PROMPTS FOR WRITING THROUGH GRIEF
(and other ways of working through it)
In this series about writing through grief (and other ways of working through it), we will explore:
- Introduction to this series
- Grief in special seasons of memory, like winter holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions
- Some ideas and experiences of my own related to dealing with grief
- Prompts and ideas inspired by Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore
- Prompts and ideas inspired by Paulette Perhach’s “30 Days to the Personal Essay” course.
- Prompts and ideas especially suitable for young people (but also helpful for older folks, too)
- Ideas inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Date Book
Some of these postings are quite long, but I hope that in them you may find a few gems that will help you through your journey with grief. And please remember to add your own thoughts, ideas, and prompts in the comments. Thank you so much.
Some ideas and experiences of my own related to dealing with grief
This is a long list of prompts, thoughts, ideas, and actions I have developed as I’ve dealt with grief or shared with and learned from others as they’ve dealt with grief. I have divided them into sections which you may wish to scroll down to, to find ideas you might find personally helpful. The topics are:
- Sharing your thoughts with the person you miss
- Learning more about the person you miss, and sharing memories together with others
- Writing about the person you miss to honor their memory
- Mementos and dreams
- Difficult and/or ambivalent memories
- Writing a memoir or other published materials about the person you miss
- Are you burying or denying or hanging onto your grief or being overwhelmed by it?
- Practical things to do to deal with grief and honor the person you miss
- Dealing with and writing through different kinds of loss and grief
- Is there really a “right way” or “proper steps” to grieve?
- Is there life after death? Will you see that person again? Do you feel them reach out to you now?
Sharing your thoughts with the person you miss:
- When you hear (or read) the name of the person you miss (even just their first name), what comes to mind? Keep a little notepad handy, and jot down the memories and thoughts that pop into your mind when you hear their name.
- Update your missed person on what you’ve been up to; what world events (or local events, etc.) they would be interested in; vacations you’ve taken; other important things in your (and/or their) life. Maybe keep a special journal or notebook (or video, or an audio file on your phone, or even a private blog) to record these updates. Write as if you’re talking directly to them, just as you did in the past. If you would drink tea or coffee or a glass of wine (or whatever) while you chatted with that person in the past, do so while you do this activity.
- Do you have a letter or email or card you planned to send to your missed person but didn’t get that done in time, or that they sent to you, and you didn’t have time to reply? Finish it now. Perhaps leave it at their gravesite, or burn it and scatter its ashes to the wind, or just tuck it away with other small things you have kept to remember them by.
Learning more about the person you miss, and sharing memories together with others:
- Write a letter to your missed person, asking them about events or things you wish you’d asked them before it was too late. Then, if possible, research the topic or ask/interview someone who might know or remember. Alternatively, go through old unlabeled photos or videos they left behind, write down the questions you have, and then try to discover answers to those questions.
- Gather a group of people together who would be willing to share memories about the person you miss. Record the conversation through video or audio formats or take notes. Encourage the people to bring along photos or items that have memories attached to them. If your group did things together with your missed person (walks together; meals; coffee gatherings; sports; etc.) maybe do this memory activity in the same way.
- Start a private memory group on Facebook or on a private blog. Invite group members to share their memories in any way they like—writing, songs, poetry, art, video…. Share the healing among all of you. Perhaps you will, as a group, come up with a plan to memorialize in a way specifically appropriate to your missed person.
- Do you have a collection of photos from throughout the life of the person you are grieving over? Can you gather them together and make an album of that person’s life that you can share with others who are also grieving? Can you write stories to go with some of the photos? Who do you think would like to read such stories? Could you ask them what memories they would like you to record for them? (This could be especially helpful for children and grandchildren who may long to know more about their family history, and about that person in particular).
Writing about the person you miss to honor their memory:
- Did the person you miss have a special interest? Could you honor their memory by researching that topic, or writing a story or article about it, or creating a piece of art or a song or dance? What would that person have appreciated you doing to help them dig deeper into their interest?
- Did your missed person especially enjoy a book or movie, or perhaps you shared enjoyment of it? Write about what they (or both of you) enjoyed about it—or even things you disagreed about to some degree. Maybe share it as a “review” or a social media status or other “published” form.
- Think back through your missed person’s lifetime. Record (in writing or audio or visual format or even art or poetry or music, or a collection of photos etc., as appropriate to the person) stories that others would love to read, hear, or view—family, friends, admirers, etc.
Mementos and dreams:
- Have you dreamed about your missed person? What happened in the dream? Do you think it has a special meaning? Do you feel that person was visiting you? Write about it. (Keep a notebook and flashlight on your bedside table to record the dreams before they slip away).
