Journaling Techniques

Journaling Grief: How to Use Writing to Cope with Loss

Journaling grief can be a powerful aid in the healing process, providing solace, clarity, and a sense of catharsis after experiencing profound loss. When faced with intense emotions, grief journaling offers a safe haven for exploration without the fear of judgment.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the benefits of journaling through grief, highlighting how it provides comfort, captures memories, channels emotional expression, fosters new perspectives, and more. By embracing the practice of grief journaling, you can find solace and relief from the burdens of mourning while nurturing your own well-being.

Understanding Grief

Grief is one of the most challenging yet common experiences humans go through. Feelings of deep sadness, guilt, anger, or disbelief are all typical reactions when you experience a profound loss. Journaling through grief may help you process the intense emotions that come and go unexpectedly. 

Loss is a nearly universal human experience, but not everyone mourns or processes grief similarly. There’s no such thing as “correct” grieving, and there is no schedule to follow. How you grieve and the time it takes to process the loss depends on various factors. 

Grief is usually associated with death, but other major losses can cause a person to mourn. A significant change in life, such as divorce, medical diagnosis, or career loss, may also trigger the emotions associated with bereavement. 

Grief is a personal process. If you’re having difficulty accepting your new reality or adjusting to life, practices like journaling through grief can help you cope.

Signs of Grieving

Grief can manifest in many ways, with numerous physical and emotional symptoms associated with the grief response. 

Some of the signs of grief are:

  • Sadness and crying
  • Sleep problems and fatigue
  • Shock and disbelief
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Stress
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Melancholy
  • Raw emotions
  • Isolation
  • Questioning the purpose of life and/or your spiritual beliefs
  • Gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pain, diarrhea, and nausea
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Chest pain
  • Back, neck, or muscle or joint aches
  • Lowered immune system
  • Lack of personal care or poor hygiene
  • Panic attacks

Not every person cries, feels sad, or shares their feelings with others after going through a loss. That doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing deep emotional pain. People who appear fine also need support to get through the grieving process. 

The 5 Stages of Grief

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined the five stages of grief in 1969. Kübler-Ross originally introduced the framework to describe the phases a person goes through after being diagnosed with a terminal disease.

The phases were adapted to represent the general grieving process when a loved one dies, but mental health experts have criticized the model because people grieve differently. Not everyone experiences all five stages—and even those who go through each stage don’t necessarily experience them in a specific order. The stages of grief should not be used as a type of measuring stick to compare your mourning experience to someone else’s. Kübler-Ross herself recognized that the grief process is not a straight line. The stages she identified are thought to be the most commonly observed reactions of those who are grieving. A person might skip stages, add new ones, experience them out of order, or go back and forth between depression and acceptance many times.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you’ll learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same.”
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving

Understanding some of the common reactions to grief can help with understanding your experience of grief. While there may be “typical” reactions to grieving, there is not one correct way to grieve.

The 5 stages of grief are:

1. Denial

Denial is typically experienced immediately after a loss. It’s the brain’s way of helping you survive a traumatic experience. You may find it difficult to accept that a loss has occurred. It’s common to experience feelings of shock, numbness, or that there’s a mistake. Denial helps you pace the intense feelings of grief. The healing process can begin as you slowly face the reality of your loss. 

2. Anger

Whether you feel grief because of death or a different kind of unwanted change in your life, responding with anger is normal. You might feel angry at a doctor for being unable to save your loved one or even angry at the deceased for leaving you. Feeling anger toward yourself is also common. Expressing this emotion in healthy and constructive ways, such as journaling, helps you to process and better understand your intense feelings. 

3. Bargaining

Bargaining is an effort to negotiate your pain away. People may try making a deal with a higher power to save their loved one or produce a miracle that stops their business from going bankrupt. Even if you know these things aren’t possible, you may find yourself thinking about what-if scenarios — wondering what might have happened if you had insisted that your loved one go to the doctor six months ago or if you had left the house five minutes later.

4. Depression

You may feel depressed while grieving, but it’s important to remember that grief and clinical depression differ. Depression is a mental health concern with identifiable and specific symptoms. But unresolved grief can lead to depression. If you’re feeling depressed or having a difficult time coping with grief, talking with a mental health professional may be a good option.

5. Acceptance

Arriving at the acceptance stage of grief doesn’t mean you no longer experience any symptoms of grief and that everything is fine. Instead, it signifies that you’ve reached the point of re-entering reality. You’ve come to terms with the loss and can begin rebuilding your life. 

