How Writing Can Help Us With Grief and Trauma
Evidence, explanation, and exercises
“What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
Love lays hold of everything we know.”
—Jack Gilbert, “The Great Fires”
The summer of 2020, my mother—a lifelong New Yorker—moved from Washington Heights in Manhattan to Iowa City, Iowa, where I live. She told me that she looked around her apartment one day and thought about everything she hadn’t been able to do since the COVID-19 pandemic started. No museums, no show openings, no plays or performances, no dinners out. No New York. And she was surprised to find that she didn’t miss it. Her whole life, she said, she had been telling herself that she was a New York girl through and through. Taking the MetroNorth barefoot in the ‘70s, moving to Hells Kitchen in the ‘80s. Moving back after a suburban stint to raise us kids, then getting her own apartment after amicably splitting from my dad. But the losses of the pandemic helped her see that the identity she had declared for herself might not be true anymore. It turned out, she said, that she could “start telling a different story.”
The stories we tell about ourselves—our “narrative identities”—hold a lot of power. What we like, what we don’t like, what we’ve lost, what changed everything, who we are. But often, we fit the events of our lives into those stories, rather than change those stories to fit new events. Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I think that quote refers not just to the secrets we keep from others, but to the narratives we keep from ourselves. What could be different about our lives if we just started telling a new story?
It turns out that writing can be a transformative tool when it comes to major things we struggle with—getting stuck in stories that don’t serve us anymore, not knowing what path to take next, and also grief, like so many of us have experienced during this pandemic, and trauma, which we’ll talk more about below. We’re going to explore some of the research on why and how, and I’ll offer a few techniques and exercises to safely (read on for caveats) try at home.
Now, one important note before we begin: these are really big issues and I am not a medical or mental health professional, so I’m pulling a lot from experts, books, research, articles, and other resources, and at the bottom of this post you’ll find my works cited and a number of other resources to explore. If you’re struggling and need help, please seek professional counseling, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you or someone you know is struggling.
p.s. I was interviewed on a podcast recently by the wonderful, warm, intelligent, and inspiring Francesca Phillips. Her podcast is called The Good Space, on living a spiritually aware life (which means a lot of different things, trust me). Our episode (show notes) just came out (Spotify, Apple), and we talked a lot about how writing can help people uncover true stories and tell new ones, become more compassionate to themselves and others, and even—as we’re about to explore here—help us recover from trauma and survive grief. I hope it helps anyone out there dealing.
How does writing help us heal—and can it help me?
There’s a lot of really incredible work out there dedicated to helping people through grief and to recover from trauma using writing as a tool. There are books and scholarly articles, entire charities, 30-day courses, organizations, certificates, departments, and compassionate, gifted therapists, psychiatrists, doctors, counselors, professors, and social workers devoted to using researched techniques to help people heal through writing.
Writing is a mind-expanding agent. It can help us see the potential of telling old stories in new ways. It can help us see a new future by reexamining the past. It can help us become more compassionate toward ourselves—”Wow, that happened to me”—and thus lead us to see others more compassionately—”Wow, I wonder what’s happened to them.” Writing in the right ways can show us how we can take control of our stories and our narrative identities, and even help us examine what pain has to teach us. It can make us grateful, and help us find meaning in the world. It even has proven physical health benefits like lowered blood pressure. Writing has the potential to connect us more deeply with others, by improving our ability to empathize, and by grounding us more intentionally in our bodies—connection with others is more often than not the one thing we need most when it comes to healing.
Below, I’ll share more details from researchers and doctors on the ways specific writing exercises can help us in different ways. But the first question to ask is: do you need that kind of help?
I’m not the first person to observe that what we’re all living through these days and recent years has felt a lot like grief—in fact, that’s exactly what it is. Many psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, and clinicians also believe that the effects of trauma are widespread—that many more of us have experienced traumatic events in our lives, ranging from severe childhood neglect and abuse to growing up in a food-insecure environment, and more common occurrences like having experienced the divorce of parents, substance abuse in the home, a parent making us feel shame, or being bullied as a child or adolescent. A car accident or other near-death experience can also significantly impact our mental health well into adulthood.
James W. Pennebaker, a pioneering psychologist in the study of writing to heal, speaks about the potential for writing to help us with other problems, too, what he calls “emotional upheavals” that can happen in adulthood, things we might not categorize as “trauma”:
“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” Pennebaker explains. “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”
That writing can help us through impending, present, and past loss or pain is borne out through centuries of literature, and across disciplines—the practice of writing to survive loss has been a focus of study in psychology and sociology as well as literature and craft. So there’s a pretty good chance it could help you.
