Name Your Grief: How to Use Writing to Break through the Fog of Loss

July 01, 2024 | 8 min read

When it hits, grief hangs over me like a shroud. I can go about my day as usual, but everything is dulled. Sights and sounds are less vivid. I’m distracted during conversations. My mind wanders back to the looming sadness at every opportunity, like the cartoon rain cloud depicted over the head of a depressed cartoon character.

At 33, I’ve experienced more grief than most. My childhood was exceedingly average and uneventful. I grew up in a rural one-stoplight town in Northwestern, Pa., in a stable middle-class home with my mother, father, and younger sister.

In 2010, however, our “boring” lives were changed irrevocably when we experienced our first tragic loss. My father was killed while riding his motorcycle when I was 19 years old.

His passing was sudden and jarring. It turned our world upside down, and it took my mother, sister, and me years to recover. Eventually, however, we did heal and continued living our lives. Although we still missed my father and thought of him often, we recovered from the shock, accepting that life is for the living.

Twelve years after my father’s death, tragedy struck our family again. In February 2022, my mom slipped while walking across her icy driveway and landed hard, smashing her face on the ice. Afraid she had broken her nose, she went to the local emergency room, where a CT of her head revealed a fractured nose as well as a brain tumor. In stark contrast to my father's sudden passing, my mother battled stage 4 glioblastoma for 25 months before succumbing to the illness in her home, where I cared for her in her final months with the help of hospice.

Through these hardships, I've learned that writing is the most effective way to vanquish my sadness. In 2023, I began sharing my work about my personal experiences with grief and loss on Medium.

Writing and sharing my stories and interacting with readers became a gentle breeze swiftly clearing the dreaded fog of sadness from my mind.

 

How to Start Your Own Writing Practice to Heal from Grief

Writing to heal from loss can be a private undertaking or something you choose to share with others. I never intended to write about my grief for an audience, even though I had been writing about it in private for years. I started writing to heal myself.

However, one day, I wrote a piece that brought me so much peace I thought it could help others navigating similar traumatic loss. So, I took a chance and shared it.

That’s when I discovered the world is full of people who’ve experienced trauma and loss. Connecting with this community of readers and writers, I uncovered the healing power of sharing our stories and learning to recover from each other. I realized that not only was I not alone in my suffering, but I could also help others heal by sharing my struggles.

That’s when I discovered the world is full of people who’ve experienced trauma and loss. 

When I publish my articles, I’m not comfortable writing solely about the pain and hardship without offering at least a glimmer of hope — that all is not lost, that I will heal, and that if I can do it, they can, too.

The following are a few things I’ve discovered along the way that I hope will help others write to recover from the loss of a loved one.

1. Name Your Grief

When I write to address my grief, I begin by describing the particular sadness that is haunting me that day.

Giving the pain a name or a vivid depiction gives me clarity, which helps me understand it better. It transforms the pain from an amorphous ache enveloping me to a well-defined, tangible barrier I can break through.

Giving the pain a name or a vivid depiction gives me clarity, which helps me understand it better. 

2. Write Through the Tears

Writing about grief is emotionally draining. Recalling or reflecting on a time you experienced overwhelming emotions will bring them back. You will relive them. But, writing, like discussing a topic in therapy, takes those immense, amorphous feelings and makes them tangible and, therefore, manageable.

Putting words down on paper or a screen also creates space in your mind, leaving room for fresh perspective and understanding. At the very least, it allows you to move on to the next overwhelming thought or emotion.

It’s important not to let uncomfortable feelings or avoidance stand in the way. If I let the challenge of facing my emotions stop me, I’d never find the healing on the other side.

Let the words — and tears — flow.

Writing, like discussing a topic in therapy, takes those immense, amorphous feelings and makes them tangible and, therefore, manageable.

3. Write in the Moment to Remember

I wrote throughout my mom’s time receiving in-home hospice care. The primary purpose was simply to document details of each day to inform my sister, who lived in another city.

At the end of each day, I recorded every detail I could recall, including what Mom ate and how much, medication dosages, accounts of her nurses' visits, and anecdotes about things mom had said or done, as well as my own random thoughts and reflections.

Finding the time or energy to write during these challenging times can be difficult. I found it impossible to focus on writing during the day between nurses' visits and responding to family and friends who were constantly checking in. By evening, when I finally found a free moment, my computer’s keys and backlight disturbed Mom’s much-needed rest. My Traveler turned out to be the solution.

Events like losing a loved one bring high levels of stress, extreme emotions, and confusion, which cause memories to blur and details to be forgotten. Documenting this time allows you the possibility of one day reliving the precious good moments and may help you work through the difficult ones when you’re ready.

Although I haven’t felt ready to revisit these journals yet, I’m eternally grateful to have them for when I am.

