The Healing Power of Journaling

Even though my husband Paul was terminally ill, and I was prepared for his death in 2006, it was still very difficult to adjust to this loss at that time. Journaling helped me to communicate, sort through, and explore what was going on in my mind.

Journaling was an easy practice for me to follow and maintain. I journaled periodically after my father died more than thirty years ago but didn’t stick with it long enough to fully address my feelings of loss and helplessness. When Paul died, however, I would write down my thoughts each night for the first few months. Paul had cancer that spread to his liver and passed away almost six months after he was diagnosed. Initially, I set aside a certain time each night that was exclusively devoted to journaling. I continued to write in my journal on an occasional basis more than a year after his passing.

Although I didn’t realize it, that initial routine helped me to handle daily responsibilities more effectively because it gave me the opportunity to focus on grief outside my working hours. I was working full time and taking care of my teenage daughter when Paul died. Journaling was my private time to communicate with Paul and reflect on how I was going to manage my life without him.

If you haven’t tried journaling, even if it’s a year or more since you lost someone, get a notebook and set aside time as needed to write about what you want to express. Or if you prefer to write using a computer, that will work too. When you see those words in an entry, they will help you sort through your emotions. You’ll be surprised at how this simple exercise can provide insight to guide you.

Each night at 10:30, before I went to sleep, I would write a letter to Paul and describe my day and emotions. I’d go through the usual conversations that I might have had with him if he had been alive. At times, my letters were very sad. I’d ask him questions like, “Why did you have to die so soon?”

I’d describe the day’s events, whether it involved telling him about how I tackled a project at work or how the Boston Red Sox had done that day. He was a big Red Sox fan, and one of the last things he said to me while he was still able to speak was, “Did the Red Sox win the big game?” Even when they lost, I would tell him the Red Sox were doing fine. After all, why upset a dying man who has worshipped his favorite team his entire life?

One benefit of journaling is that it gives you the opportunity to ask that special person any questions that you didn’t ask during their lifetime. This helps you cope with what’s referred to as unfinished business.

Also, if you have any regrets, you can share them in your journal. If you regret that you didn’t do enough to prevent the death (even if there was nothing you could have done), go ahead and write about it. It’s a chance for you to get your feelings out of your head. Then these words no longer will be in the back of your mind when you’re supposed to be mentally present somewhere else. You’re essentially freeing up space in your brain, like offloading memory to a flash drive, so that you can focus on moving forward.

You might ask, “What good is journaling if the communication is only one way?” Here’s why it’s so important: you can actually get answers to your questions. That’s right—the next part of journaling is to put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about how they would respond to what you’ve written.

This blog was also published in by Ron Parks, MD, MPH. Dr. Parks is a friendly consultant, teacher, and authority in integrative psychiatry and holistic healthcare.