Writing to Heal

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Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfrought heart and bids it break.
Shakespeare (Macbeth)

Long before Shakespeare, poems about grief have relieved aching hearts. In our time, experimenters using poetry and journaling as therapy with hospital patients have shown that the expression of sorrow helps relieve our physical bodies as well as our emotional trauma. It is well known that many ailments are related to stress, and the suppression of intense feelings certainly increases stress.

Those who are suffering from the death of a loved one experience shortness of breath, stomach pains, headaches, backaches, nausea, depression. These symptoms are especially pronounced if the beloved was one’s child. For bereaved parents, guilt, too, is a source of suffering. We are not meant to outlive our children, and even though our child’s death is in no way our fault, we feel guilty for failing in our roles as protective parents.

Writing is one way that we can express our feelings safely. Often bereaved parents fear writing about their loss, because, as one of my workshop members told me, it makes the death more real. But recognizing the loss, feeling the loss, and expressing one’s pain can be the first step towards healing.

In my writing workshops I give a series of exercises prompted by sample poems about grief. Though many who have attended these workshops say they have never written a poem before, somehow, the support of a group of fellow grievers (and writers) allows the ink to flow. After a writing exercise, participants are invited to share what they wrote. The sharing is optional, but I have never had anyone refuse. And what is wonderful to observe is the attentive listening as each person reads aloud. Grief can be isolating. Writing alone, one can at least talk to oneself, but writing together in a workshop setting creates a bond of feeling, a sense of community.

The writing exercises are not only a means of expressing and releasing grief. I also give exercises that trigger happy memories of the loved one. In contrast to the feelings of sadness and despair over our losses, our joyful memories become even more precious, and more vivid as we remember them in writing.

I encourage participants to keep journals, to keep writing. Remember Alice in Wonderland’s words, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” When we write freely in our journals we discover to our surprise just what we do think, and feel.

After publishing my book of poetry, Holding On: Poems for Alex (2001), I have been invited to give writing workshops at the TCF Canada conference in Brandon, Manitoba, at the U.S. National The Compassionate Friends (TCF) Conference in Salt Lake City; at an international gathering of TCF in Sydney, Australia, and, more locally, I have given workshops in Kelowna, Victoria, at the Seabeck Retreat in Washington, and in my own West Vancouver home.