“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” -Joan Didion, Why I Write
Joan Didion’s words speak to the potential for writing to serve as a powerful outlet for personal insight, clarity, and perspective. When coping with the overwhelming emotions of grief, writing can provide a safe landing place, as well as a gateway for self discovery, reflection, reconnection, and preservation of memories. Emerging research suggests writing also offers physical benefits, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and reduction of stress by engaging the body’s natural “relaxation response.”
I recently had the privilege of facilitating a “writing through grief” workshop at our Kit Boney Grief Center. Participants were guided through a variety of writing exercises to encourage reflection on their experiences of grief—acknowledging what is lost while also affirming all that endures. Workshop participants gave voice to the pain of their losses, as well as courage, resilience, and perseverance discovered in the midst of loss.
Dialogue writing provides a unique opportunity to explore difficult aspects of grief that we may be inclined to avoid or stuff away. This form of writing allows “another voice” to speak, inviting new perspectives and possibilities. In the workshop, participants dialogued with an aspect of their grief that has been unsettling and occupying significant space in their thoughts. One participant chose to dialogue with regret:
Me: I regret maybe resent his illness because I could never fully resolve his fears and his questioning and sometimes desire to leave.
Regret: Remember how the ‘forgetting disease”works. He never mentioned regrets, only frustrations that he couldn’t do his work or even the simplest things.
Me: Yes, the only one he mentioned was how demeaning it was to him that I had to hand him his pills and tell them to put the pills in his mouth before taking a swallow of water.
Regret: His independence was cruelly compromised.
Me: I had to learn to be patient and more giving than I ever knew I could be. I never really had a chance to say goodbye to his damaged mind.
Regret: Yes, now that seems to be your biggest regret.
Me: How do I overcome this?
Regret: Hold it in your heart and know that he was feeling this deep down but couldn’t get it out.
Me: How desperately sad. Is there anything else for me to know?
Regret. That you did the most you could. That your last months were the greatest love and understanding between you both as he prepared to leave this earth.
Another participant engaged in a dialogue with “The Unpredictability of Grief”:
Me: Unpredictability, I go from a surge of energy, growth, life, vitality, newness to tired, sad, withdrawn, depleted, and numb. I want to stay with energy. Is that okay?
Unpredictability: Wherever you are is okay. You are okay.
Me: Am I? How have I not fallen apart? I thought I would die too.
Unpredictability: Nope. You’re still here. You’re doing fine. You’re allowed to be all right. You’re allowed to be all the things…sad/lonely and connected to others…hurting and joyful…confused and with clarity; sad and relieved; dying and reemerging. You don’t even have to know where you are. It’s fine. It’s fluid. It’s natural. It’s healthy.
Me: Thanks for the reminder; it sometimes feels like I am nuts. The crazy part of grief. The unpredictability. The not trusting, not knowing what is next, the reflex to “white knuckle” through. The confusion that I could be okay. The confusion, and guilt maybe, that I am allowed to flourish. The wondering how will my sister always be with me. What will that look like? How do I honor her? I love her!
Unpredictability: You have answered yourself. You love her.
Me: Is there anything else you need for me to know?
Unpredictability: I am sticking around for a while. No need to try to control me. We are not at war.
Poetry can serve as an evocative springboard for exploration of feelings, memories, and hopes. During the workshop, I read aloud a poem entitled “Tenderness and Dignity” by Kirtan Coan. Participants were encouraged to notice words or images from the poem that captured their attention. One participant responded with the creation of a poem of her own:
A Path Toward Hope and Life
Step into your vulnerability and grief.
There is goodness in not hardening your heart.
Only then can you see your heart truly—and then respond to it and nurture it.
One day then perhaps you will find your playfulness, your laughter, joy, and even the wild.
Life—to live again fully and freely.
Life—to be bold again and feel my heart beat again.
Life is good.
When one participant was asked how it felt to hear herself reading her words aloud, she responded emphatically, “It felt like the truth!” I am humbled by the wisdom, richness, and depth of the writings produced during this writing workshop, and especially grateful to those who granted me permission to share samples of their writing here. My hope is that their words — their truths — may inspire others who are facing loss to consider writing as a path toward healing, release, and self discovery.
–Anne M., adult grief counselor