5 Benefits of Grief Journaling

Journaling is one of WYG’s favorite, go-to, grief coping methods for many reasons. First, it offers you a simple way to cope that requires only a pen and paper (or computer or tablet). Second, it doesn’t require you to ‘talk it out’ if you don’t want to. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are many psychological and physical benefits of grief journaling.

Despite the up-sides to journaling, it’s an underutilized coping skill. Even people who think they’d definitely like to write or journal ultimately don’t because they’re worried they won’t be good at it or think they don’t have the time. If this is you, you know what we’re talking about.

And you know what? We’re guilty of the same. We’ll admit to spending our fair share on crisp new journals that end up gathering dust on the shelf after only a few entries. Committing to a regular practice is hard, whether that practice is writing, exercise, meditation, art, or anything else.

This kind of routine requires motivation, energy, and dedication — you know, all those things that have been in short supply since you started grieving. Not to mention, writing about painful experiences can be intimidating! The irony, of course, is that regularly engaging in positive practices like journaling can improve things like motivation, outlook, and well-being.

We believe in the therapeutic value of writing, but we also know it can be challenging to integrate the practice in your day-to-day life. So today we want to provide those of you who are unsure or struggling with a little extra motivation for making this practice work. We want to make sure you know why this practice can be so beneficial and why it’s worth your time and effort.


Reason #1: Writing About Your Experiences Combats Avoidance

Journaling about grief requires you to take a closer look at your grief-related memories and experiences rather than avoiding them. When we talk about avoidance in regards to grief, we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations. 

Grievers deal with a barrage of traumatic memories, painful emotions, logistical issues, secondary losses, and so on. It’s no surprise that many people choose to avoid grief-related triggers, people, places, and things in an effort to achieve some semblance of ‘normalcy.’

Though small amounts of avoidance can give you a break from your grief, chronic experiential avoidance can cause larger problems. Painful memories and emotions often don’t go away on their own, so if you actively avoid them in an ongoing way, they stick around and you never learn to cope with them.

The fact of the matter is, certain memories and emotions may never go away – period – so it’s important to learn how to function in a healthy way even in the presence of your grief.  Further, avoiding potentially triggering thoughts about your loved one can prevent you from having a meaningful and ongoing relationship with their memory.


Reason #2: Physical Health Benefits of Journaling

Research conducted by James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth found that when people write about difficult and traumatic experiences, they sometimes reach a “letting go” state. They found that in this state participants actually experienced changes in their writing style, voice, and pace as they let out intense details around their difficult or traumatic experiences. 

When they researched the deeper physiological implications of this, they found something interesting. When people went through a letting go experience while writing about their pain or trauma, their physical stress responses (things like heart rate and blood pressure) went way up. When they measured those things after people finished writing, their numbers dropped to lower than they had been to start and they stayed there.

These findings have been replicated in follow-up physiological studies, including one where people who had heart attacks were split into two groups – one group who wrote their thoughts and feelings about the experience of having the heart attack and one group who wrote about neutral topics. 

The group who wrote about their feelings around the heart attack needed less prescribed medications, had fewer cardiac symptoms, and lower diastolic blood pressure than the group who didn’t write about the experience and was still the case five months later. Crazy, right?

Another study worked with individuals with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who were split into two groups. One group was asked to write about the most traumatic experience of their life and the other to write about something neutral and benign. The results? The group who had asthma and wrote about a traumatic event had statistically significant improvements in lung function, those with arthritis had statistically significant improvements in joint health, whereas the control group didn’t see these benefits. 

What is even more interesting is how dramatic the improvements were. People reported functional improvements that were on par with what would be expected when taking a new medication. Studies like this have now been repeated with those suffering from numerous other illnesses with similar results.

 


Reason #3: Mental Health Benefits of Journaling

Interestingly, the research on journaling and mental health outcomes is limited as compared to journaling and physical outcomes. Luckily the research that does exist confirms what you might have guessed: writing helps. Writing has been found to reduce symptoms of depression as well as anxiety.


Reason #4: Better Sleep

For many reasons, grief can impact your sleep pattern. Some people find they sleep too much; some people find they sleep too little; some people find they lay awake at night staring at their ceiling thinking about all their fears, anxieties, worries, sadnesses, the empty space beside them in the bed…you get the picture.

Research has found that writing or talking about worries, concerns, or other difficult thoughts before going to bed can reduce ruminative thoughts, help people fall asleep quicker, and improve the quality of sleep. And, though this probably goes without saying, better sleep equals improvements in overall functioning.


