YOUR GRIEF SHAPE
If your grief had a shape, what would it be? What about a color? A texture? See what other characteristics come to mind as you imagine your grief taking a physical form. Why do you think these characteristics came to your mind's eye? What do they represent?
A SINGULAR ATTRIBUTE
Think about your loved one. What is the first physical characteristic that comes to mind? Maybe it's the way their eyes crinkled when they smiled, or their hands, or the look on their face when they were concentrating on something. Take a minute to really focus on that image, and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up. Now write about that image in as much detail as possible, and list the specific emotions attached to it.
In the whirlwind of emotions we have after a loss we can easily be triggered by anything small. In the beginning it can be almost anything. That flood of emotions comes at you unexpectedly, like a massive wave you didn’t see coming. It flattens you in an instant, and can make you feel out of control - especially if you are in public. With time it starts to show you a more concise pattern, and it becomes more clear which exact things trigger our grief.
What things trigger your grief? What are the feelings or responses you have? Brainstorm some ways to “get through” these mini storms.
WHO AM I NOW?
"Who am I now?" This is a thought that many of us have. You may feel like merely a shadow of your former self. Sometimes it’s because you were a caregiver: you spent the majority of your day caring for your loved one. Maybe this thought comes because you lost your spouse, or your child. Are you still a husband, or a wife, or a parent, without them? Or maybe this thought comes for a different set of circumstances. Whichever way, it’s a pesky, aching thought that can affect us in so many ways. Reclaiming your identity starts small; it is a process of getting know yourself all over again.
Think about who you were before your loss. What were/are some of your interests or hobbies? What is an activity that you would like to get back into? What activity makes you feel most like your original or best self?
FROM THE BEGINNING
Take a few minutes to locate your earliest memory of your loved one. Perhaps you even remember the first time you saw them. Recall as many details as possible; use all five senses, if you can. What feelings come up as your write about this memory? Are any other thoughts or memories sparked?
THE BAG OF ROCKS
When high levels of stress (like grief) shift us into a crisis mindset, tasks of daily life become much more difficult. We shift from function to survival, and basic needs are often where we must focus our energy and time..
Visualize your stressors as rocks in a bag that are weighing you down. Dump out the bag and begin identifying the rocks—what is weighing on you? Are these things that are within your control/changeable or outside of your control/unchangeable? If something is in your control, what steps might you identify to change it? These are rocks that you don't have to put back into your bag. If something is not changeable, can you identify anything that might help you to better cope with it, so that your bag feels lighter and easier to carry?
In the midst of our grief, we may feel as though we have been plunged into deep water, or have been thrown into a dark pit. It is hard to find our way through days, to see what needs to be done, or to see much of anything.
In particular, the suffocating darkness of grief may prohibit us from seeing the grief of others. Chances are you are not the only person who loved the person you are grieving. Who else is grieving your loved one? Can you identify any ways you might be able to grieve together, or be supports to one another as you try to find your way through the darkness? Can you move together toward the light?
YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY
In grief, even the best, happiest memories of our loved one can be painful to recall. It even may seem better to try to avoid thinking about them all together - as if we could!
And yet, remembering and reminiscing is healthy and important. It is part of healthy grief. It is also one of the ways in which we can continue to feel connected to our loved one.
What is your favorite memory of your loved one? Spend a few minutes to reminisce. Now write about it in as much detail as possible and list the emotions that came up while recalling it. In time, you will find that in recollecting there is a shift from pain to gratitude.
Today's prompt is a little bit different, and encourages abstract thinking. Abstract thinking and creative grief work can be powerful because they encourage us to tap into a different part of the brain, which can help to illuminate some things that escape the conscious mind, and allow for a deeper level of grief work.
This exercise is adapted from the work of grief therapist and researcher, Robert Neimeyer.
Set a timer for ten minutes. Now, trying to write whatever comes to mind without too much forethought, create a story that includes the following six things: a storm, a talking animal, an empty chair, a tree, the color red, and a flower.
