By Beverly Chantalle McManus
My birthday took place a week after Steve died. Although I did not feel like celebrating, my family members thoughtfully brought some gifts over, one of which was a journal. At the time, I gave it little thought. I was so consumed with grief, shock and pain, and the idea of sitting down to write couldn’t have been further from my mind.
However, a few months later, as I began to settle into my new life without Steve, I started panicking at times, because given how my entire memory bank now seemed to be completely fragmented, with huge chunks missing completely, as I began recalling memories of Steve I worried that if I didn’t write them down, I might forget them completely.
My first journal entries were lists of things I didn’t want to forget about Steve. These covered the waterfront, from how he laughed when watching cartoons to the little poem he used to say when he found stray pennies. I filled several pages of the journal with random entries as they occurred to me, purely stream of consciousness stuff. I quickly decided this journal was for my eyes only, and thus I could fill it with whatever I chose to.
After the random memories, I began making lists, starting with a list of things I really missed about Steve. These were sometimes things I didn’t even realize he did, but which were so painfully apparent in his absence. And sometimes these were things that were private and intimate, and that filled my heart with longing and my eyes with tears. After doing the list of things I missed, I realized that as painful as it was to admit, there were certain things about Steve that I didn’t miss. I decided to make a list of those, and in so doing, was able to gain some useful perspective on our life together. And I realized that there were many things I’d failed to tell Steve, and so decided to make a list of these as well. This list primarily focused on my gratitude for the wonderful guy Steve was. But it also included some painful things that I wish I’d been able to discuss with him in person, at the time the incidents occurred.
These lists filled many pages of the journal and even now, several years after his death, I add to the lists.
After making lots of lists, I began writing letters to Steve, voicing my concerns, worries, and thrills, whether with our daughters, over work, concerning our house, or about other matters. These were pretty rambling, and although sometimes I’d begin very focused on one topic, my thoughts would diverge into many other areas and I’d find that I’d filled many pages before I could stop writing. These writings were very cathartic, and using them to focus on my inner life helped me retain balance in my outer life.
A few months after Steve’s death, I began attending a grief workshop, and we were asked to write our responses to reflection questions each week, and then to continue writing on that topic once we were home. I found these topics (on issues like dealing with anger, guilt, loneliness, stress, and more) good jumping-off points for my journal writing, and after writing for a bit, I always felt a sense of release and well being. Not that the writing was easy, mind you! It was often accompanied by heart wrenching feelings, and lots of tears. But the journal provided a forum to collect my thoughts, as well as a compassionate listener who withheld comments as I poured my soul onto the pages.
As my husband, Steve had also filled the role of companion and nursemaid to me during those thankfully rare times when I was under the weather. As such, he always offered numerous suggestions of remedies or things to do that might help me to swiftly recover. Following Steve’s death, I began having major anxiety attacks, because for the first time in my adult life, I was completely alone. I worried about what would happen if I became gravely ill — what would I do? I no longer had someone to remind me to take my vitamins when I was sick, or to drink extra water when I got a headache, or to meditate and breathe deeply when I was feeling stressed out. I used some of the journal’s pages to make lists of helpful tips for dealing with certain scenarios, primarily health-related, such as how to handle a migraine, what to do when I felt like my knee was going out, and steps to take when I felt a dark depression descending over me. I’ve referred to these lists many times over the past few years, and somehow, they help me feel connected to Steve, even though they were written a while after his death.
What I’ve learned:
- Initially I failed to date my entries, but soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to remember when certain things were added, so went back in and loosely dated the early stuff, and now I always date every new entry.
- Writing things down does curtail the squirrelly mind that often wants to take over, with all the “coulda-shoulda-woulda” thinking that accompanies the death of a spouse. After writing down the scenarios and thinking behind certain decisions, I was able to quiet my mind from its ceaseless looping of speculations and questioning past decisions. For example, I had been continually berating myself for not insisting that Steve seek out some kind of alternative healthcare regime to treat the cancer. But then Id’ remember, “Oh, but Steve didn’t have one iota of faith in such healthcare systems, and insisted on staying the course with his oncologist and surgeon.”
- * I initially felt guilty because I didn?t write more often, but then realized I wrote as often as I needed to. I also found myself writing little notes to Steve in the journal on the anniversaries of certain dates, as well as around holidays. Journaling has helped me transition through the loneliness of those special days, feeling less isolated.
- Re-reading my journals, I’ve realized that often it was the very act of writing, of putting pen to paper, that was healing, many times more so than what I actually wrote about. If you are wondering where or how to begin your grief journal, I’d like you to consider just writing a short piece on something not too emotionally charged. You don’t need a fancy bound journal, nor one that is published specifically for grief (although these can be helpful). Just grab some paper and a pen, and write about what the day is like today? and then let your pen be guided by your feelings and your memories and see where it takes you.
Looking back, I have discovered that my journals serve as a very useful benchmark for how much I’ve changed since Steve’s death. At this point, I sometimes feel like a different person, and as I re-read some of my early entries, I realize that it is true, I AM a completely different person, and have grown enormously in the time since his departure from this life. Journaling helps me stay close to him, yet also helps me see the tremendous growth and change that has taken place over time.
How has journaling helped you deal with the death of your spouse? Do you journal at a specific time, or just when the need arises? What tips do you have for others who are embarking on their grief journals? We’d love to hear about your journaling experiences! Do share!
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.