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Journalling after loss

I was never a child who kept a diary. I had two older brothers and couldn’t run the risk of them discovering my innermost secrets. In adulthood, journalling had also seemed to pass me by.

My interest in journaling first began during the pandemic. I work in a large London NHS Trust and my role focused on supporting staff wellbeing. The critical care team were feeling the impact of caring for Covid patients and needed support. A colleague and I developed reflective learning events, alongside psychologists, focusing on post traumatic growth. We learnt that journalling could be as effective as talking therapies so included this in the session.

Towards the end of the session we would ask attendees to pick up their phone and journal their thoughts and feelings in the moment. Staff shared incredible stories of their experiences with many tears shed. Originally I had been sceptical about whether they would engage in the journalling activity. I needn’t have worried. The majority were so engrossed in the exercise we had to extend the time. Looking back, these sessions were the most emotive and powerful in my career.

Little did I know that two weeks after these sessions ended I would be thrown into a nightmare situation when my 17-year-old son took his life. My life was thrown into chaos and I found myself numb, shocked and grappling to get a grip on my life.

I lay in bed 5 days after Samuel’s death and found myself picking up my phone and starting to journal, a desire to capture events in the moment and regain some control. So much was happening, thoughts rushing through my head and I needed clarity. I entitled this first entry as Days 1-5, cataloguing the details. This record is still on my phone. I stumble across it sometimes when I’m searching for forgotten passwords. It’s like a moment in time, the worst of days recorded, raw and unfiltered.

My daughter Daisy bought me a Positive Planner a few days later and there began a writing relationship, an outlet for my mess of thoughts, feelings, worries and rants. The safety of writing when I’m the only reader is liberating. I would later go on to purchase other journals, some specific to bereavement and suicide loss and I found each met a different need.

Here are a few journalling tips from my own experience:

  • Build journalling habits but do it at your own pace. There is no point feeling pressured to journal if you are not in the right frame of mind. I found quiet times like first thing in the morning worked for me and more so at weekends

  • Freewriting using blank pages, which I learned on my coaching course, is often an enlightening experience. You just write really quickly, a free flow of thoughts. Your mind cannot keep up with the speed of your writing so doesn’t filter your thoughts. I have found it incredible what emerges, a release of your inner thoughts in a safe space.

  • Changing the headings of prompts – I found some of the journal prompts didn’t work for me. I became adept at crossing them out and writing something else. It was, again, liberating to take back control and have the freedom to use it my way.

  • Get creative with journaling – at times I struggled to articulate my thoughts. I used drawings (I’m rubbish at drawing by the way), symbols and even mind maps to explore my feelings. I remember soon after my dad died I drew a tortoise under a blanket, trying to emerge but scared stiff. That represented more than a thousand words could that day.

  • Reviewing your journal entries – this is the part I have found the most difficult so I will only do this when I have the time and energy to focus. Revisiting the raw emotion is tough and it can take you straight back to that time. It does, however, highlight the journey you have been on and the progress that you have made.

If you’ve never tried journaling, pick up your phone or a pen and try – you never know what you might discover about yourself, it might be the best things you’ve done in a while.


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