Reason #5: Writing is Beneficial for those Seeking Constructive Ways to Cope with Grief

In initial studies on grief and writing, researchers found something interesting: writing didn’t seem to help! It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t helpful either. This really didn’t jive with existing research which indicated that writing helped those struggling with difficult or traumatic experiences. Why would grief and loss be any different?

When the researchers decided to take a closer look at the data they found that the participants in their study had not been seeking grief help or support at the time of their participation. So researchers conducted new studies, this time with individuals who had lost a loved one and who were looking for support in coping with their grief. 

The results of these studies showed that interventions like expressive writing were helpful for those who were grieving and looking for constructive ways to cope with their grief.


These studies and many others are outlined and referenced in the books by Pennebaker and Smyth. If you want to read more about research on expressive writing and traumatic experiences, we would recommend you check out this book

If you want help and motivation in establishing a grief-journaling practice, check out our e-course Self-Guided 30-Day Grief Journaling Intensive from which portions of this article were excerpted.

August 16, 2019

25 responses on "5 Benefits of Grief Journaling"

  1. My mother, who was 92, passed away this past May while having an operation that was supposed to improve her quality of life. It may sound strange, but I did not expect her death. Instead of “planning for the worst and hoping for the best”, I was “planning for the BEST, and hoping the worst would never happen”. As the operation approached, I went to her condo and fixed everything up so it would be perfect when she got home. New sheets, new towels, the works! When the doctor told me the news I was shocked. I went to two support groups and neither was helpful. However, this website helps and so has reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg/Adam Grant (Excellent!) and The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W James. I am still trying to process things and find some sort of acceptance of what has happened; as we all know it’s very difficult…..

  2. I dont know how to deal with grief and pain, its just too overwhelming and hurting…

  3. I have been journalling since my son died nearly 4 months ago. He died of a drug overdose at the age of 34. We had no idea he was even using drugs, although his life was not going well. All his friends knew but no one told me. He wasn’t found for a week after he died so I have those images in my head many many times a day. His last breath, alone; no opportunity to prepare for his own death. Just gone. Despite my not knowing about the drugs, we were soulmates; I thought he was ‘just’ a ‘late bloomer’ and would finally get his life in order and we would all live happily ever after. That he would die NEVER entered my head. He has left such a huge empty place in my life. He was my only child and I am not partnered. To be told that this grief will last years is crushing me. Every day is a struggle. The journal doesn’t really help me either, even though I keep doing it. I address my son directly in it. I tell him I love him and miss him, but I was so mad at him in the weeks before he died that it is full of my apologies to him and ‘what ifs’. It always makes me cry. Maybe I’d be worse off if I didn’t keep the journal?

    • Oh, sweet mom, 4 months is not a long time to grieve! Give yourself grace. You have loved your son his whole life, and you will love him for the rest of yours. My daughter died 6 years ago, and I miss her every day. Please allow yourself to grieve, and cope with your grief, in whatever way works for you. I’ve tried every opportunity to learn about grief and express what I was/am feeling. Some things were helpful, others weren’t, so I let go of them. I write in a grief writing group, where we can share our similarities and our differences. I am also part of a verbal grief support group. The pain in the beginning was beyond bearing–I needed a lot of help. I have since learned how to carry my love and grief together. Some days the grief is stronger than others. Mostly, the pain is a yearning ache now, rather than a knife edge. And most days I can function now, and enjoy the rest of my family. But it was terribly overwhelming at first. Do whatever you need to do to help yourself, and express your feelings for and about your son. You and he deserve that. Sending deep compassion for you.

      • Thanks Wanda for your lovely reply. I feel for you in your grief. What a world my son’s death has opened up for me. I am trying many things to deal with Jonathan’s death, maybe too many. But if I don’t try and distract myself, I am in misery. I am 65 years old so I feel tired and dispirited when I think of years of this feeling, even if it gets to part of a new ‘normal’. Can you tell me what helped you the most? No need to reply if it is too painful for you.

  4. My husband passed April 2017. I still have not had a “wake” for him and feel so guilty. I couldn’t do anything at first. Fell into deep depression. We were married 39 years, and we were best friends and very close. He did not want a funeral, but i think, even after all this time, I should have a wake for him. His passing was due to hospital error, a minor procedure, that went wrong. I am still stricken so bad with grief. I can’t bear it. I just want to be with him. I know that’s crazy, but I’m so lost and my life completely changed. I miss him so so much. Maybe I should trying the journaling. Everyone says it helps. The guilt of not having done anything for him after his passing haunts me.

