Message in a bottle floating in the ocean

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break. –William Shakespeare 


When a loved one dies, our lives can be thrown into turmoil. What once served as map coordinates, our relationship, can no longer provide a sense of stability, comfort, and support. Death moves us from a life that made sense to one where everything is in upheaval. Grief is something that touches everyone; it can be particularly confusing and painful because we do not normally experience such intensity of emotion. How do we come to terms with the powerful emotions present when grieving? One very simple thing we can do is to write about our feelings.

For hundreds of years people have used writing, especially letters, to express their deepest feelings. Writing letters is a powerful way to stay in touch; this applies to our internal world too. When we write, we give form to thoughts and feelings, allowing us is a small way to begin to understand them. The brain undergoes an internal mapping process, creating an image of an emotion in order represent feelings in words. This process of emotional resonance through image (the words) gives us a different understanding of our emotions. The act of writing gives form to grief and in doing so helps us move from overwhelm, being inundated by waves of intense emotion, to understanding and assimilating experience—learning to ride the waves.

Writing about your emotions is good for your physical and emotional health. Research has found expressive writing to promote better sleep, better immune system functioning, and a decrease in less healthy coping such as use of drugs and alcohol. James Pennebaker (1) has researched the benefits of expressive writing. He describes one study which followed a group who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding intense emotional experiences, including grief. Participants noted some increase in intensity when beginning their writing project but significant benefits when compared to those not writing. During writing, stress decreased to a level found in people doing relaxation exercises. Weeks and months later, they reported significantly better mood, increased positive outlook on life, and better physical health, including less susceptibility to illness and disease, than those who did not write. This research validates how translating experiences into language moves us from overwhelm to understanding, assimilation, and better all-around health.

Any form of expressive writing can work; below I focus on writing letters to the deceased but you can use these steps for journaling as well.

Tips on How to Express Grief through Writing Letters:

  1. Make Writing a Ritual: Setting aside a little time, 20 minutes at the end of your day; this helps train your mind to prepare thoughts and emotions during the day, providing structure both during the writing time and throughout your day. The benefits of writing are greater if you set at least 15 minutes for a few days in a row, but even 5 minutes a day can be therapeutic. A few sheets of high quality paper, a candle, or a favorite pen can lend the right atmosphere to your writing. Using computers, ipads, or other devices work too.
  1. Acknowledge Emotions and Write Them Down: Don’t shy away from your emotions, acknowledge them through writing them down. The writing gives structure to the feeling of overwhelm and helps process emotions. If you find that you cannot write —either your mind is blank or there are too many overwhelming feelings, try the following:
  1. Creating Space for Feelings: Often, with intense emotions the instinct is to distract, crowd them out, and ignore. To experience the benefits of expressive writing, you need to work against the instinct to avoid painful emotions. To help create space for your feelings, try going for a short walk (15 minutes or so), without thinking of anything in particular. When you return sit in a comfortable chair, or even lie down, and let feelings and thoughts flow. After a few minutes, pick up your pen and paper (2). You may write something like, “Sitting in my armchair, I had memories of you, of our vacation 5 years ago. I saw the sand, felt the sun, and remembered your smile…” You can also write about your process of writing: “Writing a letter to you is very hard, my pen feels like it is stuck in molasses; my life feels stuck.”
  1. Let Go: You can let your guard down while writing; the writing forms the structure necessary to do this. The deeper the thoughts and emotions your write about, the greater the benefits of writing. Explore the connections you had to the deceased on many levels: your history, your memories together, how your life has changed (1). Also, write of any feelings of blame or regret: “I am blaming myself for forgetting things about you, for not visiting you enough in the hospital.” See below for how to work with blame:
  1. Imagine the Response: Imagine what the deceased would say, feel, or think about your letter. The response can help you gain perspective on your feelings, especially if you have blame, remorse, or regret. The perspective you want to tap into is that of the deceased wishing the best outcome for you.
  1. Keep it Private: Be careful about sharing your letters or writings with anyone. Questions, feedback, or criticism can detract from the therapeutic benefits of your writing.
  1. Look Forward: After writing for a few weeks, explore what your life looks like going forward. What was your life like in the past, what is it like now, and what do you imagine it will be like in a few months or years? What do you want to be in the future and what would the deceased wish you to do with your life? It may take some time until this step feels okay so don’t rush into it until you are truly ready.
  1. Add your Own Flavor: One client wrote letters to her deceased father, with whom she had an ambiguous relationship, and placed them in bottles, putting these afloat in the ocean (with no return address, and a water permeable cap). She found this step made her writing especially therapeutic.

The act of writing creates structure in chaotic times and can help you re-evaluate your life. Writing involves acknowledging and labeling feelings; words are given to nebulous emotions and in doing so we gain improved emotional and physical health.

There are many forms of grief—grief over the death of a loved one or death of a pet, grief at the loss of a relationship, sadness over children leaving home. Writing your feelings can help you find a sense of stability in the midst of emotional turmoil. Writing can also be used to deal with a traumatic past, recent trauma, conflicts, life stresses, and any emotionally upsetting experience.

And if writing is not for you, other expressive approaches also work well in translating emotions into form: planting a tree or memorial garden, planning a memorial hike or trip, going for a run, prayer, meditation, telling stories of the deceased, painting, doing a daily early morning walk, and talking with a therapist. Contact me for more information about how you can deal with grief.

References: 1. James Pennebaker. Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval. 2. Dorothea Brande. Becoming a Writer.