- What items have you kept that remind you of the person? Photos? Artwork? Clothing items? Toys? What else? How do those items make you feel? Do you keep them out where you can see them often, or even regularly make use of them? Or do you hide some of them away or give them away or toss them out? Has the way you relate to the items changed over time? Why? How do such items make you feel? Write about these feelings and thoughts.
Difficult and/or ambivalent memories:
- Do you have ambivalent feelings about your missed person? Are there things you wish you’d been able to do differently, or been able to help them with? Are there things they said or did that hurt you? Did they suffer from mental illness or addiction, and you weren’t able to help them? Are there unresolved issues between you? Do you feel guilt or anger or jealousy? Do you have trouble forgiving—letting go? Writing about any of these difficult memories are an important part of healing. The writing can be just “between you and them” and you can even destroy it after writing it. Writing by hand can often be more helpful that typing. (And if it doesn’t seem to help, don’t be afraid of professional help and therapy—or throwing a pillow against the wall and yelling aloud, if you need to. Bottling these negative feelings and energy up will only make things worse).
- Did the missed person try to force or inculcate in you, ideas and beliefs which you resent, or which you feel have made your life more difficult? Consider writing a letter to them explaining how you feel. Then, consider writing a “return letter” in which they have a chance to explain why they believed or acted that way, and even ask forgiveness. Sometimes doing this can give you insights into their own life story that will help you “let go” of those kinds of things.
- If you hold anger, guilt, jealousy, or other negative feelings, write a letter explaining why you feel that way, and ask forgiveness. Let those feelings go, as much as possible. If writing doesn’t do it, paint your feelings, or turn them into music or dance or other ways of working out strong emotions.
Writing a memoir or other published materials about the person you miss:
- If you feel what you have written would be worth turning into a memoir for publication, put it away for at least a year or two. Then go back to it. What have you written that is worth sharing? Is any of it simply anger or gossip? Should you deal with those issues first before possibly sharing them? In “healing yourself” are you potentially hurting other people? Is that worth it?
- Try writing your memories in a form you don’t usually use—perhaps poetry, or song lyrics, or a photo essay, or a personal essay, or a psychology paper. If you aren’t sure about whether a story should be published, write a letter to your missed person, and ask their permission. How do you think they would respond? Write a return letter from them to you, with their honest viewpoint as far as you can imagine. Try to get into their heart and mind. You might even need to do a series of back-and-forth letters of this kind. Try to understand their viewpoint—and yours, too.
- Have you saved letters (or emails) that the person you are remembering wrote to you? What can you glean from them that will help you through your grieving journey? Are there things that would be worth sharing with others who are also grieving? What does re-reading those letters (or other written work: poetry, stories, articles, etc.) bring to your memory about that person? Does anything surprise you? Have your memories changed from the time the letter was written? In what way have they changed? Why do you suppose they have changed? Do some of the things in the letters surprise you—for example, attitudes they display that were common in that period of society, but are now unacceptable? Or ways in which the writer was ahead of their time?
- What cliches, proverbs, quotations, and sayings did the person you are remembering use often? How did you react to their use then? How do you feel now when you hear those sayings? Do they remind you of the person? As you remember them, how do they re-inform you about the person? Do you wish you could hear them said once again? Could you use them in your writing about the person?
- Why do you want to tell stories about the person you are grieving for? To sort out your feelings about them? To celebrate them? To unload anger or guilt or other negative feelings? To share your memories of past times? To persuade or entertain or inform readers? To share ideas and passions? After you have written a lot of stories or essays or poems related to that person, can you pick out the ones that really reflect your reason for writing? Are there pieces of writing that don’t fit your purpose? Anything you’ve missed? What about your audience? What will they want to know or learn? How will they feel?
- There is a fine line between nonfiction and creative non-fiction (and total fiction)! Which are you writing? Why have you chosen that method? How will it affect the point of view you use (1st person, 3rd person) and the stories you choose (events, emotions, the names and places you use in your writing, etc.)?
- What is truth? How is your truth about the person you write about different than that of other people’s memories—or the truth that person would have expressed about themselves? At what point does your truth perhaps wander into self-justification or convenient fictions or pick-and-choose memories? How do your beliefs or prejudices fit into your memories? How will honestly considering these questions affect what you choose to remember and share?
- Are you writing from your heart, or are you possibly jumping into trends in memoir and/or creative non-fiction? Does the “success” (number of books sold; amount of money earned) have any influence on what you are writing about the person? If so, how does that influence what you decide to share with others? How does it in fact have an influence on your own memories?
