“It is, in the end, the saving of lives we writers are about. We do it because we care. We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.” ~ Alice Walker
Days before my four-year-old son’s anticipated death, a nurse gave me a blue-flowered journal. After the memorial service, the crisp white pages became stained with my pain. I filled each lined surface. When I got to the last page, my pain was still strong, so I bought a notebook. And another. In the evenings, I unleashed the bottled feelings I’d accumulated throughout each day.
My writing mirrored the Psalms where God is asked where are you? and why? I wrote about missing my son and the fear of a long life without him. The day I was able to recall a happy memory of Daniel was the day I changed from focusing not just on how he died, but how my little boy had lived.
When asked to substitute as a facilitator at a grief-writing workshop, I wasn’t sure if the attendees would see the value in writing through tragedy. How could I convey to the bereaved moms and dads that putting pain to paper alleviated some of the heaviness of the heart? As women and men filled the front and back row seats of the hotel conference room in Denver, Colorado, nervously, I stood at the podium. I knew writing had saved my life since the death of Daniel, but did others feel the same way? One woman on the front row asked if we had to write. Another let me know she was there only because her husband wanted to attend.
Would Others Benefit?
Did writing assist with healing or had it only worked because ever since I was a little girl in baggy red tights, I had been fond of writing? Would others at the conference benefit from our hour together? When it was time to start the workshop, I suggested some writing prompts. One was to write a poem in memory of our child.
After quiet moments of heads bent over notepads, I asked if anyone wanted to share his/her poem. The woman in the front who had asked if we had to write stood and read her poem. The room turned into tears. One man wept loudly as he read the verses he’d written about his daughter. As others shared, there were also smiles and even laughter.
What I remember most since that first writing workshop I facilitated 21 years ago is what the conference volunteer said to me after the event. “There was a lot of healing going on in that room.” I doubted her words then, thinking she was just trying to be nice. Now I know that she was right. Writing from our significant losses and discovering how to make peace with our feelings is therapy, the kind that shines along the path to healing, health, and hope.
Then I Met James
It would be years before I’d realize that writing for clarity in the midst of angst and sorrow—what is called expressive writing or self-reflective writing—has been scientifically proven to be part of a healthy lifestyle.
Psychology professor Dr. James Pennebaker entered my world through a book where I read about his study on writing. He divided his class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, into two groups. One was told to write about trivial things like the weather and the other was instructed to write from wounds they had due to past sorrow. Over the course of four days, the students were to write for 15 minutes.
After the study, those who had written about a traumatic experience had lowered their heart rates and anxiety levels. Students who had written about superficial topics had no change. Those writing about deep issues made fewer visits to the student health center on campus.
No Grammar Worries
Now when I facilitate bereavement workshops, I share the findings from Dr. Pennebaker’s study. I’ve seen moms and dads use writing to benefit their lives and help them deal with the profound heartache that comes when a child dies. As a grief-writing advocate, I know that a journal is a friend that does not judge or blab emotions to the world. A journal is a safe place where grammar, spelling, and punctuation don’t matter and where transparency resides when the freedom to express is celebrated.
If we would take time to write about the things that trouble us, the losses we’ve faced, and even the gratitude to God for sustaining us with so many gifts— including the gift of writing—what a healthier world it would be.
Pennebaker’s Writing to Heal Guidelines
1. Write 15 minutes a day over a period of 4 days. Do this periodically. This way you won’t feel overwhelmed.
2. Write in a private, safe, comfortable environment.
3. Write about issues you’re currently living with, something you’re thinking or dreaming about constantly, a trauma you’ve never disclosed or discussed or resolved.
4. Write about joys and pleasures, too.
5. Write about what happened. Write, too, about feelings about what happened. What do you feel? Why do you feel this way? Link events with feelings.
6. Try to write an extremely detailed, organized, coherent, vivid, emotionally compelling narrative. Don’t worry about correctness, about grammar or punctuation.
7. Beneficial effects will occur even if no one reads your writing.
8. Expect, initially, that in writing in this way you will have complex and appropriately difficult feelings. Make sure you get support if you need it.
Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others, James Pennebaker (William Morrow, 1990)
Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo (Beacon Press, 1999)
Alice J. Wisler is an author of six novels, cookbooks, and the devotional, Getting Out of Bed in the Morning. She speaks on writing through grief and loss at conferences and has online workshops. Check out her website.
Read more from Alice on Open to Hope: Writing the Gratitude! – Open to Hope
Tags: grief and loss, taking care of self, writing to heal