Once your time is up, take a minute to read your story and to jot down any ideas that spring up about how your dream story might relate to your grief, and what it might be revealing.
No relationship, no matter how loving and close, is without its challenges. When someone we love dies, we sometimes will idealize them and our relationship with them. This is normal and understandable, and certainly it is better to focus on the positive aspects of a person and our relationship with them.
And yet, to fully grieve our loved one, we must grieve the whole person, and the whole relationship - this includes the "less good" stuff too.
Today, choose a difficult memory of your relationship to write about. Maybe your relationship had a rough patch, or maybe there was hurt between you that you never had the chance to address. Or maybe they just had habit or quirk that got under your skin. Now, write about how this time or thing impacted your relationship. If it feels right, ask for forgiveness, or tell them they are forgiven.
Today's prompt is simple, but might push some of us a little bit out of our comfort zone: an acrostic poem.
An acrostic is a poem in which a word is spelled out vertically, with each letter of the word being used to begin a line of the poem. For example, an acrostic poem about tulips could be something like:
Tender petals painted in so many hues
Usually bright, but sometimes white
Like clouds or like freshly fallen snow.
Inside, strips of black behind pistils -
Pollen waiting to make other flowers:
Spring's most beautiful blossoms.
Try writing an acrostic that related to your grief. Your primary word could be your loved one's name, one of the emotions you've experienced in your grief, how they died, or even a word associated with a special memory. The lines don't have to be the same length and it doesn't need to rhyme - just write whatever comes to mind.
THE WORST DAY
For many of us, the day our loved one died was the worst day of our life. We don't like to talk about it, or even think about it. It's understandable if writing about it feels like the last thing you would want to do.
Yet, it is part of the story - the story of what happened, of your relationship with your loved one, of you. Thus, it necessary to tell, as part of your journey to healing.
Write about the day they died. For this exercise, try to just focus on the events of the day. Begin in the morning. Take it slow. If at any point this feels overwhelming, back off: you can try this is bits and pieces, or return to it another day.
Who has been most helpful to you in your grief? If there are people who have been particularly comforting and supportive, what is it that they have done? Is there a way to ask the other people in your life to do similar things? Why or why not?
What things have you discovered to be most helpful in your grief? Maybe it's taking time to reminisce, or things that are grounding and/or distracting, such as mediation or gardening, or maybe it's things that make you feel connected, like support groups, podcasts, or online communities. What about these things has been so helpful? How can you get more of these peppered into your day? Are there any new things you might like to try?
This prompt addresses another aspect of your loss that can be challenging to talk about, and yet is another important part of the story of your grief journey: the service. Perhaps you had a funeral mass, or sat shiva, or had a small graveside service. Perhaps, if your loved one died recently, you weren't able to do any of these things, or had to drastically alter your arrangements.
This day might seem like a blur, but recall what you can. Begin by focusing on the details - what you saw, who was there - and then zoom out to explore your thoughts and feelings. What was healing about the service? What do you think your loved one would have thought about it? If at any point this feels too intense, take a break and return to it later.
YOUR SAFE PLACE
Take a minute to close your eyes. Think of a place where you feel peaceful, safe, and at ease. This can be a real place - maybe a room in your house, or a favorite vacation spot - or somewhere that you create with your imagination.
Within this visualization try to identify as many details as possible. What does it smell like? Are there any sounds? Is it a particular time of day that you think of first? Is it warm?
Now write in as much detail as possible. You may even want to draw a picture to accompany your writing. Take a minute to write about why this is your safe place. Know that you can return here when you feel stressed, sad, anxious, or overwhlemed by grief.
THINGS LEFT UNSAID
Hospice physician and writer, Ira Byock, states that there are four simple phrases that can bring tremendous healing at the end of a persons life, and, that they are often the things we most wish we or our loved one had said before they died:
"Please forgive me"
"I forgive you"
"Thank you" and
"I love you."
