There are no good words for this, I thought.
Standing on the beach, the sunset devastating and gorgeous on such a dark day, I could not imagine the world moving past this point. A young widow braced herself for a closed casket draped in American colors; family and friends gathered in an ethereal place so alive with memories, it was almost as if he hadn’t died.
I could not have written it then. But I wrote it later, when the words came more easily and I could remember the sunset through different eyes.
Grief is so much more than sadness. It’s anger, it’s guilt, it’s shame and confusion and frustration. It’s happiness, too, along with exhaustion and relief. The complexity of grief is perhaps what makes it such a monster to bear, to carry with us day after day. We know that grief is not linear and does not follow a neat pattern from start to finish, where one earns enough experience at the first stage to advance to the second and then the third. Instead, grief is a swirl of ups and downs, good days and bad, challenging us to grow and change to meet new hurdles as they arise. Time may help, but time alone is not enough.
So if grief is not an easy path from A to B, where does that leave us? What can we do to cope with our immeasurable feelings?
The usual list of “coping skills” is long, and each suggestion may not apply to every individual. But expressing our feelings, in some way or another, is as close to a guarantee for healing as we can possibly achieve, as it allows us to understand, interact with, and define what we feel.
Writing about grief is one form of creative expression that allows us to explore our feelings in many capacities. Through the years, research has not only sought to substantiate the benefits of writing about grief, but to provide guidelines for how to facilitate grief writing.
On the whole, it’s safe to say that no matter how you write your grief, there are benefits to putting words on the page. Writing can offer a changed perspective, opportunity for reflection, and empowerment to face difficult obstacles. Because writing is essentially a manifestation of our inner monologues and conversations, we can experience our thoughts in a way that allows contemplation and search for meaning. Regardless of your writing experience, skill, or style preference, expressing our feelings through the written word appears to be an effective method of coping.
How do we write about grief?
Start where you’re comfortable and where your feelings are. Journaling can be an excellent release for feelings “trapped inside,” feelings we don’t think we can share with others just yet. Keep your journal in a place you believe its privacy will be protected, and say whatever comes to mind.
Do you enjoy poetry? Jot down some words and see where they lead, in any order or structure (poetry does not have to rhyme!). Explore grief poetry from classic and modern poets, and see what feelings the words of others may evoke in you. I’m particularly partial to Nothing Gold Can Stay.
Maybe you’re itching to tell the story of what happened, the story of your person who died and the life they lived. Tell it! Tell it in whatever way you’d like. If it feels too vulnerable to use the facts, change the names and location of your story to create a “fictionalized” version of what happened. It is still, and always will be, your story.
Above all, remember the golden rule of art for coping: It’s about PROCESS, not product. The goal of creative expression is to express yourself, not to wow an audience. This writing is for YOU.
That said, writing can always be shared with others. You can choose readers who know your grief and will be sensitive to your feelings, or post (anonymously or otherwise) on a blog or forum. Be aware that public sharing may invite unwanted comments and feedback (beware the trolls!), but it could also garner support from others who are hurting in their grief, too. These are your words, and you can share them as you see fit.
I wrote that sunset I’ll never forget and the fierce cold of the water as we all jumped in. I wrote the dripping smears of mascara on aching faces, the running black ink of an agony still bright and new.
The ink ran through my pen, and I began to heal.
May 5, 2018:
Join us for a writing workshop for teens in grades 6 through 11, sponsored by New York Life and Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
Program Coordinator, SandCastles Grief Support Program
Links included in this article:
Baikie, K.A. & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Volume 11 (5), pp. 338-346/ doi: 10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Frost, Robert (1923). Nothing Gold Can Stay. New Haven, CT: The Yale Review. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org.
Furnes, B. & Dysvik, E. (2010). A systematic writing program as a tool in the grief process: part 1. Patient Preference and Adherence, Volume 4. doi: 10.2147/PPA.S14864
Murray, B. (2002). Writing to heal. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Volume 33 (6), pp. 54.