Making Sense of Grief Through Mindful Writing

One way to address grief-filled paradigm change and transition is to engage in mindful writing exercises. Telling one’s story mindfully means sharing it with the bereavement facilitator or with grief support group members who also are wounded and bereaved of someone or something.
In a ministry of consolation, using personal stories means talking—often through writing—about oneself. Talking, listening, reading, and writing each engage different neural pathways in the brain, which suggests that varying these actions can lead to new or different understanding of events.
As bereavement facilitators, we can encourage this storytelling process and listen carefully with the ears of our hearts. A bereaved person’s story becomes like a family biography. Writing expert Susan Zimmerman states: “While we would be fools to seek out sorrow, the unavoidable suffering that is an integral part of life’s fabric is not something to view as a cross that we bear alone. It simply is. And, as such, it is one of life’s great teachers, presenting us with opportunities to expand our souls and deepen our understanding and compassion.”[1]

Writing mindfully particularly helps people intentionally pay attention to their life histories. Something—possibly writing’s tactile and action-based nature—fuels their capacity to engage with the past, expressing it with words that are personally meaningful. Writing mindfully helps people express their grief about the hurts the world has inflicted and encourages them to own the hurts they’ve inflicted on themselves and others.

Telling Stories Requires Focus

Writing has a way of helping people focus on what they want and need. Using one’s own stories to learn about the self teaches both the bereavement facilitator and the bereaved person about how the bereaved sees life, loss, grief, and mourning.

By asking the bereaved person to tell or write something specific about the loss, we can encourage the mindful writing of autobiographical stories. For example, we might ask them to write in response to these questions: “When has God intervened in your life before? How has God intervened in this loss and grief?” or “What has happened in your past life that’s like this event? What did you do about it then?”

These prompts encourage the bereaved to walk through problem solving, taking them from potential despair by providing a concrete writing task. After time for writing and listening to whatever the bereaved person wants to share, we can ask, “Since God has intervened in your life before, how do you think God will intervene now?” or “How do you want to act on your own behalf now?”

This brief exercise can be revised in endless ways to help the bereaved person develop mindfulness around God’s positive interventions and a personal theology of hope as a spiritual being on a human journey.

Writing Life Stories

Mindful writing strategies can help people recognize and reflect on their wounds, human limitations, brokenness, and vulnerability, as well as on their capacity to find resilience, hope, and the courage to continue to live—and live fully. Bereavement facilitators should try these exercises before offering them to the bereaved people they support.

First, though, it’s important to note that none of these mindful writing exercises requires anyone to share them with us. People may have bad memories of writing from childhood that haunt them now. So, it’s important that they feel free to share or not to share either orally or with their texts.

They don’t need to write coherent sentences and paragraphs. If a phrase works for them, so be it. Once people become used to writing out their ideas and take control over what they want to share, they may become more open to that sharing. The mindful writing process itself is primarily for people to allow themselves to think differently about their grief and mourning, taking advantage of the different neural pathways writing uses.

Finding One’s Limitations

One strategy is to articulate expectations that haven’t been met in one’s life.[2] People tend to expect a lot from God and other humans; some people are especially hard on themselves, expecting superhuman strength and constant excellent judgement. Articulating these expectations can help bereaved people acknowledge their powerlessness over others and God and to find their own limitations.

In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul indicates that he has an impediment, a thorn in the flesh that he begged God to remove from him; God refuses, telling the apostle that his grace is sufficient for him (2 Cor 12:7). In fact, Paul states shortly after: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

It’s entirely possible that in writing this text, Paul was telling himself about this impediment (loss) as much as he was sharing it with us. Like Paul, writing about expectations can help people to see that grace is there for them, too. For the scripturally aware bereavement facilitator, connecting those expectations to Scripture may help deepen the understanding people can achieve.

Stay Away from ‘Should’

People tend to word expectations using the conditional language of should and could—“shoulding on” themselves again! Zimmerman considers the belief that something should have happened a particular way to be a form of saying, “Why me?” There’s an underlying blame that comes with such language, meaning that if the bereaved are to listen to their own words to understand themselves in grief, they first must understand who they blame, why, and for what.

[1] Susan Zimmerman, Writing to Heal the Soul: Transforming Grief and Loss through Writing (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 34.

[2] Zimmerman, 34.

Beth Hewett

Beth L. Hewett knows grief from personal experience, and she has a heart for those who grieve their loved ones. Her desire to help other bereaved people led to her work as a Certified Thanatologist (CT) with the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and as a Certified Compassionate Bereavement Care™ Provider with the MISS Foundation. She also has earned a certificate in Death and Grief Studies from the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is a former National Catholic Ministry for the Bereaved Minister of Consolation Trainer.

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