In my case, as a survivor, road safety activism is not my only survivor mission. I also write and blog, discovering the healing benefits of writing about my grief and sharing my insights via what is called expressive writing (Pennebaker and Smyth, 2016, Opening Up by Writing It Down).
Eventually, I begin to imagine the book (and the blog) you are reading. They flow from my recording of conversations with Karl. In June 2016, five months after his death, Karl predicts: “The writing will bring you good luck – I promise you that. Just feel my hand holding the pen.” Ultimately, Karl and I dream this book together. But that does not happen immediately.
I begin writing to Karl because I believe in Rudolf Steiner’s reconnecting model, and I hope that our communication will be healing for Karl, as he sets out on his soul’s new journey. Later, my focus changes, as our communication helps me believe that I might be capable of creating a positive future for myself. I experience no adverse effects from this form of journaling. I was trained as a high school English teacher and have been a writer for decades, so writing comes naturally to me. However, I am aware of potential risks that could occur to a grieving person as a result of this deep inner work, depending on our situation, the depth of our loss and the levels of support available to us.
The benefits of expressive writing
Joseph Kasper, a psychologist and a grieving father, reviewing what he describes as “compelling evidence”, argues convincingly that translating emotional events into words via expressive writing leads to “profound social, psychological, and neural changes.” There is much evidence of the sense-making and benefit-finding benefits that therapeutic writing offers. In fact, people seem to possess “an inherent need to talk with others after a disturbing event” (Kasper, 2013, Co-destiny: 27; Pennebaker, and Chung, 2007, “Expressive Writing, Emotional Upheavals, and Health,” In Handbook of Health Psychology: 263-284; Pennebaker, 2004, Writing to Heal).
Joseph Kasper’s scholarly thesis is grounded in evidence-based research.
I reflect on my own desperate desire to share my feelings when I read Kasper’s words: holding back or inhibiting thoughts, emotions and behaviors has the potential to exacerbate stress-related problems.
I believe, however, that journaling when we are grieving might have mixed results, and it might backfire if we do not manage it carefully. Journaling might make us live too much in our heads and become passive observers of our lives. We might become self-obsessed or use writing as a vehicle for blame instead of solutions, allowing us to wallow in negative emotions (Stosny, S., 2017, “Anger in the Age of Entitlement”).
As Sandberg and Grant explain in their book, Option B, merely counting our blessings might not always boost our confidence. Writing about negative events can produce short-term distress, despite the long-term psychological and health benefits (Smyth, J. M., “Written Emotional Expression”, 1998: 123-158).
And spending an inordinate amount of time writing, rather than living our life, may also be counterproductive ([US] National Diary Archive, 2011, “The Shadow Side of Keeping a Journal”).
It could keep us from doing some real living. There are risks with self-absorbed, narcissistic thinking because all grieving people need to bounce ideas off someone else. We don’t want to become stuck in our own thinking.
Reading the research about the strengths and weaknesses of expressive writing, I note that it could be harmful to push people to engage in emotional processing of events that are overwhelming, are ongoing, or are recent. A book by two specialists in expressive writing warns:
“If you’re writing and feel you aren’t making progress or you are getting more distressed, stop. Write about less emotional topics. Write about superficial issues. Don’t drag yourself through the mud. You are already in the mud.”
In general, expressive writing seems to work best when you are trying to come to terms with what has already happened. These authors conclude, “it appears to be much less effective in preparing you for what might happen in the unknown future” (Pennebaker and Smyth, Opening Up by Writing It Down, 2016: 160-161).