  5. It’s not exactly journaling. I lost my lover and best friend on 7/23/19 to a motorcycle accident. It was so unexpected and so ill timed because we really were wrapping up loose ends and were getting ready for a peaceful, happy retirement time. So stuff is half-way done, probate is a daily reminder of everything, and of course, the stress of the past year meant we were not getting along all that well at times. So I’ve taken to e-mailing him my thoughts, feelings, events of the day, really everything and anything. A lot is my expression of remorse for some of the things I said and did this past year; some for angry and childish things I did in the many years we were together. But a lot of it is also me sharing memories as they come to mind of all the fun we had together. It seems crazy to put this in writing, but I have found it truly does help with my grief and with forgiving him for some of the stuff he pulled as well as asking his forgiveness, and my newly found insight on some of the bad behavior I targeted at him through the years. [Both of us had pretty strong personalities and sometimes neither one of us wanted to back down or admit the other may have a point. Things that seem so childish now that he is gone. But again, sending him e-mails about all this really does seem to make the grieving easier for me.

    • Dear Mar. Your comment expresses a lot of what I am feeling to about the loss of my son (I commented above). A constant circle of ‘what ifs’ and guilt: the conflict between us, his faults and now, mostly, mine as a parent. I read somewhere a ‘mantra’: ‘I am sorry; please forgive me, I love you; I forgive you everything; thank you for being in my life.’ I hope this is of some small comfort to you.

  6. Hello, any advise on how to start journaling? Not sure where to start but would like to. Since losing my mum last year, I have thought about journaling/blogging but not sure what to say or where to start. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • It has been almost 6 years since my late husband died. I have found it easiest to just be honest and open with what you are feeling. If you are in the car, supermarket, wherever and you feel like crying DO IT and who cares what others think and YOU OWE THEM NO EXPLANATION WHAT SO EVER!!! He would always say don’t worry or get upset about this or that “It is what it is” so that is how I’ve coped with him not being here anymore. Just write what YOU WANT and WHAT YOU FEEL it is that simple. With love in my heart to all!!

  7. My daughter passed away unexpectedly at the end of July ,1 day after her 46th birthday. She had not been feeling well, had not been eating much and was losing weight. They live 2 hrs way and I hadn’t seen her since the end of April. I wanted her to see a doctor but she was anti-medical care all of her adult life having developed an irrational fear. She kept telling me she was feeling better. I had no idea that in fact it was getting worse. Even her husband was shocked. She passed away peacefully in her sleep with her 10 year old daughter in bed with her. Ironically I fought stage 3 cancer the past 3 years as I did not want to leave her without a mother. My own mom passed away in her early 60s when I was 42. My entire family has now passed on but a niece and my beautiful grand daughter. I am struggling with grief. It crashes in on me like waves in the ocean and then recedes. My grand girl gives me new purpose. It’s a very sad time for the 3 of us. We will be having a Celebration of her Life on September 14th. The lovely thing I’ve learned is that my daughter had many friends. She adored her daughter and All this lets me know how much love she spread with her presence. IO will miss her always. Heaven has a new angel . Today I found this site and I started journaling. I hope it helps…. Hugs to all of you

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  9. I have journaled for many years as a part of my consulting/training and coaching work. It helped me figure out what road I wanted to take, after being laid off . That was a big loss to me – journaling helped me come to grips with the disappointment, sorrow and ,yes, grief. I was able to identify my gifts and strengths as well as the traps I could fall into.
    So when my husband was diagnosed 8 years ago with melanoma I continued journaling. Naturally my topics focused on him and our cancer journey. His journey came to an end March 28, 2019, after 3 months of god-awful hell. I was exhausted and in a fog, but I was still able to write down my feelings and sadness. While I give credit to my Hope Support Grief group, I think writing sometimes in poetry style, sometimes in essay style saved me. I write “whatever” down and then say to myself, “Now I will leave this here on the desk”. I am sleeping and eating better now. My lows are not as low as they were a few weeks ago! and just generally