Were any of these left unsaid between you and your loved one? Is there anything else that you wish you had said? What about anything you wish they had said to you? Why do you think these things were left unsaid? Consider writing a letter to your loved one in which you "say" anything that you feel was unsaid, or perhaps writing out a conversation you wish had been had. Is there anything you can identify that might bring a sense of closure?
WHY YOU'RE WONDERFUL
One common thing that people experience in grief is a loss of self-esteem. Sometimes this happens because of guilt we feel, and sometimes it happens because of the way our loss changes our self-perception, and sometimes it happens because the person who made us feel the best about our self is the one we're grieving.
Write down three things (or more!) that you like about yourself. Next, write down three things that your loved one loved about you. Now write down at least three accomplishments that you are proud of. Lastly, write down three things that you want for your future.
WHAT YOU MISS MOST
When we are grieving we long for the presence of our loved one. This longing is intense and unbearably painful.
What do you miss most about your loved one? For today's journal entry, try to write about three aspects of this longing: at least one physical attribute (such as their laugh), one concrete thing (maybe their cooking), and one thing that's more abstract (like having someone to turn to for advice). If it feels right, take a moment to thank them for sharing these things with you.
We all have ways that we try to cope with difficult, stressful circumstances - as which, grief definitely qualifies. Coping mechanisms can generally be sorted into two categories: maladaptive, and supportive. When we turn to maladaptive coping strategies our efforts to make ourselves feel better often wind up making us feel even worse.
Make a list of the ways that you usually try to cope with your grief or other stressful situations. Categorize each thing as "maladaptive" (i.e. eating or drinking too much) or "supportive" (i.e. exercise or hobbies). How can you gently intervene on yourself when you notice that you're turning to a maladaptive coping behavior? Can you think of ways to redirect into one of the supportive activities on your list?
When many people think about emotions and grief, they think of "sadness," but for those of us who have experienced a deep and devastating loss, we know that sadness is just one of the many feelings that overwhelm us in grief. Throughout our grief we might experience despair, fear, anxiety, numbness, joy, guilt, gratitude, confusion, anger, and more. Often we experience these in waves, but sometimes we experience multiple emotions at once!
Some of these emotions, or emotional experiences, are more difficult to work through than others. Anger is one of these "difficult emotions of grief" - and one of the most common!
Anger can stem from, and be directed toward, a number of things, but often falls into one of four categories: anger at others we perceive as being culpable somehow in our loved one's death, anger at external sources (i.e. cancer or addiction), anger toward our loved one, and anger toward ourselves.
Towards who or what are you angry, and why? How might you be able to work through this anger? Is there any way you can let it go, or find a way to forgive?
A FUNNY MEMORY
Chances are you had a lot of good times with your loved one (even if you had some bad ones too). Although even these good memories may feel bittersweet - or even painful - to recall, "collecting" good memories is important in continuing our bond with our loved one.
Today, try to locate a "funny" memory of your loved one. Was there ever a time that something happened with them where you couldn't stop laughing? Maybe it makes you laugh still, or at least brings a smile to your face. Take a moment to recollect and focus on any details you can. Now: write.
Just like anger is one of the most common difficult emotions of grief, so too is guilt. (Okay, we know that guilt isn't really an emotion, but go with us on this one, because it's important to talk about.)
There are many reasons why we might feel guilty. Perhaps we feel that we should have "made" our loved one go to the doctor sooner. Sometimes we feel some culpability in the death. Many of us feel that we should have done more - even if we don't know what else we could have done. Or maybe we wish that we said or did things differently throughout our relationship with our loved one.
Most often the things we feel guilty for are not anything we did "wrong" or could have actually done differently. Either way, guilt can rob us of our ability to reclaim the love and joy we might feel remembering our loved one, and of the ability to heal.
Is there anything you feel guilty about? Can you identify what you're burdening yourself with unnecessarily? How might you be able to "let it go?" If it feels right, ask for forgiveness.
THE HARDEST TIME OF DAY
Although every hour can be overwhelmed by grief, especially in the earliest days after your loss, many people find that there is a particular time of day that is most difficult for them.
