Why We Write about Grief—How You Can Heal
Why do people write about grief?
How does writing help the grieving process?
Are you looking for a creative outlet during a time of grief?
Grief seems to have an unending presence in our world today. We live with the threat of shootings in schools, churches, crowds, and events. A driver can senselessly barrel through a crowd of tourists or market shoppers. No city, no country is safe from random acts of violence perpetrated by a twisted individual.
And then we have a different kind of grief, a personal grief. Not the one that plays out on national television, but the one that takes place in our own homes and communities. The loss of a loved one—no matter by accident or sudden death, sickness or age—can be deeply felt for many years. Grief is always an emotion that we travel through alone. No one’s grief is the same. And unlike love, grief is not reciprocated.
Grief Will Change You
Grief can be the source of a variety of emotions and life changes. Some people may feel a loss of identity without their loved one in their daily lives. Others may ignore their emotions and try to return to their day-to-day life and activities. Still others may become frozen in time for a while. None of these reactions to grief is wrong, as long as they don’t continue persistently.
You may have experienced the loss of your mother, father, sister, brother, a child, a grandparent or another close family member or friend. Even a pet loss can send you reeling for a long time. When a person or pet becomes an integral part of our lives, they leave a big space when they are no longer there. Other symptoms of grief may include all or some of the following emotions and behaviors.
- Lethargy, low energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Poor diet
- Wanting to be alone
- Lack of motivation
- Negative feelings
- Feeling despondent
- Panic, helplessness
- Fear that the same thing will happen to you
- Muscle tightness
- Muscle weakness
- Bad dreams
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
- Other health issues
By experiencing loss and grief, you will become forever changed. You can’t just go back to the way things were before. Instead, you will find a new normal to get through every day without your loved one. You will look at the world differently, perhaps change your priorities, and find joy in things you may not have before.
"This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."
According to the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Model, there are five stages of grief that everyone moves through. Without reading a book, without talking to anyone, and without ever thinking about it, you will most likely experience all five stages of grief to some degree. You can move through the stages of grief in any order or you can repeat some of the stages. In addition, you may experience some stages for a shorter time period and some for a longer time. How long grief lasts and how long each stage lasts is different for everyone.
The Five Stages of Grief:
- Denial: “This can’t be true. It’s not real.”
- Anger: “Why did you leave me? It’s not fair!”
- Bargaining: “Please, I’ll do anything!”
- Depression: “I can’t even get out of bed.”
- Acceptance: “I am ready to move on with my life.”
When working your way through the grief process, there is no such thing as a bad emotion. Allow yourself the freedom to fully feel things in every moment. If you want to cry, then cry. If you want to laugh, then laugh. You will learn and grow, and probably find an inner strength that you didn’t know you had. Relationships may change. Even your belief system may change.
What Draws People to Write about Grief?
People have been writing about grief since they could pick up a feather and ink jar. Somehow getting thoughts on paper, even if they are jumbled and disjointed, becomes an act of therapeutic writing to overcome loss.
Writing about painful experiences and engaging with grief can help you to get over it. Certainly, facing grief is much better than ignoring this most basic of human emotions. After all, death is just a part of what makes us human. Writing also fosters alone time… when you don’t have to put on a brave face for anyone else. You don’t have to pretend that you’re OK. So, many people may be drawn to writing about grief because it’s the only time that they can be true to themselves. Writing about grief also offers the opportunity for self-expression, which can be a holistic way to honor both you and your loved one at the same time.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write about grief. In fact, the purpose of writing about loss is not to become published or for anyone else to read it. Writing about loss can help you sort through your thoughts and feelings. It is an opportunity to let loose without criticism or judgment. What you write is for your eyes only.
Writing through grief can take many forms. You may want to write in journal format. Just keep a sort of diary of your thoughts, emotions, and things that happen each day. It can be a good way to keep track of the ways you are remembering your loved one in your daily life. You can also talk about frustrations, anger, guilt, regret, sadness, and more. And when you have a ray of sunshine in your day, a glimmer of hope or a happy moment, then that’s also something to record.
