How to Cope with Loss through Expressive Writing

Expressive writing can take any form you like

If you are coping with loss, then your emotions might overwhelm you and affect your physical health. You might look for ways to release those emotions and ease your mind. Although everyone grieves differently, it may benefit someone coping with loss of a loved one to begin a therapeutic technique known as “expressive writing,” which encourages the writer to focus on writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events. Expressive writing is an effective form of therapy that provides many health benefits.

Health Benefits of Expressive Writing

You may notice the emotional release and healing that journaling about personal experiences brings. It turns out that expressive writing is a therapy technique proven to provide both physical and emotional benefits. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment reports many long-term health benefits of writing about traumatic or stressful events, including:

  • Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved mood
  • Feeling of greater psychological well-being

Reported long-term social and behavioral outcomes of expressive writing include:

  • Reduced absenteeism from work
  • Improved working memory
  • Quicker re-employment after job loss
  • Higher grade point average for students

Anyone coping with loss should explore the benefits of writing.

How to Write as a Form of Therapy

  1. Journal Writing
    Find a notebook you like, grab a cup of tea, and settle into a private area to write. Consider downloading a journaling app on your phone, tablet, or computer. The private online journal on Everlasting Footprint allows you to access the journal entries you create from anywhere.

Write about your thoughts, emotions, and pain while journaling. Don’t worry about grammar or revealing details you’d normally keep private. No one will read what you write except you, unless you decide to share your writing. You are your only audience, so write freely. The paper will listen without judgment. After writing, you can discard your journal entries, or you can keep them. Keeping a journal can help track your healing progress over time.

  1. Structured Expressive Writing
    Advances in Psychiatric Treatment explains that, although there is no direct evidence, a study by Smyth and Pennebaker in 1999 suggested that a structured approach to expressive writing functions more beneficially than simply keeping a journal. A structured approach includes:

    • Writing on three or four occasions, usually on consecutive days or weeks
    • Setting aside 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for writing and 10 minutes for patients to compose themselves afterwards
    • Letting the patient select a traumatic/stressful experience: do not specify a particular trauma or event
    • Allowing the patient to structure the writing rather than imposing structure

Carry out this approach at home or in a clinical setting using this prompt:

For the next 4 days, I would like you to write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now.You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing, or about different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.

Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or sentence structure. The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up. (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment)

  1. Letter Writing

Have you received the advice that, when mad or frustrated, you should draft a letter opening up your feelings, but not send it? The same emotional release can happen when you write to loved ones who have passed away. While the person won’t be able to receive the letter, writing it and sealing the envelope might give you some closure. You can open up about what you would have told the person if you had one more chance to talk.

  1. Creating an Everlasting Footprint

In addition to writing in the Journal, an Everlasting Footprint for your loved one can serve as a form of publicly shared writing therapy. When creating an Everlasting Footprint for someone you have lost, you write about his or her life. By doing this, you experience the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing and are able to share your thoughts with the community. Consider writing a story for an Everlasting Footprint to help when coping with loss.

Can Writing Therapy Help You?

If you feel ready to confront your emotions, then there’s no harm in trying expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment explains that when confronting painful loss or trauma, you may experience distress, a negative mood, or negative physical symptoms in the short-term, but the benefits of writing are shown to appear in the long-term. Know that you can stop writing at any time if you experience overwhelming discomfort. Writing cannot replace professional medical or psychological treatment, but it can work alongside or as part of that treatment.

When coping with loss, expressive writing may help you work through your grief. Writing therapy is as simple as keeping a journal and can bring you peace of mind, better health, and increased happiness.

Watch the video about the first expressive writing study by James Pennebaker below:

About Catherine Powell

Catherine Powell, BA, loves to write and edit, especially with a cup of espresso on hand. Her English degree with a psych minor means she studies the rapidly-changing digital world and the workings of the human mind. Born in Germany, Catherine is inspired by the language, the culture, and her travels. She and her husband live in Tallahassee, Florida, with their Labrador-mix dog.

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