have said to him in person. This writing not only helped me to better understand some of the difficult times we had in our years together, but also why both Harry and I did—or didn’t do—certain things along the way.
Harry had a strong personality not easily ignored, so throughout my first year of widowhood I naturally continued to feel his presence in my life, which was comforting to me. I saw him everywhere in our house, in everything he owned or had touched. But as time passed I also kept remembering the poem one of Harry’s friends sent me, a poem someone had sent him when his wife died. Basically it said, “Miss me . . . but let me go.”
This was hard for me to do, but I tried to do that quickly because I knew it was the healthy thing to do. Frankly, the fact that I had meaningful work to do immediately after Harry’s death made a huge difference in my ability to focus on something other than the life I’d once had with him.
I THINK MOST PEOPLE go through life trying to understand themselves as well as the people they love, and I think many feel that, at the end of any relationship, there is a need to somehow “balance the books” before closure can occur. By journaling or writing letters to someone you’ve loved and lost, you can speak with abandon and dump all those feelings and emotions you don’t want others to know about. In the process you’re also apt to discover, as I did, not only closure, but a new path and a new plan for the rest of your life.
“Letting go” of Harry didn’t mean I had to forget him or ever stop loving him. It was simply a different kind of relationship after he was gone. Shortly before the end of my first year of widowhood, two bits of dialogue in a couple of movies I’d taped hit me right in the heart. I’m sure they will speak to your heart too.
“When you lose someone you love,
it doesn’t mean they’re not with you anymore.
You just have to find them in a different way.
Their spirit will always be with you in your heart.”
and . . .
“Hurting goes away; LOVE, never.
Loving is the greatest gift the Lord gave us.”
Note: A popular book that came to my attention in 2016 was Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain, by James W. Pennebaker. I didn’t feel the need to read this book, but you might find it helpful.
I RECENTLY TURNED UP a typed letter I’d written in 1978 to Shirley, a dear friend who’d died suddenly from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. She was the first close friend I’d ever lost, and I never got to say goodbye. My six-page letter to her recounted our last conversations and all the reasons I’d loved her, her attempted suicide—in which God had surely intervened—and what it was like for me to attend her funeral.
There I learned that by donating her organs she had saved the lives of two people, which would have been so meaningful to her. She would never know that, but God certainly knew why she needed to die on his terms and not hers. I never could have recalled all the deep emotional feelings I’d had at that time if I hadn’t documented them in this “grief writing,” something I simply had to do before I could “let go” of this good friend emotionally. After that, I began to write “farewell letters” to everyone I lost, telling them things I’d never told them before but wished I had; telling them why I’d loved them so much and all the things about them that I’d miss. Just like my letters to Harry, those letters were like emotional balm to my soul.
By mentioning my letter to Shirley to a friend I’ve had for twenty years, she finally shared her story of attempted suicide with me and told me how that attempt had also been thwarted; one more example of how God works in the lives of his children. Someday when I decide to publish this writing, perhaps it will help someone think twice about committing suicide.
A Widow’s Thoughts and Advice: An Uplifting Series of Articles for Widows and Other Grieving Hearts [PDF]. Three months a widow, Barbara began a ten-year series of articles in which she shared her widowhood journey and advice while reporting on conversations with other widows and their mutual strategies for dealing with grief and loss and moving on.
Writing & Publishing T/C