  10. Our beautiful Labrador passed away recently, age 16. We fell in love with her at first sight. She came into our lives after we miscarried our twins and another singleton. Our dog was perfect and helped heal our broken heart and gave us the BEST 16 years of our lives . In the last three and a half years of her life she was diagnosed with the human equivalent of ALS and lived very well with this disease right to the end. She took a turn and stopped eating and drinking in the end and 3 days later she passed away naturally with us by her side. My husband and I were with her during a 3 day palliative vigil, as was our other labrador. Close family, friends and neighbours would come by as we gathered around her to love and support her in her final days. It was very special. We feel so grateful yet have a beautiful sadness within. I have come to realise that Dogs are simply divine and give unconditional love and loyalty to a level that humans are simply incapable of. She inspired us to help her live well and she thrived on a holistic diet and much love. Sometimes I wonder if she was a guardian angel who came to us disguised as a dog. We can only wonder. It was an honour to love her so deeply. She taught us that death is only a transition and that spirit lives on. Love is so powerful. Sending love and light to all who have loved so deeply. Looking forward to journaling.

  11. My wife of 32 years past away 2 years ago this September. She was diagnosed with ALS only a year before. A year of taking care of her every day brought us even closer than we had been our married years. When she passed I dug deep into God’s word for comfort but also started journaling because somewhere before all this I had heard it would help. So many evenings with tear filled eyes I wrote down all my feelings as if I was writing to hear. And I realized after some time that this was very helpful. Now I can look back at those entries and can’t believe how far I have come. I can read what I wrote with fond memories and no deep grief anymore. Yes journaling is very therapeutic.

  12. I lost my husband a year July of 2018. It was and is the most devastating shocking happening of my life. We had known each other for 30 years are together for 28. The manner in which he passed was so traumatic and heinous that speaking about it is almost impossible. It involves improper and unprofessional care at a hospital, it involves severe dysfunction in his family overmedication, botched surgery. In effect it was hell on Earth. He went in for a blood work and three weeks later he starved to death in hospice. I guess I don’t know where to begin. People have asked me if I was going to take this to court, but it won’t make any difference I know. Sometimes I start to write to the hospital. Sometimes I start to write to his doctor who is sick at the time and so we had no one to support us. It’s so overwhelming that I don’t know where to begin. I have tried with a journal but it is too much and it just upsets me. But then I know I’m upset anyway. I have worked with therapist, , but I can’t seem to get Beyond how he passed. And how completely out of control the situation was. Perhaps if I wrote to him directly it might help? I guess I’m asking for help ten”t I?

    • I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my wife of 44 years in 2017. She was discharged from the hospital on a Saturday and she passed away the following Wednesday as we lay in bed together. A hospice nurse had visited us the day before and had said she would possibly live another month, but could pass away at any time. I didn’t tell my wife all the facts because her cognitive skills had been compromised by a light stroke. She was 64. So many decisions had to be made so quickly.

      I heard of the suggestion of writing a journal. I tried to do it and I am a good writer. It just seemed like to big of a burden. I would write a few paragraphs and then be very upset. It seemed like an impossibility. I did something different. I wrote positive letters to her doctor, her nurses at a dialysis center, to all her relatives, the senior center staff, and the hospital staff. My message was to thank them for their good interactions with her. How this or that made her smile or laugh. How I appreciated how hard the medical staff and volunteers tried to make a positive outcome. I know you, Mimi, have some anger about the medical staff. Well, there was a time when I was very angry at a nursing assistant who did not help her when she asked for assistance saying she could do it herself and the end result was she became dizzy and fell on the floor. This happened on the one hour while I went home to take care of a few things at the house and get bathed before returning to the hospital. I was a crazy man when I returned. That person was banned from ever going into that room again even though my wife was in the hospital for another week. I am not sure why security was not summoned other than I know the nursing staff knew I was right about the incompetence.

      My point is that there is different kinds of writing in journal. I would not have many sentences about how I felt. I would have many entries of “I am numb. I am scared. My mind is a fog. There is confusion. I need to make decisions.” There were times when I couldn’t even trust my driving even though I was in good health and 64 years old. My brain was just overwhelmed. And I did have a heart attack within a year.

      I could write about how I returned to being a normal human being. That would be a different focus on my journal. It is an individual journey, but it could be a template for others to follow. I could do that. There were missteps, trying too hard, embracing that time does make a difference, and then finding the end of the rainbow of grief. There is a calm and perspective on that journey. Your footsteps may be on a different path, but you can get there, too.

