I avoided my grief for too long—then found that writing finally held the key to healing
When my dad passed away on Monday, September 10, 2018, I returned to work the following week. My boss told me I should take more time off, but I told him I didn’t need it. Of course, this wasn’t true, no matter how much I wished it was. I was devastated, but it was easier to busy myself with work than to deal with everything I felt.
I thought if I could keep myself distracted long enough, I would end up on the other side of my pain. But grief is not an IKEA; you can’t just kill time wandering around the maze until you find the Swedish meatballs and an exit.
For grief to lessen its hold on you, you need to process and feel what’s happening to you fully.
As American actress and author Patti Davis once said:
“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.”
For me, things did not improve until I started unpacking my grief. Confiding in family, having long cries, and drawing comfort from my faith all helped.
But I also wrote a lot. And looking back, I can see that writing was instrumental to my healing. Even though everyone processes grief differently, I highly recommend you try writing if you’re struggling to cope with loss.
Finding comfort in the keyboard isn’t a new concept. Studies support that writing can be a valuable tool in alleviating grief. There is even evidence to suggest that writing through difficult experiences can improve physical health.
But why does it work?
Writing is particularly cathartic because the page is a safe space. No one ever needs to see what you write, so you can let out everything that’s on your mind without worrying about judgment. That freedom helps you confront your grief rather than avoid it.
It also helps you name your feelings. Your words give a tangible form to everything that’s going on in your head.
Another benefit is that the page is there for you anytime, for as long as you need it. (Two years in, and I’m still routinely writing through my loss whenever I feel the need.)
Writing can also help you approach your grief from different perspectives. There are many kinds of writing that you may find cathartic. In particular, the following exercises were instrumental in helping me process my grief in different ways.
A few weeks after my dad’s passing, I found myself writing pages and pages about the impact his death had on me. I wrote about what I thought and felt from the day of his diagnosis until the day he passed less than a year later.
I wrote about our last conversation, about all the guilt I felt for not visiting him more often, and about how I wasn’t there with him in his final moments.
Just letting everything spill out of me onto the page helped me stop hiding from my grief and face what I was going through.
The best way to go about journaling is to let the words flow from you without worrying about spelling, grammar, or structure. Remember, it’s not for anyone else to read. It doesn’t matter if your thoughts seem positive or negative, so long as they are authentic.
I found the more raw my words, the better the catharsis.
Writing down your memories of a departed loved one helps you feel gratitude for the good times you had with them. Gratitude may not seem possible when you are focused on who you have lost, but I found it a crucial part of the healing process.
So every time an old memory of my dad resurfaces, I write it down right away. I write about how the memory makes me feel and how I was fortunate to have such a loving father. These memories become little treasures I get to keep by documenting them.
It’s a good idea to write down your memories as soon as you think of them. Either keep a notebook with you or use a note-taking app on your phone to quickly jot down memories when they come to you. You can expand on your thoughts and feelings about those recollections later on when you have time to reflect on them.
You might also be surprised what old memories may surface if you give yourself 10–20 minutes to think of some.
A few months after my dad passed, I was confiding in a friend about how sad I was that I couldn’t talk to my dad about the things going on in my life anymore. She suggested I try writing him a letter.
I’ve run with the idea and have been writing letters for the past two years. It’s been a comforting practice. I don’t write letters frequently; it’s usually when I’m going through a rough patch or have exciting news. But how frequently you write letters is totally up to you.
I find it helps to write as though your loved one is in the room and you’re speaking to them. You can tell them everything that’s going on in your life, or you can write all the things you never got a chance to say to them when they were alive. You can usually imagine how they would respond to your letter, and in a way, it makes you feel like they are there with you.
Sometimes, I think dreams are the subconscious’s way of communicating with the conscious mind. Other times, I believe it’s something more spiritual than that.
So, if I have a dream about my dad, I’ll write it down in as much detail as I can as soon as I wake up. Once you write everything you can about your dream, reflect on what it means to you and journal about it. The messages you derive from your dreams may bring you comfort, or at the very least, a fresh perspective.
For example, I recently had a dream I was standing in a bright sunny meadow with my dad, and these large yellow butterflies were fluttering majestically past us into the sky.
When I woke up, I wrote about the dream in as much detail as possible so that I wouldn’t forget it. The yellow butterflies seemed peculiar, so I researched it online and learned that seeing one near the departed means their soul is at peace.
This meaning brings me so much comfort, but if I hadn’t written it down and analyzed it, it would have just been another random dream.
I discovered the comforting power of writing fiction by accident.
It was three months ago when I wrote a short story for a contest on Vocal. I enjoyed writing the piece so much that I became an active member on the platform and wrote several more short stories.
But I started seeing a pattern in my pieces; they were all about death and loss. I wasn’t consciously writing from a place of grief, but I discovered that writing fiction helped me process grief in a freeing and innovative way.
Drawing on your experiences with loss can bring out specific thoughts and ideas that you may have had trouble consciously doing when journaling. It also makes you feel like you have some control over your grief because you can give the characters and stories any outcome you want.
They don’t have to be long stories or be Pulitzer-worthy. You don’t even need to share them if you prefer to keep them private. It’s simply a creative outlet for exploring loss on your terms.
You don’t need to be a journalist, freelancer, or published author to ease your grief with writing. Nor does anyone need to read what you write for it to work (though you may feel compelled to share some of your writings, and that’s OK too).
There’s no wrong way to write through your loss.
So if you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to open up a notebook — or a fresh Google Doc — and try one or two of these exercises. It won’t take your pain away, but in time, it may help you stop wrangling with grief and find perspective, peace, and relief.
“She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”
— George Eliot