A photo of waves as a metaphor for journaling grief

Benefits of Grief Journaling

Journaling grief provides a way to cope with intense feelings and strong emotions. Grief journaling provides a safe place to explore intense feelings without worrying about judgment. 

Some of the benefits of grief journaling include:

Provide a Place of Comfort

Not everyone is comfortable talking about their grief with others. They may not even have someone they can talk to. But a journal provides a consistent place of comfort. It is always there to “listen” to you without judgment. You can feel free to write about the feelings you’re processing without worrying that you are burdening others or causing them distress.

Honor Your Memories

There is an old saying that no one is ever really gone as long as someone remembers them. You can use a grief journal as an ever-evolving memorial for your loved one. Writing about fond memories and the love you shared is a beautiful way to honor someone. It can also be a gift to hand down to future generations, so they can remember that person too. 

Channel Emotional Expression

Loss can make you feel angry, resentful, afraid, and defeated. It’s important to process these emotions. But, expressing emotions that most people consider negative can feel vulnerable. Keeping a grief journal through emotional journaling provides a safe place to channel all these emotions without concerns that you will say or do something that negatively impacts someone else or yourself. 

Reveal Your Movement Through the Grieving Process

When you’re grieving, it can sometimes seem like you’ll never feel better. But when you journaling about feelings, you can see your progression toward adjusting to this new reality. During the times you feel stuck, rereading journal entries will show how far you’ve come. 

Reduce Restlessness

Feeling restless is a common component of grief. After a traumatic event, you may feel like there’s something you should be doing — something to fix or set right. This feeling can lead to restlessness and anxiety. During those moments, a journal can give your brain and body something constructive to focus on. 

Develop a New Perspective

Journaling provides an opportunity to reflect on events and see things from a different point of view. Some losses end up being for the best. For example, getting fired could lead to getting your dream job, or a difficult breakup could be the inspiration for finding more joy in life. A grief journal could be the tool that helps you reframe a painful experience.

Track and Reflect on Your Coping Skills

Any type of major loss is a test of your coping skills. By writing about your grief process, you can see which coping methods are helpful. Understanding your ability to be resilient is a boost to your self-confidence and may be helpful when you face another loss in the future.

Relieve Stress

Finally, one of the most powerful benefits of journaling grief is how it helps relieve some of the stress associated with mourning. Journaling provides long-term benefits that help combat some of the physical symptoms of grief, including sleep disturbances and immune system function.

How to Start a Grief Journal

You might want to use journaling to express your feelings, better understand your coping skills, or record your memories of a special person. No matter your reasons, starting a grief journal is easy and inexpensive. 

Choose a Journal for Your Grief Journaling

There are so many options for journaling that choosing one can be challenging. One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to choose just one. If you sometimes enjoy using a traditional blank book and pen but prefer the convenience of using a device at other times, there’s no reason not to use both mediums. 

Keep a special space for journaling grief regardless of your chosen method. Not mixing your journal writing with chores and grocery lists helps keep the process special — something you do for your wellness and not just another task to complete. 

Find a Safe Place

Where you are when you journal makes a difference. You don’t have to shut yourself away in a private room and don your noise-canceling headphones, but you certainly can if you want. The most important thing about your chosen location is that you feel safe and unhurried there. Keep in mind that journaling can bring up deep feelings. 

Allowing yourself to cry, curse, and show emotion is a valuable part of healing. When journaling grief, choosing a location where you can fully express yourself as needed is best.  

Physical comfort also is essential. Choose a place where you’ll feel relaxed and have the tools you need to focus. 

Set a Regular Time

Like any new habit, it may be difficult to write for long when you first start. A study on the benefits of writing about emotional experiences found that writing for a minimum of 15 minutes produced the best results. If you can only concentrate for five minutes at first, that’s OK. Start with what’s comfortable and build up to 15–20 minutes daily or as many times a week as needed. If you feel the need to stay immersed in your journaling for more than 20 minutes, that’s perfectly fine.  

Try Free Writing

Free writing is also sometimes called stream of consciousness writing. This journaling method is a great way to allow unconscious feelings to bubble up. Make sure to set a timer when you try free writing. One of the goals is to keep your complete focus on the page, and setting a timer will remove at least one distraction. 

