Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the biggest challenges one can face in life. Whether the loss of your loved one was unexpected or you’ve known about it for a long time, grief affects everyone in different ways. A grief journal is a way to work through these emotions with the help of self-reflection.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Understand the Psychology
- Step 2: Create Your Journal
- Step 3: Find Inspiration
- Step 4: Create a Schedule
- Step 5: Find Your Writing Space
- Step 6: Read Your Writing
- Bonus: Grief Journal Prompts
What is a grief journal? It’s a journal where you’re free to write exactly what you’re feeling. You can share memories, feelings, anger, or just daily ramblings. As long as you’re writing, you’re getting those emotions on the page.
While grief isn’t something you fully “recover” from, you can take steps forward by starting and keeping a DIY grief journal of your own.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be a large part of your stress without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
Step 1: Understand the Psychology
When you’ve experienced something traumatic or emotionally painful, it’s easy to bottle up these feelings. If you don’t know how to express yourself, you could end up not expressing anything at all. Numbness and feelings of depression are common after the passing of a loved one.
However, it’s not just ongoing feelings of sorrow that you have to watch out for. Holding in these feelings affects the body. According to Harvard Health, this could even lead to high blood pressure and heart rate and an increase in muscle tension. Over time, this takes a toll on your body.
While nothing replaces the help of an experienced therapist, writing about your feelings has profound positive effects. Keeping a grief journal is a healthy way to expel these feelings, process them, and let them go slowly over time. When you write about your grief, you experience benefits like:
- Take a closer look at your feelings and any painful memories
- Experience what psychologists call a “letting go” stage
- Sleep better by releasing your fears and worries
- Cope with pain long-term
The best part about grief journaling is that it’s accessible. While you might only lean on friends, family, and a therapist occasionally, a grief journal is always there. Examining and observing your wounds through the form of writing can be a healing practice in your grief work.
Step 2: Create Your Journal
Next, it’s time to create your journal. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You’re free to use any type of journal you wish. It could resemble the composition books of your school days or even a fancier journal you pick up at a local bookstore.
For something more portable, you could also start a digital journal online or through a word processing app, like Google docs or Microsoft Word. Just make sure it’s something you’re comfortable with.
Before you choose your journal, consider how you plan to use it. Do you want guided writing prompts included? Do you want ruled or unruled paper? Should it have think pages for artwork or special pens? How large or small do you want it to be? Your journal should be beautiful, but it should also be functional.
Since you’re creating your own journal, you might want to break it into several sections. This is completely optional, but you might want to include sections for:
- Free journaling - The free journaling section is just what it sounds like—free for your use however you wish. Having a free journaling section is good when you just want to write, and you’re not following any prompts.
- Writing prompts - Speaking of prompts, include a section to list writing prompts you’d like to try or other inspiring quotes.
- Daily journal - Finally, leave room for daily journaling. While you might not be able to commit to a daily journaling session, committing to a regular schedule is the best way to experience the full benefits.
Step 3: Find Inspiration
Because it’s hard to be creative when you’re struggling with a loss, be easy on yourself. Finding inspiration and motivation to keep writing is the best way to keep yourself writing even when it feels impossible.
One of the biggest challenges of grief is the feeling of isolation. It often feels like you’re the only one experiencing the things you’re currently going through. These feelings of loneliness and pain are normal, and you’re not as alone as you think you are. There are a number of support groups, grief blogs, and books on grief.
Browsing these websites, blogs, groups, and books not only reminds you that you’re not alone, but they also get your thoughts and feelings moving. Whether you’re losing someone to cancer or trying to cope with a dying parent, there are resources to rely on. By learning about other’s experiences and the stages of grief, you have something to respond to in your journal.
Step 4: Create a Schedule
Next, make a journaling schedule. If you don’t set aside time to journal, it’s easy to leave it until the last minute or forget about it entirely. When you’re busy getting back to normal after the loss of a loved one, it feels impossible to find extra time in the day.
You need to make journaling a priority. Commit to a schedule that’s realistic and fair. It’s okay to start with a short period of time until you build confidence. If this is your first time journaling, you might be surprised by just how much of a challenge it is.
Here are some ideas for creating a grief journal schedule you can stick with:
- Daily - If possible, write daily. Writing once a day, even if only for five minutes, is a great way to keep yourself motivated.
- Weekly - Another good idea is to set aside time weekly. Set a 20-minute timer once a week and get in the habit of writing. If you wish to keep writing after the timer finishes, do so. Consider a time of your week when you’re less likely to be stressed, like on the weekend.
- When needed - If you’re a more experienced journal writer, you might choose to only use your journal as needed. You might write when you’re struggling or when you have a new memory about your loved one.
Step 5: Find Your Writing Space
Having a designated writing place keeps your mind focused during writing sessions. If you plan to use your journal on the go, this doesn’t apply. However, if you’re journaling at home, set up your space for success.
To create a writing space, limit your distractions. Write somewhere you feel comfortable, like your couch, dining table, or desk. Avoid writing in bed since you don’t want any negative emotions to linger at bedtime. When you write, keep away from electronics and other distractions. You might want to turn on light music to keep you focused.
Step 6: Read Your Writing
Finally, one of the unique aspects of grief journaling is how important it is to reread your writing. While this is intimidating at first, this is a huge part of the process.
When you take the time to reread what you write, you reflect on these feelings again, but with greater distance. You might find yourself surprised at your original thoughts, or you might recognize personal growth.
Reading your own writing doesn’t have to be challenging or scary. You might read a passage to another loved one, a trusted friend, or a therapist. You might just read it to yourself.
Don’t feel pressured to read your journaling right away. It’s okay to wait a few weeks or months, but do make a point to review your writing at least once. Validate your own feelings and give your grief a chance to be heard.
Bonus: Grief Journal Prompts
Sometimes the hardest step is just getting started. These grief journaling prompts direct your writing and keep you focused. While there are no strict rules about what to write about, these ideas below should spark some ideas.
- How do you feel today, and how would you describe this feeling to someone else?
- Remember a memory about your loved one.
- Write down all the things your loved one used to say and why these words stand out to you.
- Write a message specifically for your loved one.
- Find a quote or song that speaks to you and consider why you chose it.
- If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
- Start with “What I miss most…”
- Since your loved one is gone, what are you going to do now?
- How have things changed since your loved one died?
Healing Grief Through Writing
While journaling in general is a powerful tool, grief journaling is a particularly effective way to overcome feelings of sorrow and pain. While the stages of grief take time, making a DIY grief journal gives you a medium for expressing yourself and healing your mind. A journal is a great tool to use with the help of a therapist, but it’s also something you can do for yourself.
Writing about your feelings after a loss keeps you connected to yourself and your memories. One of the biggest fears after the death of someone special is that these memories will leave us.
By writing your feelings and thoughts, you memorialize this person in your journal. This is a cherished memento for years to come. To plan your own legacy, start end-of-life planning today.
- “Writing to Ease Grief and Loss.” Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard.edu.