Journaling practice can be a valuable tool for doing grief work,
as well as helping to create and support a more self-aware life. If
you’re new to journaling, or would like to read more about it before
you begin, click here.
Breath Sometimes when we are grieving we forget to pay
attention to our bodies. We might even forget to eat or sleep. This is
a good way to get yourself back into your body so you can take care of
Sit for five
minutes with journal and pen in hand. Notice what it
feels like to draw breath into your body and to let it out again. Find
words to describe what you experience, and write them down. Are you
breathing through your nose or your mouth? How does the air feel as it
passes your lips or nostrils? How far into your body does your breath
go? Is it shallow or deep, ragged or smooth, slow or fast? Where does
it get stuck? Where does it flow easily? Write down each
sensation you feel and describe it in as much detail as possible.
Notice if you start thinking about other things, and gently, without
judgment, bring your attention back to your breath.
exercise can also be a lead-in to a meditation session.
2. Watching Body
(an expanded version of Watching
Breath) Sit for five minutes with journal and pen in hand. Begin again
by noticing breath. Once you have paid attention to the way you are
breathing in as much detail as possible, start noticing other things
about your body. Where are your hands? Are they tense or relaxed? Check
your neck and shoulders? What do they feel like? How does
your mouth feel? Your heart? Your throat, lungs, ears? Your belly?
What’s happening in your feet, ankles, legs, hips? Write a description
of each sensation you notice. Find words to describe the qualities of
the experience: tight, loose, open, closed, soft, hard, textured,
smooth, tense, relaxed, wet, dry, large, small. Be as specific as
possible. For example, my foot is red and tender; my mouth is dry and
my stomach is queasy.
Surroundings (an expanded version of
Watching Body). This time as you sit for five minutes, notice how your
body interacts with your environment. How does it feel at the points
where your body touches the surface where you’re sitting? What is the
surface like? What sounds do you hear? What can you smell? What colors
do you see? What textures can you feel? Are you aware of other people?
How far can you see? What is near you? What is under you, over you,
behind you, in front of you? Notice construction materials, fabrics,
shapes. Be creative in describing the qualities of what you observe.
Feel free to use metaphor to make your descriptions more accurate and
concrete: The setting sun has turned the clouds into cotton candy.
first three exercises are helpful warm-up exercises. You may
want to choose one at the beginning of each journaling session to help
you focus on the present moment.
4. Watching Thoughts
Sometimes in grief we have
thoughts racing through our minds telling us how to feel, how to
behave, how to think, what to believe. Your thoughts may run wild, you
may feel you have no control, or that there is something you’re
supposed to do, or that you’ve forgotten something, and on and on.
Watching Thoughts is a good way to become aware of all the ideas moving
through you. It gives you a chance to slow them down enough to take a
look at them and to see which ones really need your attention and which
ones can be acknowledged and let go. Watching Thoughts helps you
realize that you have choices about what you think about.
Part One For
ten minutes, write down every thought that goes through
your mind: The fridge is running. I
need to wash out the garbage can. I
wonder how Mom felt when she died. When is Aunt Mathilda coming? Who
will take care of the food while we’re at the funeral? Nobody was home
at Jennifer’s house; I wonder where she was. Darn, I missed three
thoughts in a row. This is hard. Fred doesn’t want me to work anymore.
My left hip is hurting. I haven’t cried since Mama died. . . .
Just write it
Part Two Read
over the thoughts you captured in Part One. Write for
five minutes about what you notice about them. Which thought(s) most
caught your attention? What was it about this thought that caught your
attention? What feelings come up when you think of this? Are you aware
of having had this thought before? Is it something you need to think
about right now? Does this thought need a solution? Does it concern a
task you might assign to someone else? To whom? Is this a topic you’d
like to write about again later? Do you have an insight about this?
5. What have I
learned? Think about something you
learned today about yourself or your loss or your life situation. How
did this insight occur? Where were you at the time? What were you
doing? How do you feel about knowing this? Write about how this insight
might help you in other circumstances.
6. Thought is Present
For ten minutes, notice and
write down each thought, sensation and emotion that enters your
awareness. Say, “Fear is present,” and write it down, or “Thought is
present,” and write it down. Write down the next thing that arises.
Name each one: Fear, fatigue, joy, curiosity, depression, itch, hunger,
drippy nose. . . . No processing. No judging. No trying to understand.
Just write the next
thought or sensation. After the ten minutes, or on another day,
whether you might like to explore further some of the thoughts,
emotions or sensations that arose. What have you noticed about yourself
in this process? Write about that.
7. The Diagnosis
Write about the day you learned of
the terminal diagnosis. Where were you? Who was with you? What were
your first thoughts? What did you do and say? How did you share this
news with others? How did you process it? What have you learned about
yourself and your loved ones since that time? What has changed since
8. This I believe
Write down something you believe to
be true about death–or about life. How does this belief affect your
behavior? Where did you get this idea? How long have you believed this?