- Do you believe your memories—and the ones you choose to share with others—are factual, or do they include your own perspectives, which may differ from those of others, including the person you are grieving for? As you remember the person, is your grief and remembering changing the way you remember them, and the relationship you really had with them? How much does your storytelling (to yourself or to others or even to the person being remembered) involve fiction and/or personal perspectives? Is that a problem? What is the difference between fiction and personal perspectives?
- If you choose to write about your grief, should you do it on your own, or should you reach out for someone (or a group) to walk with you through the process (family members, a therapist, a writers’ group, a writing or life coach, an editor, etc.)?
- If you wish to write about your grief, what methods will work best for you: handwriting or typing; journaling or essays or stories or articles or poetry? What else? Maybe a combination or different approaches at different times in the process?
- Usually, our feelings about the death of a loved one (or someone we didn’t care for) tend to change over time. If you are writing (or otherwise sharing your memories and feelings), do you think you should wait for a time before hitting the “publish button”? Might you be sorry later on if you share your immediate thoughts right away? Is it better to “dump” or to take time and consider what is best to share? Where does “my truth” come into this? What if your truth changes later? If you’re not sure something should be shared, or you even think deep down it is wrong, but you want to spill it anyway, how are you rationalizing that choice? Why?
- Could you take an experience of loss which you have gone through, and use it as the basis of a fictional book or short stories? Or poetry? Sometimes, those methods will help you work through your grief. What about different forms of the arts? Hobbies or crafts? Attending workshops (or leading them) on grief?
- Ask one of the AI writing programs to research and tell you about the life (in general; or a specific aspect or event) of the person you are missing—or find an entry about them on a site like Wikipedia; or a social media page where they posted information about themself. Do you agree with what you are presented with? Why or why not? How would you change the post or article to be more accurate? What would you focus on? What perspectives and knowledge could you supply that others have not included? What could you correct, and why would you correct it, or would you just let it be? Why? Write your own “biographical article” about the person you are missing, being as fair and accurate, yet thoughtful and authentic, as you can.
Are you burying or denying or hanging onto your grief or being overwhelmed by it?
- As you remember, do you find yourself trying to bury or hide certain memories? Do you sometimes worry that the person might actually be able to observe you, hear what you are saying, read what you are writing, check into your dreams, and so on—and if so, how does that affect your remembering and your grief and what the person might think of you now (if you are concerned that they are observing, and discovering truths you don’t want to admit, and might confront you about in your dreams or in the spirit world someday)?
- Is your grief overwhelming the rest of your life? How long should you grieve? What effect does your grief (and your reactions to it, including in writing, etc.) have on yourself day by day, as well as on others in your life? Are you finding ways to create balance in your life between your memories and your present life? Can you share those with others who are grieving?
- Are you burying your grief? How does that affect you mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically? How does your grief affect your health in all these ways? Are some of your ways of handling your grief becoming destructive to you and/or to others? Can you let loose some of that buried grief through your writing, speaking, arts? Even through what you wore or what you ate or through traditions you recall fondly related to that person, and which you could incorporate into your life now?
- What have you stored away related to the person you are remembering and grieving? Why have you kept those things? What do each of those things (writings, photos, clothing, favorite items, even memories you go back to over and over) say about you and your relationship to the person? Would you feel guilty to toss those things out or give them away? Why do you feel that way? Are those things making your grief last longer than it should?
- Do you sometimes wonder what “might have happened” if you and the person you grieve had made different choices? Is it worth having these “second thoughts” about things you know you cannot change? Are they holding you back from moving forward? Do you worry about what the person “might say” if they knew you were moving forward and letting go?
- Are there things about the person you are grieving for that you just can’t seem to let go? What is the reason for each of those things? There are 3 kinds of reasons we often use: the reason we tell others, the reason we tell ourselves, and the real reason. Can you find your real reason and deal with it?
- Have you dreamed about the person you are grieving? What happens in those dreams? What do you think they mean? Do they make you happy or afraid? Are they focused around particular events or feelings while the person was alive (or was with you, if the person has moved on and you don’t see them anymore)? What can you do to deal with those kinds of dreams?
- In your grieving, do you think about things that “should have been?” What are those things? Is there a way you can deal with those things, work through them, now? Can you make changes in the ways you react to situations now? In your current relationships? It is said that “we can’t change the past,” but we can live each moment in the present in ways that help us move on from the past, and sometimes even change the consequences of past decisions and actions and beliefs and attitudes. What can you do now?
- Where do you go or what do you do or say to help you “escape” from grief that overwhelms? Are those methods working? Why or why not? If not, what can you do instead?
Practical things to do to deal with grief and honor the person you miss:
- Is there something you always meant to do with the person you are grieving—a gift you meant to give them, spending more time with them, going on a holiday together, etc.? Are you feeling badly about not doing that while there was time? How could you let that go? Write them a letter about it? Do that thing with someone else? Use the time or money you would have spent to help out others, volunteer, take care of someone who was important to that person, get involved in a group or activity, for a time, that the person would be happy about?