4. Take Time to Process and Reflect Before Sharing, If Necessary

While I journaled a bit directly following my dad’s passing, I hadn’t yet discovered the healing power of writing. As a result, I didn’t really write about it until years later.

Writing years after losing my dad gave me the opportunity to recount tales of trying times through the lens of having healed over the years. While the pain was less raw, the insight I’d gained over the years also made it more purposeful. I felt capable of writing with some authority and hope, having arrived at a point in my life when I’d rediscovered joy and was proud of the progress I’d made.

While many readers will appreciate and relate to the raw reality of recent tragedy, don’t be afraid to wait until you're ready to share your story.

While many readers will appreciate and relate to the raw reality of recent tragedy, don’t be afraid to wait until you're ready to share your story.

5. Remove Distractions

Once I start reflecting upon and reliving my grief, I’m transported to that time and state of mind. I remind myself of the adage that when it comes to grief, “You have to go through it, not around it.” But it’s hard enough to confront painful emotions — distractions and interruptions can make it impossible.

When I know I am returning to that place, I prepare for the journey. I grab a coffee, a box of tissues, and my Traveler, then select a cozy spot away from family and friends where the tears can flow unashamedly.

My husband has learned that if I’m writing and crying, it’s OK to leave me be.

When I know I am returning to that place, I prepare for the journey. I grab a coffee, a box of tissues, and my Traveler, then select a cozy spot away from family and friends where the tears can flow unashamedly.

6. Be Genuine and Vulnerable

Grief is a heavy topic and very personal. Writing about it is intimidating, especially when you intend to share it with others. Many writers are afraid to expose their vulnerability so openly with the world, or believe nobody will understand or care about their deeply personal experience.

Others are afraid their writing will be criticized or even mocked, a fear shared by writers of all genres but potentially devastating when the topic is so personal.

One of my favorite things is reading a piece by another writer that eloquently describes or explains an element of grief I’ve struggled to make sense of. Through writing and reading about grief, I’ve not only found company but a community of people who support and learn from one another in their attempt to heal from and escape their misery together.

Don’t write what you think an audience wants to read. Write what you felt or feel as honestly as possible. While every experience is unique, grief and trauma are incredibly common. Someone will relate and be grateful you could say what they could not.

7. Edit with Care

When you write emotionally, it’s easy to ramble, be repetitive, or stray off-topic since you’re writing with no particular endpoint in mind, simply to explore your feelings. It’s best to wait to edit.

Once you’ve finished writing, step away for a bit and return to edit when your emotions have settled. At that point, it’s much easier to select the most poignant descriptors and incorporate richer vocabulary.

Another vital consideration during editing is not to edit out the raw emotion. Once your emotions have calmed and you’ve overcome the hurt that plagued you before you began, you might feel you were “too dramatic” or “too vulnerable.” Overcome the temptation to dull the sharp edges of what you have written. It’s precisely that authentic pain and vulnerability that will resonate with others.

I prefer to write on my Freewrite to avoid any temptation to edit my train of thought while I am in that emotional space. Once I’ve finished, I switch to Word or Google Docs to edit and form a cohesive and dynamic piece.

8. Look for a Way Out of the Pain

This step is optional. Sometimes, you just want to write to get the dark thoughts out of your head. I’ve done this type of writing often. However, even if you choose not to share your writing, once you’ve described the hurt and sadness, consider contemplating possible ways to transition from hopeless to hopeful.

Perhaps you know that time will dull the ache, or you choose to recall good memories to overshadow the bad, or you’ve decided to seek grief counseling. Whatever you come up with, looking for that actionable next step that offers a glimmer of hope is an effective and healthy way to heal through your writing.

When I began sharing my writing, I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving readers with nothing but sorrow or pity for me. I wanted to show them I had hope that better days would come and that they could, too. What I didn’t expect was how aiming to give hope to my readers would help me find it as well.

While simply writing provides a great deal of relief, consider taking it one step further by exploring possible ways to overcome your grief. Ask yourself what advice you’d give a friend or family member you care about, and try treating yourself with the same compassion.

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Without writing, grief feels as if I’m haphazardly wandering a maze. Sharing the perspective I’ve gained and my faith that things will improve, my words become my breadcrumb trail. It’s this desire to tamp down a small path for others through the winding labyrinth of grief that’s helped me discover my own peace.

It’s impossible to know when or where an overwhelming sadness will strike — whether I'm out running errands, hiking in the mountains, or enjoying my morning coffee with my dog in the backyard of my childhood home. My Traveler helps me focus, wherever I am, while mapping out the path to recovery without distractions disrupting my processes and causing me to lose my way.

Writing allows me to break through the shroud of heartache quickly, whenever and wherever it presents itself, so I can rejoin the world fully present and a little more healed.

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Brooke Lewis is a fledgling writer pursuing a dream. She set out to share stories as an American living in Colombia and found healing sharing her perspective gained through loss.
Follow her writing journey at blew-writing.medium.com.

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