Losing a loved one, whether after an illness or unexpectedly, is one of the most difficult life events. How one processes the emotions that come with death and the means of expressing that grief vary from person to person.
Grief is “a natural response to death or loss," says the WebMD Medical Reference. "The process is helped when you acknowledge grief, find support and allow time for grief to work.”
That can be accomplished in a variety of ways. “Many people find journal writing valuable and meaningful, and report feeling better afterward," according to Harvard Health Publishing, the media and publishing division of the Harvard Medical School of Harvard University.
“Some research suggests that disclosing deep emotions through writing can boost immune function as well as mood and well-being,” the article continues, noting the risk of higher blood pressure, faster heart rate and increased muscle tension when feelings are suppressed.
“Writing has helped our clients with unexpected traumatic grief who don’t know where to begin working through their feelings,” said Jil Hus, a visiting instructor in the Clinical Mental Health Program at the Purdue Northwest Community Counseling Center in Hammond and a licensed mental health counselor. “Writing is a great way to work through the paralysis of grief; it helps process the different parts of the grief and helps (people) heal by telling their own story in their own words.”
She said the Purdue Northwest Community Counseling Center, which provides experience for students doing counseling practicums and internships, offers expressive art courses for grief and focuses on narrative therapy.
“Not everyone wants or likes to journal, so we suggest poetry, fairy tales, fantasy, storytelling or other types of writing,” she said. “Any type of narrative therapy is helpful.”
Catherine Osborne, a licensed clinical social worker and director/therapist at Human Nature Arts in Highland, specializes in traumatic loss. She provides expressive arts, which include writing, to those who are grieving.
“We usually use a ‘creative connection’ to process grief,” she said. “We begin in one modality, like art, and then layer others, such as journaling, poetry and sharing, on top of it. It’s about the process, not the product.”
Some of Osborne’s traumatic loss groups use a book called “The Angel Catcher,” which is like a journal but includes prompts with topics to write about.
“It’s free-form writing — whatever flows — and the process itself can be nurturing and has some healing in it,” she said. “It’s about finding an inroad that doesn’t feel overwhelming to clients, because the grief can feel so big.”
Dorothy Poma, the bereavement facilitator and head of grief support groups at Hospice of the Calumet Area in Munster, helps teens and adults work through their grief in a free program that runs six sessions.
The teen sessions are based on activities that keep them engaged and interacting, allow them to identify feelings and experiences, and make them realize that they’re not alone. Writing is one of those activities.
During each session, Poma noted, she will ask a question and the teens write their answer in a composition book. Though journaling is not done during the group sessions, Poma said someone usually mentions it and how helpful it is.
She teaches that grief is an inward feeling and mourning is the way to express grief outwardly.
Sarah Ticich is the bereavement facilitator for the children’s group at Hospice of the Calumet Area. Her young clients range in age from 6 to 12, so writing in their six sessions is very basic, she said.
The children’s sessions focus on games.
“We have the kids talk about themselves during the first session and make a safe space where they can ask questions they may be afraid to ask others,” Ticich said. “We do ask them to write, but it’s mostly in pictures.”
The children play a game with words that describe how they may be feeling, then Ticich uses those words to spark a conversation. In addition, each week the children complete a journal sheet on a different topic.
Ticich and Indiana University Northwest intern Emily Stutler, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, help the kids each week write down their feelings on pieces of paper, which are placed in a memory jar. This writing activity helps children express their emotions through words, which is not usually easy for them.
“It’s important to feel and identify the feelings and then let them out,” Poma said. “Writing is an outlet that helps both.”