Some people choose to write more creatively. You may choose to write poems, songs or a fictional novel. You can write to express your grief through a character in your book instead of writing with the first-person “I.” This can be a way to view your loss from one step away, versus being right in the middle of it. By having your character live through your grief as well, you may be able to go through it together.
Benefits of Writing about Grief
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Writing about difficult, even traumatic, experiences appears to be good for health on several levels—raising immunity and other health measures and improving life functioning.”1 In fact, the APA cites several studies of people who were experiencing grief or traumatic experiences. Those who were instructed to write about their emotions for four consecutive days were found to be much healthier after six weeks than those who only wrote about their everyday experiences.
“Six weeks after the writing sessions, students in the trauma group reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those writing about everyday experiences. Furthermore, improved measures of cellular immune-system function and fewer visits to the student health center for those writing about painful experiences suggested that confronting traumatic experiences was physically beneficial.”1
Writing about grief helps you to take your mind off of it. In essence, writing is an independent, easy, and free way that anyone can use to manage the mental and physical effects of stress, loss, and grief. Grief writing is also part of the letting-go process.
Putting words to paper (or computer screen) qualifies as a physical way to remove the thoughts and tough emotions from your head and heart. Thus, writing acts as a roadway for you to part with your emotions. When the words are on paper, then they exist outside of yourself. They become a separate thing, and therefore not just living inside your mind. It can also be helpful to revisit your writing weeks, months or even years later to see how far you’ve come.
Famous Examples of Writing about Grief
The thing about grief is that it touches everyone on the planet. No one is immune to loss. So, over the past several centuries countless authors and poets have written about grief creatively—in works of fiction, non-fiction, grief memoir, plays, movies, music, and poetry.
If you do an internet search for books and poetry about grief, you will find countless resources… from creative writers who have worked through grief in their own writing to non-fiction, self-help books.
Here is a selection of poems you can read about grief.
“Consummation Of Grief” by Charles Bukowski
"How Great My Grief" (Triolet) by Thomas Hardy
“A Grief Ago” by Dylan Thomas
“As Imperceptibly As Grief” by Emily Dickinson
“I Measure Every Grief I Meet” by Emily Dickinson
“Grief Thief Of Time” by Dylan Thomas
“Grief” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“If Grief For Grief Can Touch Thee” by Emily Jane Brontë
“Sonnet 42: That Thou Hast Her, It Is Not…” by William Shakespeare
“The Right To Grief” by Carl Sandburg
“Grief And Melancholy” by Aftab Alam
“I've Learnt To Laugh In Grief” by Aftab Alam
“Maternal Grief” by William Wordsworth
“Grief” by Edith Wharton
“The Heart Of Grief” by Edith Nesbit
“A Wife's Grief Because Of Her Husband's…” by Confucius
“Grief Is A Mistake” by Gajanan Mishra
“Silent Language Of Grief” by Seema Chowdhury
“Scent Of Grief” by Jackie Allen
"September 1, 1939" by W. H. Auden
“Mercy” by Rita Dove
“The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot
“Out, Out—" by Robert Frost
“Night Letter” by Stanley Kunitz
“What are Years” by Marianne Moore
“Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams
"The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats
And here are some works of fiction about grief.
The Shack by William P. Young
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
The Pact by Jodi Picoult
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
A Widow for One Year by John Irving
Julia by Peter Straub
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood
Tools to Help You Write About Grief
In the book Lessons of Loss: A Guide to Coping, Dr. Robert Niemeyer explains “Especially when losses are traumatic, they may be difficult to discuss or even disclose to another. And yet the psychological and physical burden of harboring painful memories without the release of sharing can prove far more destructive in the long run.”
One of the most prolific tools in dealing with grief is journaling and self-reflection. Many bookstores sell blank journals for free writing and journaling. You can also find a grief journal, which provides writing prompts to help you write through your feelings of loss.
When writing about grief, it’s important to let yourself go. Don’t hold back. Your feelings need to come out, if only for your own health and well-being. Here are a few tips to help you write about your experience of loss.
- Keep writing. Don’t pause to reread. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying. The whole point is to lose control.