For many people, nighttime is the hardest: the tasks of the day are done, and so too are many distractions. For others, mornings are most difficult: waking up to the realization that this is real; they are really gone. Or perhaps you and your loved one had lunch every day, and so midday is the time you feel most overwhelmed by your grief.
What time of day is the most difficult for you? Why? What things can you identify that might help to make this time of day more manageable for you?
When someone we love dies, we lose more than just that person. Though their specific absence is what is most keenly and painfully felt, we often lose and grieve many other things too. These other, subsequent losses are called secondary losses.
Secondary losses can be concrete or abstract, or somewhere in the middle. Common examples of concrete secondary losses are: loss of income, loss of housing, loss of friends, and loss of property, although there are many other examples. Abstract secondary losses might include: loss of identity, loss of dreams for the future, loss of security, loss of belonging, and loss of faith.
As you work through the pain of your grief, it is important to also recognize, validate, and grieve these secondary losses. What secondary losses have you experienced since the death of your loved one? Which have been most painful for you?
(For more about secondary loss, see our blog.)
One of the things that's not talked about enough is how grief is an extension of love. Even after our loved one dies our love for them still persists - of in an even more poignant and profound way - and for as long as we love them (aka the rest of our lives) we will always have a relationship with them. One of the most important tasks of healing is figuring out what your relationship looks like now.
One part of doing this is identifying what helps you to still feel connected with them. (We have a few forum and blog posts on this topic.) Maybe it's wearing an article of their clothing, or doing things they liked to do, or looking at pictures, or eating their favorite food.
Make a list of things that help you to still feel connected to your loved one, and why. Include any other things you can think of that you might not have tried yet. After you journal, if you feel up to it, perhaps consider doing one of these things today.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FEELING RELIEVED
There are a number of reasons why we might experience relief after the death of a loved one, and most of them have to do with gratitude that our loved one is being spared pain and suffering. Relief may also come because death often follows a long and excruciating period filled with sadness, and fear, and pain – not only for the dying person, but for all those who love them.
Feeling relief does not mean that you wanted your loved one to die, or that you are “glad” that they are dead; any relief you feel is a validation of how incredibly agonizing it was to watch them suffer, and to say goodbye to them – it’s a validation of your immense love.
Have you felt relief for any reason following your loved one's death? Why? What other emotions has this brought up? If guilt is one of those emotions, please hold on to this truth: any relief you are experiencing does not come from selfishness or an absence of care, but rather, from an abundance of love.
Perhaps you've already been "talking" to your loved one. Maybe these conversations relate to things that have happened since they died, or maybe they are conversations you wish you'd had.
It can be good and healthy to continue to talk to your loved one - an example of a "continuing bond" like we discussed a couple of prompts back. Writing out these conversations also has therapeutic value, particularly if anger, guilt, or regret has been a struggle.
For today's prompt: write out an imaginary conversation with your loved one. It can be an emotionally neutral topic, like how the garden's looking this year. Or maybe you can "seek" their advice and comfort regarding the pandemic. Or perhaps, you have something you need to get off of your chest, or for which you need to ask for forgiveness. Imagining what your loved one would say to you can be very powerful and healing; take your time with this exercise.
Music is powerful. It can elicit strong emotions, it can intensify memories, and it can communicate what we feel unable to.
If you were going to make a playlist/album/mixed tape telling the story of your relationship with your loved one, which songs would be on it? In what order would they appear, and why?
If you would like to take this prompt one step further, actually create your playlist, listen to it, and journal about the thoughts and feelings that come up with each song.
Is there something related to your loved one's death that you avoid thinking about? For many people whose loved ones died after a long illness, the images of the last few days of life can be particularly disturbing and painful; so too the discoveries of unexpected deaths.
For others, what is most intentionally avoided are not images, but memories of words spoken or unspoken. For others still, what's avoided is a feeling itself - usually one of the difficult emotions of grief that we've discussed elsewhere, such as anger, shame, or guilt.