- Often, we think of grief in terms of mental or emotional or spiritual ways of remembering. But what about physical changes in your life that could help you grieve? What would make you feel better physically, that could spill over into other aspects of your life? What would the person you are grieving be happy for you to do? Exercise? Eating habits? Walks in nature? New hands-on hobbies (or even a new career you’ve always dreamed of? Reading more? Writing more? Arts? Sports? Travel? Other? What could give you a new, fresh focus on life (while still allowing yourself to remember some worthwhile things about that person)?
- Losing a person from your life (whether in death or in other ways) is, in a way, like losing one of your senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. Think about how you would react to life if you lost a sense and couldn’t regain it. What would you do? Jot down thoughts about each of your senses and how you would deal with them … then think about how those ways of dealing might help you work through your grief. Choose one idea related to each sense and put it into action in a practical way in honor of the person you miss.
Dealing with and writing through different kinds of loss and grief:
- Grief isn’t always about death. It can be about many different kinds of loss, and some losses really are ongoing and continue to have an impact on your present life. For example, the loss of a relationship with a parent who is going ever deeper into dementia, or another loved one who has been in a serious accident and lives on in a coma or in long-term care, or someone you have had a serious falling-out with and one or both of you avoid reconciliation. Or a partner who has left you behind, but you share children and need to continue to work together for their sake. Writing about those kinds of grief can be just as important as the grief of death.
- Or what about the special kinds of grief over unexpected or uncontrollable death by suicide, or war, or accident? Write about those, too, using many of the prompts already discussed in this post.
- What about fear you have developed that is keeping you grieving—for example, the fear that you will inherit your parents’ dementia; or the fear that you are in some way the cause of the loss of the person you are grieving, and that your actions that led to that cause are going to affect others in the same or similar ways. How can you overcome that fear? How can you make changes now? Can you ask forgiveness and listen to their side of the story and then change? Can you accept that maybe you are not the reason for the loss after all; that the person being grieved made their own choices, or that their decisions were made under the influence of mental illness or other people or events in their lives that you really had little or no influence over? Do you need to deal with your fear and/or guilt first in order to deal with your grief? How can you work through that?
- Do you still struggle with a time the person you are grieving believed a false rumor about you or misunderstood something you said or did? Could that be part of your struggle with grief? What really happened? Do you think the person, wherever they are now, still holds that against you? What can you do about it (or should you even try to reconcile? Why or why not?) Do you need to let it go? Is it possible to find a way to rebuild your relationship if that person is still alive? What small steps could you take toward reconciliation?
Is there really a “right way” or “proper steps” to grieve?
- Do you feel uncomfortable with the fact that you don’t grieve the way you think you are “supposed to”? Maybe you don’t cry much if at all? Maybe, in fact, you are simply relieved, even happy to some degree, about the loss? Maybe the loss took place slowly over a long time period (for example, a long descent into dementia, until you really felt like you didn’t know that person anymore). Maybe you have read the lists of the “stages of grief” and don’t recognize your grief among those “steps”? Maybe others have been critical of you in the way you grieve—or in their way of thinking, don’t grieve? What would you do to make your own decisions about dealing with grief if you didn’t have to take other people’s needs or wants or requirements into account? Do you really need to grieve according to their demands or expectations, at all?
Is there life after death? Will you see that person again? Do you feel them reach out to you now?
- Do you ever feel the “presence” of the person you have lost? How does that feel? Where do you think that feeling comes from? Do you think it is real or do you think it is wishful feeling? It is a positive or negative experience for you? Why? What triggers that feeling? Do you think it is really that person or perhaps is it your inner self giving you a message? What is that message? What can you learn from it that will help bring healing of your grief?
- Do you look forward to seeing the missing person again someday? When? Where? What do you hope it will be like? Meanwhile, how can you maintain the reality of that person in your present life, in a healthy and balanced way?
- How can you explore and use your spiritual beliefs to help you through your time of loss? Prayer? Meditation? Spending time with your spiritual community? Reading scriptures? Writing about your loss in terms of your spiritual beliefs and journey? (For example, I have recorded some of my spiritual journey in a time of deep loss, here: https://penandpapermamatoo.com/in-memory-of-our-daughter-robyn-petra-hill/ )
Please share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments. Thank you.
2 thoughts on “Writing Through Grief, Part 3”
Thank you, Norma, for helping me see I still have some healing to do.
You’re welcome … but remember, we all have healing to do. It’s a journey, a process. Life long learning.