But, it’s important to note that just writing isn’t always helpful, and can be harmful. Writing about a traumatic experience immediately after it happens, for example, can actually cause memories to hardwire even more deeply, leading to complex PTSD. It’s never recommended that people immediately revisit traumatic events, in writing or talk therapy. Even if something happened long ago, writing can also bring up a lot of emotions but it doesn’t necessarily help you process them, which can leave people feeling raw and vulnerable. Health psychologist Dr. Susan Lutgendorf states, “You need focused thought as well as emotions. An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
Because of the importance of focused thought as part of the writing process, it’s recommended that folks follow specific guided writing and exercises that have been studied and formally prepared—I have gathered a few below, along with the why behind them. If you’re writing about the effects of the pandemic on your personal story, a breakup or loss, or just want to think about your narrative identity in a new way, it’s likely safe to try these out at home. Those who have experienced trauma that’s affecting their daily lives should work with an experienced therapist.
Exercises and Techniques
Narrative therapy was developed by the psychologists David Epston and Michael White in the 1980s. At the root of narrative therapy is the conception of reality as fluid and “deeply personal,” rather than objective and neutral. The brain changes memories over time, to lessen their impact, make room for important things, adapt them to fit into your current circumstances and belief system. But when you experience trauma, including the trauma of loss, your brain can struggle to reshape that memory—it gets “stuck” experiencing that memory as if it’s happening in real time or has happened very recently. This is why it can feel like you’re “not over it,” or “can’t get over it” when the people around you tell you you should just move on. You physically can’t.
But narrative therapy can help place those memories where they belong—in your past—and reconceive them so you can fit them into the reality that makes sense for you today. This doesn’t mean lying about what happened to you. On the contrary, it’s a way of telling a deeper truth: something happened to me, but I am not what happened to me.
Another core idea of narrative storytelling is that stories are how human beings make meaning in the world. If you feel that you’re unable to “get over” an event or circumstance, it can feel like this one thing is the only thing in the world, the only meaning in the world. But you can write a new story.
If you want to try narrative therapy, you should talk to your therapist or find a practitioner here. This is a great resource on what narrative therapy is and its different techniques, including a bunch of exercises, and here are a couple of techniques you can try at home, or bring up to your therapist or counselor if your problem feels unmanageable:
Deconstruct the situation.
You may find yourself looking around at the pandemic or remembering a breakup and saying, “I’m grieving.” In this exercise, try to write out what the evidence is for this grief. This isn’t a matter of dwelling on the issues, but a practice of separating out specific problems from one larger “way of being” or “way of seeing,” some of which you may then be able to address.
Try a new storyline.
If you experienced something it’s been hard to move on from, or have a feeling like generalized grief, it can feel like those things define our entire lives. This technique asks you to choose a new storyline to focus on. This could be future-forward, imagining yourself into a different situation, or it can be a way to connect with other parts of your identity that may feel buried by trauma or grief or life in general.
One storyline, for example, might be that you’ve only had unsuccessful relationships, that you’re not a good partner or caretaker, and drive people away. Or maybe the storyline is one of climate anxiety, where all you can focus on is the damage you feel you’ve contributed, or a sense of hopelessness about the future of the planet. But another storyline could start with when you were a kid, and you got a pet turtle, moving on to all the important relationships and experiences you’ve had with animals since then, all the way up to the beloved dog lying beside you right now. Try telling that story as if it’s the defining story of your life—letting you see yourself not as a bad boyfriend or a hopeless cog, but a person with a deep connection to life on earth, and a profound desire to commune with and care for creatures great and small.
With a past trauma, writing expressively about the experience can completely change the way you experience the event—most notably, as something that happened in your past rather than something still happening. It can even lower your stress response to the memory. This is similar to “imagined exposure” therapy for people living with OCD, though the goals are different (imagined exposure is about “habituating yourself to the thought of an improbable event that has never happened to you,” as Dan Shipper put for me very well, whereas for trauma, we’re talking about lowering the stress response to an imagined repetition of an actual event).
Here’s what Deborah Siegel-Acevedo, for Harvard Business Review (in their “stress management” section, related specifically to the pandemic’s affect on our collective mental health), has to say:
“While it may seem counterintuitive that writing about negative experiences has a positive effect, some have posited that narrating the story of a past negative event or an ongoing anxiety “frees up” cognitive resources. Research suggests that trauma damages brain tissue, but that when people translate their emotional experience into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain.”