To begin, start writing about whatever occurs to you, and then keep writing for the full time allotted without pausing. With free writing, you keep your pen moving on the paper — or fingers moving on the keyboard — without stopping to reread your words or make corrections. If you run out of things to say, start writing nonsense words or the lyrics of your favorite song until coherent thoughts return. 

Use Prompts

Beginners and experienced journalers alike benefit from using journal prompts. Incorporating prompts in your journaling gives you something fresh to write about. 

Prompts can also elicit strong emotions, even those that seem tame at first glance. A prompt may trigger a feeling or memory you would not have recalled through regular journaling. 

Don’t feel like you must conjure deep emotion or uncover an amazing revelation when using prompts for journaling through grief. Let the prompt take you wherever it goes. The best insights often come when you are not trying to find them but simply letting your mind wander on the page. 

Make It Your Own

Journaling grief doesn’t have to be limited to text alone. Including photos, drawings, or small mementos in your journal can be valuable. If you’re journaling on an electronic device, you could even include your own digital art. Remember that you don’t have to be a skilled artist to express yourself in a grief journal. 

Since no one but you will read or see your journal, you can consider it a safe place to write, doodle, paint, or draw—you can even paste pictures from a magazine to make a collage. Using many ways to express yourself helps process grief. In a journal, you don’t have to be concerned about judgment from others. 

Grief Journal Prompts for Journaling Grief

There’s no wrong or right way to use a grief journal. It’s a tool to help you mourn the loss of a loved one, the loss of a dream, or some other unwanted and unexpected change in your life plans. 

Journal prompts can help you get the most from journaling. When you’re having trouble settling on a writing topic or are so filled with emotions you can’t focus on a specific subject, prompts can help guide your writing by exploring your answers to specific questions, themes, or topics.

Journal Prompts to Identify Your Place in the Grief Cycle

You may not always realize when you’ve moved from one phase of grief to another. These journal prompts can help you identify your grief patterns:

  • I’ve been feeling a lot of … today
  • The hardest part about grief is …
  • I wish I could tell my loved one …

Identifying your place in the grief cycle may help you realize you’re not as stuck as it may sometimes feel. 

Journal Prompts to Process Anger

Admitting you feel angry because of a loss can be uncomfortable. Many people prefer to ignore their anger. These prompts may help you accept your anger and move past it:

  • I am angry at (God, the Universe, life, etc.) because… 
  • In this new reality, I really dislike …
  • When I feel angry, this is what I will tell myself …
  • If a child I loved were grieving and angry, I would tell them …

Avoid self-judgment as you journal about anger. Accepting that you feel angry — even if you know it is irrational — is a valuable part of the grieving process. 

Journal Prompts For Acceptance

Making sure you don’t get stuck in denial is important for your overall mental wellness. Journaling prompts to help you move forward include:

  • Today I remembered …
  • During this experience of grief, I’ve had difficulty accepting … When I finally did… 
  • Today, I can accept this one single change…

Remember, journaling through grief is to help yourself feel better. If you need to be in denial on some days, that’s OK. Be gentle with yourself and your personal grief process.  

Journal Prompts for Healing

Acceptance doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sad about your loss again, but it may signify that you are on the road to healing. Journaling to heal can help facilitate acceptance and meaning-making while you navigate the complexities of grief.

  • 10 things I feel grateful for today are…
  • One of my favorite memories of my loved one is…
  • Today, I will do this one good thing for myself…
  • This experience of grief has taught me…
  • A positive memory I will always carry with me is…
  • I can help others who are grieving by…

Finding Comfort in Journaling Grief

Finding comfort in journaling grief is a gift we can give ourselves during the most challenging moments of our lives. By embracing the power of writing, we create a sacred space where we can pour out our emotions without judgment or burdening others. Through the act of journaling, we capture and preserve precious memories, honor our loved ones, and navigate the complexities of grief. This practice allows us to channel our emotions, track our progress, and develop new perspectives that ultimately lead to healing and growth. So, let us take solace in the pages of our journals, knowing that they hold the power to alleviate our restlessness, provide clarity, and nurture our well-being. Embrace the transformative journey of journaling through grief, and may it bring you the comfort and healing you seek in your unique grief process.

About the Author

Kristen Webb Wright is the author of three books on journaling. With a passion for writing and self-reflection, Kristen uses her experience with journaling to help others discover the benefits of documenting their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In her role at Day One, she helps to promote the power of journaling so people from all walks of life can experience the transformative power of journaling.

Photo of author and journaling expert, Kristen Webb Wright

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