Going public—sharing one's letters, poems, or other written thoughts—is an intensely personal and potentially risky experience. But not all writing has to be widely read to be valuable. Keeping a diary or writing a letter that no one but you will ever read can have a significant positive impact on the healing journey following the traumatic death of a loved one.
The idea of writing as a positive aid to healing is not a new one, but recent research has helped to confirm its value. There is an abundance of scientific evidence that suggests a link between therapeutic writing and the successful management of traumatic experiences. Less clear is exactly why scriptotherapy (the fancy word for therapeutic writing) benefits those who practice it.
Mental health experts have suggested a variety of reasons why writing may be so helpful. One theory suggests that writing may bring troubling issues from the subconscious to the conscious enabling us to manage them better. Others suggest that by labeling and describing events the writer is able to gain more control over them. As one TAPS survivor described it, writing “helped me to catalog and classify the pain; not that it took the pain away, but it was my way of wrestling it to the ground.”
Yet another explanation for the value of therapeutic writing lies in the concept of reframing—looking at an issue or problem in another way or from another angle. Just the experience of writing about a problem, according to some researchers, provides a different point of view from talking about the problem. Using her computer’s cut and paste features, one survivor found writing to be more effective than thinking or talking about her feelings. “Writing was the only way to get it all out, and by using the computer, I was also able to arrange and rearrange my thoughts to make them more coherent.”
Some proponents of scriptotherapy affirm something many of us know first-hand: the repression of grief and trauma can actually harm the body. The opposite of repression is expression, and by expressing ourselves through writing, we may actually be helping ourselves physically. Some very interesting research on therapeutic writing has noted that writing before bedtime may serve as a sleep aid for some people.
Unlike the work of professionals, our writing does not have to be good to be good for us. Since no one is going to see it except you, forget about spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The following are some writing ideas that may help you get started if writing is not something that comes easily.
One caution, however: Therapeutic writing can be enormously helpful but does not replace the skill and training of a professional trauma specialist. Whether or not you choose to incorporate your therapeutic writing into your work with a good counselor is between the two of you, but please don't let any of the following ideas serve as a replacement for other types of care you need.
Write a letter to your loved one telling him or her how much you miss them. Write a letter to the president describing to the best of your knowledge exactly how your loved one died. Write a letter to the actor you think would do the best job portraying your loved one in a movie of their life. Remember, you're not going to send the letter so don't hold back.
Following her son’s death in a helicopter crash, one mother wrote a letter to introduce her deceased grandmother to her son. “My grandma never knew my son—she died years before he was born—but it was important for me to believe that they were meeting in heaven. I know it sounds crazy, but it really helped me, and it was the first thing I did that focused on his life rather than his death."
Poetry and Psalms
Poetry, perhaps because of the creative element involved, is believed to be especially suited for tapping into the subconscious. While not everyone can sit down and dash off publishable poetry, the following are a couple of ideas to help you put pen to paper. First of all, forget about trying to make everything rhyme; this is a free verse experience. Start with a feeling word such as "sadness" or "devastation" or "horror," and explain why it means something to you. Try an alphabet poem. Write each letter of the alphabet down the side of your paper, then start writing.
A memory of my
Boy is one that I
Cherish. I hold it close and
Dare others to
Keep creating until you've used all the letters.
Psalm writing offers another structured way of creating poetry and incorporates a conversation with God. A full one-third of psalms are considered lament psalms—poems of extraordinary grief and rage. Lament psalms follow a specific formula: an address to God, the complaint, an affirmation of trust, a petition or request for intervention, and finally, a blessing. Try writing your own psalm. Just as the psalmists did, be specific in your complaint. Make it as graphic as you are comfortable with. If you are unable to bless God, simply acknowledge that you are not able to do so at this time.
The words "journal" and "journey" come from the same root word that means "day." Our grief journeys are characterized by constant change—some days better, some worse, some familiar, some utterly unexpected. I encourage you to record that journey in some form. No matter how long you've been on this road, make this the day you begin to write.
Putting our feelings on paper and then going back and reading the words shifts our experience with the trauma to one of thinking about it instead of just feeling about it. When we are able to think about and study something we are able to process it in a different way.
Although most of us will never be published, making a point to capture special memories and stories not only serves as a therapeutic writing technique but also reassures us that important memories will not be forgotten. “How we met” stories are almost always significant to surviving spouses, and “what he/she was like as a child” are a rich source for siblings and parents. Start jotting those special memories down and you won’t have to worry about forgetting.
Responding to Quotes
Although there are no “rules” in therapeutic writing, there are still some people who aren’t confident about their writing or find it hard to just begin. A useful technique for the “writing-challenged” among us is to react to quotes about a particular topic. Although quotes are easy to find on the internet, here are some you might want to try:
Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal. ~ Irish headstone
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Given a choice between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief. ~ William Faulkner
A Final Thought
One consistent theme among those who shared their own stories about therapeutic writing was the sensation that their loved one “knew” what had been written. We know that writing to our deceased loved ones can be cathartic but perhaps there is value in the belief that somehow our loved ones are able to receive the messages that come from our deepest places and represent our profoundest feelings.
Poet Sheila Bender says that we write because something inside us says we must and we can no longer ignore that voice. Whether you pick up pen or put fingers to a keyboard, don’t ignore that voice anymore. Begin to write!