- Don’t cross anything out. That’s editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it. You thought it for a reason, so it must come out. Remember, no one needs to see what you are writing anyway.
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Don’t even fret about crossing t’s, dotting i’s or staying within the margins and lines on the page.
- Don’t think about what you’re writing. Just write whatever thoughts come to mind. No filter. You’ll be surprised what you may learn.
- Have no fear. If something pops up in your writing that is scary or makes your feel afraid, don’t stop. Let it all come out. That’s the good stuff!
Tools to Help You Get Over Grief
We understand that writing may not be for everyone, even if you’re only writing for your own eyes. We also understand that you may need more than writing to help get over your loss.
Your grief journey and the pain of your grief is unique and personal to you. So, it wouldn’t be fair to compare your grief experience to anyone else’s grief or loss. In addition, you can’t compare your current loss with a past experience with death. Every loss you experience is unlike any other—whether it’s a different person who has died or if the death occurs at a different point in your life.
It’s up to you to grieve at your pace and your comfort level. However, since no one gets through difficulties on their own, it’s important to seek help to get through your loss. You will find many resources available and beneficial coping methods to help you work through your grief. Here are some healthy approaches you can use to handle your grief.
- Grief counselors / mental health professionals
- Faith leaders
- Grief support groups
- Depression hotlines
- Family, friends
- Grief books
- Grief therapy, grief counseling
- Journaling / writing
- Walking, running, hiking, physical activity
- Talking to your loved one out loud
- Wearing something that belonged to them
- Celebrating small, positive things
- Social / fun activities
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Setting a small goal
- Listening to upbeat music
- Touch therapy: massage, reflexology, acupuncture, acupressure, reiki
- Practicing forgiveness
- Healthy distractions
- Keeping a light on nearby (avoiding darkness, especially sitting in the dark)
- Drawing / art
- Honor your lost parent on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day
- Creating a family history
- Recording a digital legacy
- And more!
BONUS: By the way, did you know that your brain is incapable of feeling or recognizing pain or anxiety when singing? Try it!
Can Recording a Digital Legacy Help with Grief?
Feelings of grief can be overwhelming at times. It’s important to allow yourself enough time and space to grieve for your loss. One practical way to deal with grief is to immerse yourself in a project, such as creating a family history. A family history can include the life of your loved one and recording a digital legacy for your recent loss.
Recording the details of your loved one’s life by creating a digital legacy can be a way to help get over grief. A digital legacy is the footprint you leave behind in the online world. Digital records include online shopping accounts; social media accounts, posts, photos, videos, and comments; a website; or a blog or vlog site. It’s important to preserve these digital records as they are part of the life history of your loved one.
What if your loved one didn’t have any online activity? Although it’s pretty difficult to keep from having some sort of online presence these days, it’s still possible. If your loved one didn’t have an online presence, you can still record their life history online so that family and future generations will always have access to this part of their family’s history.
Websites such as Lastly.com provide the opportunity to upload photos, videos, and audio recordings to accompany snippets of memories, life stories, life events, and other accomplishments of your loved one.
How Digital Legacies Are Changing the Way People Deal with Grief
Digital legacies are a modern way to help the bereaved through a difficult time. If you are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anticipatory grief as your loved one approaches the end of their life or prolonged grief after their death, creating a digital legacy can be a positive and productive way to heal from loss and grief.
In addition, seniors receiving palliative care or living in assisted living facilities with chronic illness, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may find a digital legacy as a positive and interactive way to connect to their past. Digital tools can be a way to spark their memory and keep them engaged, even as they are in end-of-life care. A digital legacy can also be a helpful tool in writing an obituary or a eulogy.
If you are experiencing grief and loss today, we encourage you to incorporate writing as part of your grief journey. Writing can be a great tool to help you through normal grief, complicated grief, and disenfranchised grief. Your mental health and your grief recovery will benefit from the simple act of writing. We wish you a healthy healing process as you cope with your grief.
1 APA, “Open Up! Writing About Trauma Reduces Stress, Aids Immunity,” American Psychological Association, October 23, 2003. https://www.apa.org/research/action/writing.aspx