Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/21/2023
Grief is one of (if not the) most common human experiences we have as age. The older we get, the more grief pervades our lives, as we experience the deaths of loved ones and other forms of loss. Dealing with grief is hard, and while medicating it and seeking therapy can be helpful, there’s another way to cope with these emotions: grief journaling.
If you’re looking for a deeply personal way to work out those feelings of loss, turning to journaling is an option you should consider. We can’t promise a word-count-based end to the discomfort that comes with grief, but as you’re about to find out, there’s a lot of research that shows how writing these feelings down can be a great way to work through them — and get past the pain of them.
Ready to put pen to paper, fingertips to keys or voice to that little dictation function on your phone? Not so fast. Before we hand you our hand-picked writing prompts and ideas for how to get started, we think you should understand what’s actually going on when you decide to be the author of your experience.
Grief is the official name for the state of emotional affairs that comes from loss. Grief-related loss is typically characterized by the death of a loved one, but starting from the first goldfish you buried at sea, it’s a feeling many of us experience throughout our lives.
Most people go through the five stages of a grief journey — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — in about a year, but certain kinds of grief can go on for much longer, especially without helpful treatments like therapy, medication and journaling.
Many people roll their eyes at the idea of journaling to deal with emotions. How, exactly, does writing something down treat it? What’s the point of reaffirming that feeling in writing, when all I want to do is to make it go away? Can’t I just take some pills instead?
It’s a natural reaction (and probably a result of anger, one of the five stages of grief) to react this way to the suggestion of writing. But writing isn’t just an art form, and journaling isn’t just something tweens do to catalog their various crushes and betrayals during their lunch period. Writing can give you perspective, help you own your emotions and affirm your feelings in ways that many other forms of treatment can’t.
Grief journaling is just a process of journaling with the intention of working through your grief and eventually healing. That’s really it — there are no official parameters or requirements. You don’t have to write in complete sentences, no one’s going to check your grammar and you don’t have 1,000 words due by midnight on Monday.
And there are a lot of reasons to adopt this process for grieving, with its nearly nonexistent requirements.
Grief journaling provides a lot of benefits, and the first among them is the cost — there might be none at all.
It doesn’t take much to start journaling, and while you might want to go out and grab yourself a nice notebook and a new pen to encourage the habit, there’s no requirement that you use new tools — anything in your desk drawer will do.
Second among the benefits of journaling, arguably, is that it doesn’t depend on others for support. As much as we believe therapy and medication can be great treatments when grief gets out of hand, those require doctors, appointments and time. Journaling doesn’t require any of those things.
And the real-world benefits of journaling have been proven. Experts regularly tout the fact that people who journal to work through the grief process find themselves in better spirits, relieved of stress and less depressed and anxious. That doesn’t just help your grief — dealing with anxiety, depression and stress can reduce your risk of illness and cardiovascular problems, improve your sleep and reduce tension.
Because journaling is, at the end of the day, something you do independently, there’s no minimum requirement or word count that will yield results. How, when and for how long you journal is ultimately up to you, although experts recommend making regular time for journaling, even if it doesn't become a daily practice.
Here’s the best part, though: you don’t have to face that blank page alone — you can let someone else (us, in this case) tell you where to start with prompts.
If you’ve been having strong feelings, emotions or problems throughout your current feelings of grief, it may be a good idea to start putting down words about them. Journaling can help you clarify feelings that right now seem like an endlessly knotted pair of headphones in your pocket: useless and keeping you from enjoying yourself.
But if you’re so overwhelmed or detached that you can’t decide where to start, writing prompts can provide encouragement, guidance and, like the bumpers in a bowling alley, some protection from failure.
One simple way to begin journaling your grief is to complete some simple sentences and thoughts begun by professionals. Examples include:
The hardest time of day for me is when…
My happiest memory is…
These journal entries don’t have to be long, but often starting with one image, memory or statement can lead your pen down a long and winding road of thoughts and both joyful and painful memories.
You can change the wording to lead yourself down different paths of expressive writing, like writing about your most comforting memory instead of happiest memory or making a longer list of happy memories. Negative emotions and emotions of grief can make for great prompts as well. Give it a try.
Another simple way to grief journal is to lay down a record of what you’re thinking, feeling, sensing and seeing. This exercise seems so simple that it resembles a game of “I spy,” and yet, if you give it a little effort, “I see my living room” can quickly become “I see the chair they used to sit in.”
Following that train of thought for a couple of pages can lead you down some valuable, reflective mental paths. Here are a few examples:
Finally, one straightforward but difficult strategy for grief journaling is to make this a space where you can safely be honest with everyone — especially yourself. This can be a private space where feelings of shame can be explored without fear of judgment. Admitting that you’re glad a person who was suffering is no longer suffering, for instance, can be a very hard thing to express to others.
We don’t have any specific starter phrases to offer you here, because your truth is likely more complicated than a prompt can unpack. But those things that feel hard to discuss honestly with others can be explored safely in a journal — your pen and paper are judgment-free.
Here’s the good news: according to experts, the average person will adapt to their grief over a period of between six months and two years, without help. So while journaling may speed up the healing process or help you unpack your emotions, it’s in no way necessary to do just because you’re grieving.
When grief gets out of control or becomes more severe than “normal” though — when it affects your ability to function or goes on well beyond the period of two years we just mentioned — it could be because it has transformed into something called complicated grief.
Complicated grief often does not go away without treatment. That treatment may come in the form of therapy, medication or other treatment and management options that you can discuss with a healthcare professional.
SSRIs (particularly citalopram) can be helpful for someone whose grief is out-of-control. So can CBT, a form of therapy where you learn to master your thoughts, rather than letting them control your emotions. You can read more about both in our linked guides.
However, the most commonly recommended and effective treatment is grief therapy, which helps you better navigate the stages of grief with support from a mental health professional.
A grief journal is a great way to explore thoughts, memories and emotions related to a person, community, job or other significant presence that is no longer in your life. It can help you find the joy in those memories without feeling the pain of loss so intensely. Ultimately, that’s what we all aspire to do with feelings of grief.
Unfortunately, not all of us can get there with a pen, pad and the passage of time. Some people find themselves in need of more support and other management practices that can’t be provided by a good stationery shop.
We can provide that help. Our mental health resources include substantial information on the grieving process, and our online therapy platform is a convenient, discreet place where you can get the support you need with nothing more than an internet connection.
If you’re looking for help, consider reaching out to us today — we’re not as cheap as a notebook and pen, but the benefits can be measurable. Journaling is a great supplemental practice to therapy, medication and other established treatments for grief, but between entries, consider reaching out to get help today.