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Grief Perspectives
Scholar's Corner
Resource Review
Bookshelf

Encouraging the Use of Grief Journal-Keeping

by William G. Hoy

Keeping a journal in bereavement is a time-tested technique used by therapists and other grief caregivers, at least throughout the English-speaking world. Through my years in practice, the assignment to begin or continue a journal has likely been the most frequently suggested intervention I have offered. In our continuing quest in the behavioral health fields to create a better evidence-based practice, however, we have to ask whether the “time-tested” is good enough. Should we encourage the keeping of a grief journal or does that technique create more problems than it solves?
 
“Why keep a journal in grief,” one might ask. In fact, is it not possible that writing down the difficulties “etch” them into permanent memory much like burnishing an image on wood or metal creates a lasting picture that is impossible to erase? Besides, one might posit, “I am not a writer” or “I hated being made to write in school.”
 
Even a casual observer might notice the similarity: the words journal and journey grow from the same root. With our frequent use of “journey” images in the grief process, it makes sense that we would recommend to those we help that they should keep a journal or a “travel log” of their trip.
 
Journals help label the indescribable experiences of loss. Words rarely describe the rugged experiences of loss or the high plains of personal growth. Well-meaning friends and even lovingly committed family members have difficulty imagining the depth of emotional pain experienced by many bereaved people. Equally difficult is helping them understand the transformation of grief that often creates new priorities and commitments. For the bereaved individual, however, helping these well-meaning family and friends understand is made even more difficult because words come with such difficulty.
 
Through the last three decades as a counselor and college professor, I have written a lot. The pages of books, papers, and articles that bear my name likely now number between two and three thousand. But a funny thing happens in all of that writing. I find myself saying in classrooms, hospital conference centers, and consultation rooms, to colleagues, students, patients and their friends, the very words that I have recently or not-so-recently written. Often, the texture of the work I do is profoundly shaped by the words I have written. Until these phrases and principles are committed to paper (or screen), they often do not become clear enough in my mind to speak them aloud. I believe a similar process occurs for bereaved people who write down what they are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in their grief.
 
Journals provide a permanent record of progress. Especially in the early months walking the grief pathway, most people find more steep hills, treacherous cliffs, and rugged terrain than beautiful vistas with spectacular sunsets. Keeping a journal helps the bereaved document the frequency of these difficult moments and the occasional beautiful views so that months or years later they can look back to see just how far we have come. In reflecting on his own journal-keeping, Joshua Becker writes,
“As with any pursuit, there are times we may feel like we have not accomplished anything despite all the invested effort and energy. During those moments, it is helpful to look back and be reminded of our past successes….the next time we face (adversity), we’ll find motivation and strength in our written record of overcoming it in the past”
(http://www.becomingminimalist.com/reasons-to-journal/).
 
Journals provide a focus to therapeutic conversations. The use of journals by clients have provided the discussion starter in many counseling sessions during my career. Reminding counselees, “I’d like to talk with you about what you are writing; would you bring your journal or a passage or two to share with me next time?” can both provide advance warning and shape to the therapeutic conversation.
 
Journaling is simple, even when it is not easy. If our clients are not gifted writers or experienced journal keepers, they will need some practical ways to get started. Here are the three simple steps to help them get started. (Feel free to copy and paste the “how to” section for your clients; please simply add this attribution: “From “Encouraging the Use of Grief Journal-Keeping” in GriefPerspectives, June 2015. Copyright © 2015 by William G. Hoy. All rights reserved, used by permission. For more information, visit www.GriefConnect.com” 
 
First, get a book or sign up for one of the many online journal websites; I like simple blank books and the web portal www.penzu.com. However, a nice way to retain the familiar pen-and-paper feel without killing trees is to use the Notability app and a stylus on an iPad or iPhone.
 
Second, commit to writing every day. Most of us miss some days but set as a goal the discipline of writing daily. I have tried to tell myself I will journal weekly or three times per week and for me it never works. Commit to write a little bit every day, even when you miss some.
 
Third, start with a simple prompt. Here are some that might get you writing:
 
  • Today, I hope for…
  • Today, I missed you the most when…
  • The person who most inspired me today was…
  • Right now, I wonder about…
  • The times I find I am most angry/guilty/sad/lonely/etc. are…
  • The hardest part about grief for me right now is…
  • What I never expected as a result of this experience is…
 
However you choose to keep your journal and whatever you put into it, get started now. Do not wait, do not add this to the list of “tasks to get to eventually.” Get started to allow journal keeping to have a profoundly rich impact on your experience with loss.


The Author:
For three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide more effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment on the Medical Humanities faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Scholar's Corner
 
Miller, W. R. (2014, January). Interactive journaling as a clinical tool. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 36(1), 31-42.
doi: 10.17744/mehc.36.1.0k5v52l12540w218 
 
In this article, emeritus distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at University of new Mexico, William R. Miller overviews the recent evidence for the use of reading assignments (bibliotherapy) and therapeutic writing for clients grappling with a diversity of issues. Interactive Journaling (IJ) is the pairing of bibliotherapy with structured reflective writing.
 
IJ utilizes small “digestible” chunks of written text interspersed with opportunities for the reader to pause, reflect, and write a response to an evocative question. IJ interventions appear to have been used and tested most thoroughly with substance abuse treatment programs over the last decade or so with positive results overall. Rather than participants simply sitting passively and listening to a lecture or reading a text without response, the IJ intervention requires participants to “interact” with the materials.
 
For years, educators have been seeking ways to expand student interaction with texts rather than simply passively using them. It is likely that the same cognitive learning functions that seem to be improved with reflective writing after reading a text would also be helpful in mental health counseling. While there is much room for additional research, early studies in substance abuse treatment programs confirm the value of interactive journal as a counseling tool. This technique likely
 
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Resource Review
 
Penzu.com provides an outstanding secure online journal-keeping tool. One of the nice added features of Penzu includes a brief article on the value, purpose, and techniques of keeping a reflective journal that can be accessed directly at https://penzu.com/reflective-journal. I like the way users can choose their own “look” to make journal keeping more personal. I also feel very confident about the security of the site with user-set names and passwords.
Bookshelf
 
Budd, L. (2002). Journal keeping: Writing for spiritual growth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 
In the introduction to her fine little book, Luann Budd writes, “…like most people who keep a journal, (I) use writing to scrutinize all aspects of life and to find God in the mess” (p. 13). As this month’s column attempts to demonstrate, journal-keeping in grief can become an incredibly useful tool to sorting out the mess of grief and of finding a “spiritual home” in the midst of it all. This book is written from an unapologetically Christian worldview but its principles will serve clients well while they are learning to keep a journal of their grief journey.
 
Luann Budd cobbles together her own story of fits and starts in journal-keeping, all while explaining some of the varied ways she uses hers to sort out matters of faith and personal growth. Moreover, she leans on the journals of dozens of men and women who have grappled with the difficulties of life. Here are the written words of those whose spirits have soared and whose hearts have been broken, people who have experienced the vagaries of life.
Copyright © 2015 GRIEF CONNECT INC, All rights reserved.
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