Identifying what we avoid thinking about can often illuminate what needs to be addressed in order for us to grieve healthily, heal, and move forward in a meaningful way.
What have you been avoiding? Do you find certain thoughts repeatedly trying to force their way into your conscious mind? Confront whatever it is in your journal today. Really "going there" might be too overwhelming for a single entry; it might be something that needs to be revisited in bits and pieces; and that's okay.
When we have a memorial for someone or something, we are acting to preserve memory - so that a person or a thing will be remembered and never forgotten.
We know that many people have been unable to memorialize their loved ones in the way(s) they would have liked to due to the pandemic. Not being able to memorialize and celebrate your loved one's life in a way that feels meaningful to you can be very painful. There are many things besides having a service or a gathering that we can do to memorialize, such as: creating a photo album or online slide show, planting a memorial tree or garden, making a "memory box," curating a playlist of their favorite songs to share, and more.
What have you done to memorialize your loved one? What things might you like to do to celebrate and remember them? Make a list and write what details come to mind and who your might invite to join in memorializing with you.
JUST ONE WORD
Choose one word that describes how you feel or most represents your grief right now. Maybe your word is and adjective like "angry," or "empty;" or maybe a noun, such as "discovery," "solitude," or "gratitude." Try not to judge whatever word comes up for you.
Now write about that word as though you are explaining it to someone who has never heard it before. As you write you may want to tie in pieces of your grief experience to illuminate why you were drawn to that word today. Lastly, take a moment to reflect to consider if this is the same word you would have chosen yesterday, or a month ago, or in the days immediately after your loss.
Create a visual representation of the story you share with your loved one. Create a collage using photos or magazine clippings that represents your feelings or memories. Take your time and choose images that mean something to you.
Write a "One Year from Today" entry in which you fast-forward yourself to the healing side of the grief. Allow yourself a glimpse into the future. Imagine your life as if you have wheeled around through four seasons, and you are one year distant from the losses you are experiencing today. What is life like? What are your hopes for the future?
Creative writing can be an expressive and explorative tool used to dive deep into the core of our experiences. For this exercise write the alphabet, or the letters of any word or phrase, vertically down the side of your page. Then write a poem in which each successive line begins with the next letter of the alphabet. It's perfectly acceptable to make exceptions for extra hard letters, but try and be creative. Try this exercise even if you think you're not a poet, or that the process sounds silly. You may surprised by what you uncover.
YOUR GRIEF MAP
What does your journey through grief look like? Draw a map of your grief journey, illustrating each stage you experienced along the way. Were there stops, sights, or obstructions along your path? Have you returned to some of those places? Include them in your drawing.
The pain of grief can often leave us feeling that everything has been taken. Especially in the beginning of the journey, the losses may feel innumerable. But it is within life's most challenging experiences that we sometimes learn and grow the most. Let's take a moment and consider some of the things that this experience of loss has given to us.
What is something beautiful in yourself that you discovered or strengthened in yourself because of your loss (compassion, perspective, living life to the fullest, living with purpose, etc)?
What have you learned from your loss or from your grief? What has the experience of loss taught you about yourself and your capabilities?
Grief can present us with a host of conflicting and overwhelming feelings. For today's journal entry, create a word cloud that explores the myriad of thoughts and feelings that encompass your loss experience. Begin by writing the word “grief” on the center of a blank page then write every word that comes to mind around it.
When we are grieving we may bristle at the suggestion that there is anything to be grateful for, or that anything "good" could ever come from our grief.
We would never suggest that there is an acceptable answer to "why" your loved one died, but we do try to gently work with our clients to unearth the "because ofs."
Is there anything beautiful in yourself that you discovered or strengthened because of your loss (compassion, perspective, living life to the fullest, living with purpose, etc)? Are there any other positive "because ofs" that you can identify? What about any that you hope for your future?
Thinking of your loved one, what did you respect most about them, and why? Do you see this same quality or tendency in yourself, or did they help you to grow in this specific way? If not, is this something you'd like to try to cultivate in yourself, and how might you do that?