Capturing Unspeakable Pain: The Surprising Impact of Grief Journaling

Written by Emily Karp, December 2022. Last Updated September 2023.

Sometimes, the loss you’re going through feels completely overwhelming. There’s so much emotion and you might feel like you’re drowning or being pulled away by a strong current, unsure that anything in the world might be capable of grounding you. How does anyone swim through this dark, rough sea of grief? Could journaling possibly help?

If you’re lucky, you have supportive people around you wishing they knew what they could do to help, but you don’t necessarily know what to ask for or even what you need. Nothing they can do will take away your hurt or bring the person you loved back.

Writing can be a powerful outlet that’s often forgotten in this modern age. Whether you write electronically on a computer, phone, or tablet, or whether you write on paper with a pen or pencil, you can use the act of writing as a tool to help you untangle the emotions, thoughts, and memories and give each one a safe place to land.

Writing by hand is starting to be explored in research studies as possibly being even better for mental and emotional processing because it takes longer for the words to get onto the page, and that moment of slowing down can help us. It can calm us, it can give us enough time to look more closely at an idea and observe the idea from other angles. We spend more time with a thought, and that helps us see it more clearly for what it is. We’re somewhat more deliberate with our words when we know there’s no easy “backspace” button.

As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe someone can hear me talking to them after they are gone. But sometimes what we wish we could say to them still needs to be said! And sometimes that’s a lot easier to do in written form. (I know I personally would feel a bit silly or at least self-conscious if actually talking out loud to a person who has passed away.)

When I experienced a very traumatic death of a friend of mine five years ago, I found myself writing poetry addressed to him as part of my grieving process. I was able to say “You” over and over. Because it was poetry, it didn’t feel silly at all, and it made perfect sense in that medium. I’ve also heard of writing a letter to the person, which you can then burn if that would be cathartic for you.

Some people are forced to go back to work far too soon after the death of someone very close to them. I hate that Bereavement Leave in the USA usually only lasts a few days to a week because it’s meant for practical considerations, rather than actually giving people any time to do the emotional work of grieving. 

Even for the logistics of concrete actions that need doing after a death, including notifying others of the death, planning a funeral, obtaining the death certificate, canceling ongoing financial obligations in their name, and more, it’s often not enough time. Even people without traditional employment – be they retired, full-time homemakers, self-employed, or in another life circumstance – are often immediately thrust back into being responsible for tasks related to parenthood or other aspects of maintaining their day-to-day life.

When you can so rarely find a moment alone where you are free to truly feel all your emotions, your attempts to compartmentalize will likely only go so far. It’s so much more difficult when you don’t know exactly when and where your grief will be allowed.

There are many types of outlets that work to help people: going to see a grief counselor, attending a grief support group, joining an online grief forum or Facebook group, or even going to your loved one’s grave as a regular recurring “appointment” when you’ll have the chance to talk to them (whether or not you believe their spirit is literally living on, you can still have the chance to voice what you wish you could say to them). But for some people, the best option is journaling about their grief.

It doesn’t have to be on a set schedule, although journaling can be something you set aside a small amount of time for every day when your grief is at its most intense, or something you carve some time out for every week.

You could use any notebook you want. Write on an app on your phone or wherever feels easiest for you. But sometimes prompts are helpful and can help guide you and ground you even further.

I’ve included six suggestions below of grief journals that contain their own prompts which are available for purchase on Amazon. I have not used any of these journals myself, but I looked closely through the reviews and these seem to be some of the best grief journal options around, and I noticed no explicitly religious content in the provided preview images or descriptions. I hope my recommendations below might prove helpful to you. 

I’ve included grief journals with prompts specific to:

  • Having lost your spouse or life partner
  • Getting through the grief of a miscarriage
  • The death of your mother or father
  • Helping children grieve, as one of these is a picture focused prompt grief book for kids ages 7 through 12.

I am not currently earning any commission on these links. Please leave a comment below if you have further thoughts about how grief journaling does or doesn’t help you, or further recommendations of grief journals. 

The Widow’s Journal: Questions to Guide You through Grief and Life Planning after the Loss of a Partner

Miscarriage Grief Journal: 48 Journaling Prompts to Process the Loss of a Baby

Dear Mom, I Didn’t Get To Tell You Journal: Daily Prompts To Guide You Through Grief After The Loss Of Your Mom

Dear Mom, I want To say…: Guided Grief Journal Prompts and Remembrance to Renew Your Spirit, Healing Book After The Loss of Your Mother (“Letter” Therapeutic Writing)

Dear Dad, I Keep Thinking About…: A Grief Journal Healing and Prompts For Finding Your Light After Loss Your Father (Therapeutic Writing: Open Letter For The Bereaved)

Grief Journal for Kids: Guided Prompts for Processing Grief & Finding Emotional Healing

How I Feel: Grief Journal for Kids: Guided Prompts to Explore Your Feelings and Find Peace

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