Do other people you know believe the same thing? Who does? Who doesn’t?
Does this belief still serve you? Are there other beliefs that conflict
with this one? How does that affect you?
9. Wanting It to Be
Different Consider what you’d
like to be different in your life. Start with less intimate things,
like the traffic where you live. Be curious about that. Why do you want
it to be different? What would happen if it didn’t change? Think about
more personal issues, like the condition of your home. And even more
personal, like a particular trait of your personality. Why do you want
it to be different? What would happen if you did nothing to change it?
Notice the feelings that come up in your body when you write. Think
about larger or even more personal issues, like a loss, but only when
you are ready.
10. The Day My Loved
One Died Write about the day
your loved one died. Write in great detail. Write as much as you can
remember. Were you there? How did you find out? What did you feel? What
did you think? What did you and others say? Did you feel fear? If so,
about what? How does your body feel when you write about this? As you
write, you may experience strong emotions. You may want to keep writing
until the wave has passed. You may prefer to take a break and come back
to it. Consider doing Journaling Prompt 1 or another
to help you relax and feel the emotions as they come up.
11. Writing Poetry
prayer from Circles, or a
poem. Read it aloud
or to yourself. Notice the
feelings and thoughts that are prompted by the reading. Have you ever
felt this way? What is similar about your own experience? What is
different? Write a poem that expresses your own experience, your own
thoughts and feelings.
12. Writing Letters
Read an entry from Dancing in My
Mother’s Slippers, or perhaps
another book, or a letter from a friend. What feelings arise in you as
you contemplate this writing? Are you moved to write yourself? What
would you share about it with someone who cares about you? See
where your mind takes you as you contemplate your selection. Write to a
friend about it.
About Journaling Practice
practice is a wonderful tool if you wish to learn more
about your way of being in the world and about the world around you.
Journaling involves paying attention. It can help you see the details
of your environment in new ways. It can help you understand your
relationships with friends and family, co-workers, neighbors. It can
help you understand yourself and the choices you make. Journaling can
bring new perspectives, personal insights, explorations of mind, body,
spirit and psychology. Journaling can be healing. It’s a good way to
bring those thoughts that grind round and round in your mind out into
view so you can articulate them and see what is real in this moment and
what is based on memories of the past and thoughts and fears of the
future. Journaling is a good way to open to the possibility of
forgiveness and of moving on in life, past your stuck places and on to
peace of mind and peace of heart. Sometimes journaling can bring up
feelings that may be challenging or uncomfortable to process. You may
want to talk with a caring friend or counselor if this occurs.
If you don’t already have a journaling practice, I suggest you buy or
create a special journal that you will use only for this purpose. It
can be a simple school notebook or copy book, or something more
elegant. Sketch books are fairly inexpensive and can be easily
transformed by pasting a card or photo on the front. I prefer a wire
binding that allows the book to lie flat or be folded back. Some people
prefer to journal on a computer. You may want to keep all the entries
in one sub-directory so you can find them easily.
Plan to spend five or ten or fifteen minutes each day at the beginning.
You can always write longer if you feel like it. If you journal daily
for a while, it is easier to create a habit. I prefer to write in the
morning, but many people write before bed as a way of processing the
day. Of course, any time of day can work, and it’s helpful to choose
one that you can do consistently at the beginning. I had a
writing teacher in high school who said, “Write every day, and I don’t
whether it’s a story or a shopping list. Just write.”
When I first started journaling in the Seventies, I was living in
Mexico, and I simply wrote down where I went and what happened during
the day. After a short while, I realized that I had reactions to and
feelings about those events, so I started recording those, too. Then I
saw that I sometimes had insights about those reactions and feelings,
and that was the beginning of my journaling practice. I soon learned
that those insights helped me cope better with the daily and
not-so-daily challenges of life. I discovered
patterns in my behavior that were sometimes self-sabotaging. That
insight allowed me to make different choices. I learned that when I
paid attention to the way I lived my life, it increased my sense of
satisfaction. I was happier and more relaxed. I related better with
other people. I felt a growing openness to the spiritual part of myself
that was striking and different for me.
My book, Dancing in My
Mother’s Slippers: A Journey of Grief and
Healing, is written in journal
format. If you would like to see some examples of journal entries, you
can go the Dancing Excerpts page on this
You can journal with short notes, long explanations, descriptions,
ponderings, observations – whatever is in your mind. No need to worry
about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or even whether what you write is
coherent. This journal is just for you. No one else will read it unless
you decide to share it.
Be sure to date
your writing, as it can
sometimes be interesting to go back weeks, months or years later and
see what is similar and what has changed in your life.