The benefits of journaling when you are grieving

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Kate Mitchell, 14 January 2021

Kate is Communications and Content Manager at Cruse

The benefits of journaling when you are grieving

After someone dies it’s common to experience a confusing mix of emotions and feelings. The last thing you might feel like is recording these feelings by writing them down. But many bereaved people find that keeping a diary or journal, or just taking some time out to write a few things down, can be a very helpful process.

What are the benefits of keeping a grief journal?

When you are grieving the many different thoughts and emotions can be overwhelming. It can be really difficult to process these thoughts and put them into language. But getting to that stage is important. Finding the right words to express what we are feeling can help us understand and make sense of our experiences, and it is also an important first step in communicating with others, or asking for help.

1. Clarifying thoughts

Just writing, without having a particular goal in mind, is a form of thinking out loud. It can help work through things, and identify patterns of thought. It’s up to you whether you ever share some of what you write with others, but starting out just writing for yourself can be a way of expressing your deepest feelings without fear of what others might think. Sometimes just the act of doing this can lead to a feeling of release, or catharsis.

Bereaved people often feel the need to go over and over the last days or weeks before someone dies. Writing it down can be a way of getting that story out of your head and onto paper. Sometimes getting something down on paper that’s preoccupying you can free space in your head and provide some clarity.

2. Recording memories

You may also find that keeping a diary can help to record memories of happier days. Recording memories of the person who died can help you feel closer to them. Sometimes people fear they will forget things, and creating a record can be comforting to look back on.

3. Creating a record of your journey

Another benefit of having a journal is it gives you something to look back on. Grieving can be a long journey and when we’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to see that things are changing. This can lead to feelings of despair that things will never get better. When we can look back at how we felt a week or a month or a year ago, we can see that even though feelings of sadness and grief often return just as strongly, there may be longer times in between when we are able to cope or find hope for the future. 

How to get started

There’s no right or wrong way to go about keeping a journal. You can use any note app on your phone or computer, but many people like to use a special notebook, and find the physical act of writing can help. Writing with pen and paper can also mean you are less tempted to edit as you go along, and just having a physical object or record can feel special to some people.

You could start out by just trying to write a sentence or two each day, or you could set a timer and just let the thoughts flow out with the only goal being to keep writing for a certain amount of time. You can write about anything – what you are feeling, what you did that day, memories from the past, what you need to remember to do the next day, the problems you are facing. Some people have used their diary to record feelings of anger or even write lists of people who have annoyed them – it’s your record and a place to be honest so try not to censor yourself.

Reading back what you wrote last time will often give you a starting point for the next entry. If it helps you can imagine you are writing to someone, real or imaginary, or perhaps your future self or the person who has died.

How long to keep going

Again how long you keep a diary or journal is totally up to you. Some people find it so helpful it becomes part of their life, as an ongoing support and record of their lives. Others may find they only need this particular tool for a short time, or as something to come back to only in difficult times.

Some other people find they move on to other forms of writing or expression, including creative writing, fiction, drawing, sewing, illustration or poetry.

At the end of the day, as humans we all feel the need to make sense of the world around us. A death shakes the foundations of what we believe more than any other experience. It takes time to reorganise our beliefs and find meaning and hope for the future – this is not going to happen quickly, but sometimes journaling can be the first step in that journey.

If you’re struggling to cope after someone close to you has died, we’re here to help. You can contact our helpline or speak with a trained grief counsellor using our chat service.

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