While a journal can technically refer to any kind of record or log of events, when we talk about journaling as a coping technique for grief, we’re referring to something more specific. Journaling is any method of recording the events, thoughts, and feelings in your personal life.
Journaling dates back centuries. Some of the earliest known journals were the so-called “pillow books” in 10th century Japan, which people used to write down their thoughts about their daily lives. Many famous people throughout history have been avid journal-writers -- from presidents to artists, from writers to travelers. Some of the richest sources of historical information we have available are ordinary people’s journals.
It could be that you’ve done some journaling in the past. It seems like nearly every young girl has a diary at some point. Maybe you even keep a journal now. But even if you’re completely new to journaling, you may want to give it a try. Journaling can be a powerful coping technique.
Many studies have shown the benefits of journaling. In particular, people who journal after stressful or traumatic events in their lives show less depression, experience fewer physical symptoms and illness, and have stronger immune systems. One study even found that journaling had as many positive effects as other psychosocial techniques. It’s a bit like therapy, but only costs as much as a notebook and a pen.
Journaling helps us to make sense of stressful events through catharsis. When our emotions are running high, it can be hard to even figure out what we’re feeling, much less understand the events going on around us. Journaling allows us to engage both sides of our brain through the simple act of remembering and putting words to the events in our lives.
As Julia Cameron wrote in her book, The Right to Write:
[Writing] is a way to transform what happens to us into our own experience. It is a way to move from passive to active. We may still be the victims of circumstance, but by our understanding those circumstances we place events within the ongoing context of our own life, that is the life we "own."
She also says:
When we write about our lives we respond to them. As we respond to them we are rendered more fluid, more centered, more agile on our own behalf. We are rendered conscious.
In other words, you can use journaling to make sense and take control of even the worst events in your life.
What if I’m Not a Good Writer?
The best part about journaling is that no one ever has to see what you write unless you want them to. It doesn’t matter if you know how to spell every word you want to write, or if you write in complete sentences.
But if writing really doesn’t speak to you, or if your anxiety about your skills as a writer makes it too hard to get started, maybe you should consider an alternative journaling style. You can use pictures, art, or music to express yourself.
How Do I Get Started?
If you’ve decided to go ahead with a written journal, you may still find the blank page intimidating at first. Using writing prompts may be just what you need to get started. A lead-in phrase like "The day I got the news about my baby, I was…" or a simple task like list-making can jumpstart your writing.
How Do I Know I’m Doing It Right?
There is no right or wrong way. If you feel like you’re feeling the benefits, it’s working.
One study, led by Ullrich and Lutgendorf, did find that their study subjects showed the greatest benefit from journaling when they actively incorporated both emotional and cognitive aspects of their traumatic experiences into their journals. The only directive the subjects were given was to keep a journal of their deepest thoughts and feelings on the topic they’d selected to work on. The researcher team said, "We are particularly interested in understanding how you have tried to make sense of this situation and what you tell yourself about it to help you deal with it." Subjects were also told to describe their efforts to make sense of traumatic events if they had not yet succeeded in making sense of them.
So you might find your journaling is most helpful if you don’t focus solely on the many strong emotions surrounding your pregnancy loss. But more than anything, the goal of journaling is to get some of the thoughts and feelings out of your head and to the page. If you’re doing that, no matter how, you’re taking an active step to cope with your grief.
Cameron, J. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. 1999.
Ullrich, PM, Lutgendorf, SK. "Journaling About Stressful Events: Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 2002 24(3):244-250.