The Harvard article also mentions an upcoming study on how writing about positive experiences only for three days had a big impact on the participants’ well-being—both immediately after the writing and a month after the study. (The long-term effects of writing therapy have been demonstrated in several other studies.)
If you want to try expressive writing, it might not be helpful—and can even be damaging—to write without a few pieces of guidance. The purpose of expressive writing is to transform yourself from someone that a confusing thing happened to, to someone who’s in charge of the story. That means being in control of the sequence of events, and the details. This might sound scary, but writing down what happened in the order it happened, and including as many details as you possibly can, actually helps us see ourselves as observers of something that happened, not victims of something currently happening. This does not mean convincing ourselves that we were responsible or could have changed it, but that we are the ones who can tell the story today. Remember, putting a traumatic event firmly in the past is a crucial part of recovery.
“Recovery” might sound like a long way off or like the wrong thing to focus on, and it can be. Perhaps there is a loss that you don’t want to “move on” from, which is a common feeling. I loved this line from Siegel-Acevedo, the Harvard author and founder of Bold Voice Collaborative: “We write about painful experiences not to move past but to move through them without being destroyed.”
For direct guidance, I suggest trying a four-day writing exercise developed by the founder of expressive writing as a therapeutic technique, Dr. James Pennebaker. You just need ten or twenty minutes a day, and will be writing about a specific experience and how it connects to other important elements of your life. Check out this short guide, Healing From Trauma Through Writing, if you’re interested in giving it a try. Again, seek professional guidance if you’re dealing with an experience, situation, or memories that affect your daily life.
The Four Things That Matter Most
One exercise I’d like to offer that you can try at home is a chance to begin reflecting on the people in your life who have influenced you in a positive way, and use them to begin to write into a space of love and gratitude. I learned about this exercise through a collaboration I did with Iowa City Hospice back when I worked for the UNESCO Cities of Literature. It’s based on the book The Four Things That Matter Most, by Dr. Ira Byock.
Now, this is private writing just for you, although it may be something you decide you want to share. The person you write to or about can be alive, or passed. It can even be a letter you write to yourself, the version that isn’t around anymore. Maybe you even write a letter to who you are now, from your future self. Regardless, choose one of the following:
1. Write a letter to an individual who has taught you something about the themes of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.
2. Write a reflection/story about a person who taught you to love, forgive, or express gratitude.
3. Write about how incorporating these themes allowed you to be able to say goodbye to a significant person in your life.
By the way, here are the "four things that matter most," from Dr. Byock, when it comes to how we communicate with people close to us, or who hold a place in our lives:
“Please forgive me.”
“I forgive you.”
“I love you.”
If you’re interested in other exercises to help process the loss of a loved one, you might give autoethnography a try.
Writing about the future can be a powerful technique to help us move through difficult periods in the present. I wouldn’t personally conceive of future writing as a kind of “manifestation” or the newest iteration of The Secret. Rather, future writing is a way to honor what the past has taught or revealed to us, by exploring how even a negative event may shape our future for the better. If this sounds good, here’s a prompt to get started:
Often, being angry is a sign that something we value has been threatened. If you feel angry about something you experienced, like losing a loved one, experiencing an assault, losing a job, or something else small or large, what is the value you hold that was threatened or violated? How specifically will you let that value guide your own behavior and decisions in the future?
Writing with others can be an extremely powerful way to feel connected, understood, and part of a true community. It can even be a way to find that community. This section deserves much more space, but for now I just want to urge folks to read Robert Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being, which explores how writing can help us connect not only with others but with our environment, or listen to our podcast with Bob where we discussed how writing can help heal communities and bring people together. Writing is an embodied act, and doing it together can remind us that everyone else on the planet has a body that they’re working in, through which they are relating to the world, and that some of those bodies have been harmed, have grieved, have danced. To look around at a group of peers and see them all working something out on the page is a reminder that we are all working things out.
If you’re interested in seeing what this might feel like, it’s easy to start a community writing event at your workplace. Even in the remote era, you can schedule a half hour writing session for any of your colleagues who want to join, over Zoom or Discord or any video-enabled app. Just set the time, turn your cameras on, share a prompt, and get to writing. Note that these prompts should not include any of the trauma-therapy exercises discussed above, but general writing prompts to just get folks started on thinking about the same question. Something as simple as, “Write about your favorite summer,” or “What does place mean to you?” should be welcoming for most people. Sometimes, you can discuss what you wrote afterwards, and even use such an event to gather opinions about a problem the company or a team is trying to solve. I like these community service prompts, too, which can help you learn more about your colleagues and connect on your shared values, and on what you have to learn from each other. For more writing prompts, check out this edition of TLC.