  13. I was sitting in a cafe reading your article. I lost my husband 3 years ago next month. I have bought 2 beautiful journals but am yet to put a mark in them. I feel like all that I might write will somehow defile those beautiful white pages. My counsellor has advised me to try – to no avail. I hold the pen and look at the page and somehow believe if I put it down in black and white it will make it real and worse. That that will be a record of my sadness and probably depression.
    However I looked up and a lone shop over the road called “Journals- Life Dreams Paper”. I kind of feel it’s a sign. Maybe 3rd time lucky.
    Today I will try again and hope to be the beneficiary of all that the research discovered. Thank you for your articles. They help enormously.

  14. At just past 3 years over the sudden loss of my husband, a counselor that I started seeing for depression suggested journaling as part of my therapy. I remember doing a bit of it in the months right after he died. I can’t remember why I stopped, but as with anything in that horrible period at the beginning I think it just got to be to much. So I’ve started back up and I find that it does seem to be therapeutic for me, if only to write things I am grateful for in that day, for which there is always something. I try to think of it as a release for my soul on the bad days which still come but are definitely fewer and not as intense now. I visualize releasing my sad thoughts to the paper instead of letting them fester inside. Might sound hokey, but for me it helps. And on those days when I might think nothing is going right with my life and never will again, I can go back and read over my journal and see that that is not true and I have had happy days, and this too shall pass..

  15. Early on after my loss, another parent who had lost a child told me that journaling helped him to look back and see how far he’d come in the healing process. (He’d lost his daughter 16 years earlier.) Those were golden words, and so I started journaling. It was never daily, and as time went on it became more and more sporadic.

    The physical act of getting the words out (and it was pen and paper, not digital) in the early mornings with a cup of coffee was very therapeutic and even soothing. I always felt better afterwards. I highly recommend it.

  16. Thank you Eleanor for this wonderful article.

    As a grieving widower with two teenage boys, one of the most difficult things that I had to deal with on a daily basis early on was missing that “quality time” of sharing my day with my wife and hearing about her day. As busy working parents, this was our most precious time together, our “connection time”.

    Early on in the grief process, I tried journaling my thoughts and feelings, but it was very difficult. I felt as if I had “writer’s block”. That was UNTIL my therapist suggested that I target my journal to my wife. So, I began writing to her every night and this made all the difference in the world. This allowed me to recapture somewhat that “precious time” with my bride where I could share with her everything that was going on with me, good, bad, funny, even the downright mundane stuff. I believe that you and Litsa would refer to this as a form of “continuing bonds”.

    I would strongly recommend this practice to anyone grieving the loss of their “soul-mate”. Thank you for all that the two of you do. I am forwarding this article to everyone in my grief support group right now.

  17. After my partner died, my therapist recommended that I keep a grief journal. She said it would help my memory as the shock of losing someone suddenly affected my ability to function. I was mentally frozen. Grief is grief no matter what the relationship. I wrote for four years.

    Last year, I edited the journal into my second book, Beyond the Opened Door, Grief as an Opportunity to Rediscover the Self. It has since won two awards.

  18. This was always being preached to me early on in my grief counseling…you like writing-you are a good writer-then do it.
    I tried this and found that after a few weeks it was almost the same every day. Lets face it I was depressed and angry, resentful, and just voicing all that my wife of 38 years was now missing and look at this-look at that.
    I was telling her how much I missed her-loved her and then noting what she was missing out on etc….
    I decided that other than tiring hands and sloppy (65 year old) handwriting I was just beating myself down in the process.
    I gave it up and havent missed it since. I do my journal verbally and on my time when it comes up and oh does it come up frequently.
    To me the thought of a journal had no benefits and became a chore and after awhile I was searching for words that when I am alone and speak come naturally-it became a chore.
    Each day is tough enough without recapping what my wife and I are now missing-all the trips-vacations-events on our retirement chart…..we had just retired!
    To others this may work but for me.

    • Hey Gary,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I can totally relate to the feeling of something that worked for you before – either as a coping skill or just a hobby – no longer feeling helpful. Although we recommend people who are open to journaling try it, we agree, it’s not going to work for everyone. I’m glad you were able to identify this and (hopefully) moved on to find coping that brings you greater comfort.

  19. In the first several months after my son died, journaling was my refuge. It was the first time in my life that I had allowed myself to journal in this way, to let out everything – the good, bad, and the ugly – without worrying about how it might sound to someone else. Sometimes I didn’t seem to have enough time to write everything I wanted to write! I credit the journaling with helping me through those darkest of times and highly recommend it to anyone grieving.

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