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Writing Exercises to Process Loss and Trauma

By Audrey Quinn

Trauma and loss come in all shapes and sizes, but they are two things that everyone on the planet Earth will eventually experience. 

What is trauma?

Some people believe that “trauma” only occurs in cases of life-threatening events or physical assaults, such as being in a war, or experiencing physical abuse. 

However, trauma is a RESPONSE to any deeply upsetting event–it doesn’t necessarily need to be life-threatening. The trauma response can look like intrusive thoughts relating to the event, inability to recall some or all of the event, mood swings, anger, depression, flashbacks, recurring dreams or nightmares connected to the event, impaired personal relationships, dissociation, and feeling isolated or different to other people who didn’t experience the trauma. The causes of trauma for different people are numerous, but each person who has experienced trauma should be able to name their experiences as such, without fear of it “not being bad enough,” or feeling like they’re just sensitive. 

The many types of loss

Loss is another topic with many different meanings. The loss most of us think of is a physical death, usually another human being that you care about. But, loss doesn’t always mean death.

Loss can occur with a chronic illness or living with someone who has one. Loss can mean a divorce, break-up, or a falling out between two close friends. Loss can mean missing out on your childhood and teenage years because you experienced abuse or bullying. Just as in trauma, loss means something different to every person who has experienced it, and there is no one true definition.

How writing can help you heal from loss and trauma

Creative writing is a great outlet to express difficult emotions and experiences you can’t necessarily discuss out loud. Writing helps you process experiences by transforming them into something tangible: writing. 

Some benefits to writing specifically for processing trauma and loss are that you can do it anywhere and anytime you feel comfortable–and you don’t ever have to share it with anyone else if you don’t want to. 

You also don’t need to “go in order” or follow a typical, linear narrative when writing about your experiences (although some people find this particular method helpful). 

Guided journaling prompts

Guided journaling prompts relating specifically to trauma and loss give you a jumping-off point to help you start writing about your experiences. This is particularly helpful if you don’t know where to begin, or if you’ve experienced more than one kind of trauma or loss, which is common. 

Calm Sage lists several excellent prompts on their website. They include: 

  • Write about a negative belief you have that you know is false. Write about why it isn’t true.
  • Write about if and when you’ve downplayed your traumatic experiences. Why?
  • Write about one thing you wish your loved one understood about you. You could choose to share this one with the other person if you felt like you were able to do so, or you could keep it to yourself.
  • Write about the ways trauma has impacted your behavior and thinking process.

Trauma narratives

Another way you can use writing to help you confront your trauma and help provide more clarity about the ways it affected you is by creating a trauma narrative. 

This might feel more intensive than the journaling prompts. Take breaks and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel each time you sit down to work on your narrative. As the name suggests, a trauma narrative is when you write about the event or events that led to your trauma response. It usually requires you to revisit your writing and add more detail after you’ve written it. 

You can start by writing about the event itself, then go back and add the emotions and thoughts you experienced within the event. Then, go back and break down the parts of the event that really, deeply affected you by describing them in as much detail as possible, and adding in all the things they bring up for you today. 

A resource for creating a trauma narrative is on TherapistAid.

Poetry

Another way of transforming difficult experiences into writing is poetry. 

If you struggle with writing a linear narrative–especially if you’ve experienced many different traumatic or grief events across multiple areas of your life–free verse poetry might be an accessible way for you to approach writing. 

There’s something so liberating in making something beautiful from something ugly. Poetry lets you do that. You can be messy and hideous and the thing you write may not be the same as what you went through, but it allows you access and release those stuck emotions. That’s the amazing and beautiful thing about poetry.

Let yourself begin

You don’t need to be a writer to use creative writing to express yourself. There’s no bar you need to reach, nothing you need to prove to anyone else. This is writing you’re doing just for you. You get to write whatever you feel. 

Dealing with trauma and loss is an ongoing journey, and writing about these things is just one tool to help process your emotions and experiences. Hopefully, you will feel comfortable taking a chance on one of the writing exercises described above. If one writing exercise doesn’t work, that’s ok! You can always try a different one. 

If writing doesn’t work for you

If you feel like you don’t benefit from processing your trauma and loss through writing, that’s absolutely OK as well. Nothing works for everyone, and you might consider trying one of these:

  • Go for a walk, run, or just be outside in nature
  • Use an intense form of physical exercise to help vent negative emotions (swimming, running, boxing, etc)
  • Find a creative outlet to distract yourself, or to express your emotions in an artistic form (drawing, painting, knitting, crocheting, sculpting, etc)
  • Check out groups for other people who have experiences similar to yours
  • Allow yourself to be “still” and sit with yourself (you don’t always need to be doing something, and sometimes it takes more work to sit with yourself and let yourself feel whatever comes up)

Peace and healing on your journey to dealing with whatever it is you have gone through, and continue to go through.

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