Readings / Watchings / Listenings
Here are a few things you might take a look at if you’re interested in learning more about anything I’ve mentioned above:
I strongly encourage you also to read this essay by David Treuer, on bringing grief into a public space, where mourning can happen together. A stunning reflection on the power of community in individual and collective healing.
This short essay by Alexander Chee, on living in grief and the places where personal loss (in his case of his father) can hit up against or become a stream with a general grief for the larger world.
This short conversation between two great writers who have written memoirs on loss, Meghan O’Rourke, who wrote about her mother’s death, and Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote about losing her husband. The two are speaking of specific, person-sized grief, if that is something you are experiencing. For everyone else, their insights on writing remain warm and welcome.
Here is Dr. James Pennebaker, a pioneer in the field, explaining “The expressive writing method,” how to do it, and why it works, in a five-minute video:
Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering From Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, Dr. James W. Pennebaker. Description taken from the Center for Journal Therapy: “The simple act of expressing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging experiences on paper is proven to speed your recovery and improve your mental and physical health. This book, written by one of America’s most distinguished research psychologists, guides you through a brief, powerful series of directed writing exercises you can do right in the book. Each will leave you with a stronger sense of value in the world and the ability to accept that that life can be good – even when it is sometimes bad.”
Writing as a Way of Being, Robert Yagelski. We had Dr. Yagelski on The Long Conversation last year, and it was an absolute honor to speak with him about philosophy, process, community, and so much more. His book changed my life back in grad school, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the mind-body connection, and how writing helps us define who we are, alone and with others.
Expressive Writing for Healing: Journal Your Way From Grief to Hope, Mary Potter Kenyon. I have not read or used this particular book but I have good reason to believe that it’s excellent! If you’re open to experiencing a guided writing process, this may be worth trying.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Stories Transforms Our Lives, Louise DeSalvo. The definitive book on the transformative power of expressive writing.
Writing Ourselves Whole, Jen Cross. This book is specifically written to help guide victims of sexual assault (which includes 1 in 6 women) to a place of recovery using guided writing prompts, and includes essays. I have not read this one but it comes recommended.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, by Dr. Bruce Perry. This book is not about writing interventions, but it is a profound journey through how neglect and abuse affect childhood development, revealing not only how much children and adolescents can truly recover from the worst things that happen to them, but also how powerful and course-changing the simplest acts of love and compassion can be.
For poetry, you have a lot of options, but two of my favorite books that take grieving as a subject are:
- Karen Green, Bough Down
- Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires
I’m also sharing my works cited for this post, for those of you interested in learning more about who studies writing intervention in grief and trauma recovery:
- 19 Narrative Therapy Techniques, Interventions, and Worksheets, Courtney E. Ackerman, PositivePsychology.com
- Writing Can Help Us Heal From Trauma, Deborah Siegel-Acevedo, Harvard Business Review
- We Want to Travel and Party. Hold That Thought, Emily Esfahani Smith, New York Times (this is clearly a clickbait headline the Times through on, but actually a good piece about collective grief and healing through writing)
- That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief, Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review
- Writing to heal: By helping people manage and learn from negative experiences, writing strengthens their immune systems as well as their minds, Bridget Murray, American Psychological Association
- ‘Lit therapy’ in the classroom: writing about trauma can be valuable, if done right, The Conversation (good note about the risks of and care for vicarious trauma)
- Journaling as part of the Trauma Recovery Process, Dr. Adam Moore, PhD, LMFT, Utah Valley Counseling
- Writing through grief: Using autoethnography to help process grief after the death of a loved one, Angel Matthews, Methodological Innovations, SAGE
- Evidence of the Healing Power of Expressive Writing, The Foundation of Art & Healing
- Widespread Trauma Affects Mental and Physical Health of Children into Adulthood and Across Generations, Milwaukee Independent
- Healing From Trauma Through Writing (worksheet PDF), Positive Psychology
- Effects of Expressive Writing on Neural Processing During Learning, Brynne C. DiMenichi, et al, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
- The Biopsychology of Trauma and Memory, Jessica D. Payne, et al, American Psychological Association
Song of the week!
May Your Kindness Remain, by Courtney Marie Andrews
Ask Me Anything!
What topics on writing and editing does TLC cover? I want to answer your questions directly! If there’s anything you’ve wanted to ask an editor, or me specifically, please email me at [email protected] (or post in the #writing channel if you’re a paid subscriber in our Discord). I can’t wait to see what you come up with!
Take care, friends,
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