Brenda McCarty started journaling when she was taking care of her husband before he passed away. Tom had prostate cancer and three years later it metastasized to his bones. The Center for Hospice Southeast Connecticut was called in during the last four months of his life.
“It was an intense four months,” says Brenda noting that the challenge was not only the cancer but Tom’s “OCD personality.”
She started using a journal to log Tom’s needs, his moods, his conversations. It was all about Tom. One of the hospice nurses suggested that she journal her feelings about what was going on in her life. And when Tom passed away 5 years ago, at the young age of 58, and after 38 years of marriage, Brenda began to write for herself. It was her first experience with journaling and she doesn’t consider herself much of a writer. But there was something about putting that pen to paper that helped her get through that difficult time.
“He really truly was my best friend”, says Brenda. “We were always together. He was supportive of everything I wanted to do. We worked together and played together. There was just unconditional acceptance.” Besides working together, in their computer consulting business, they shared Tom’s hobby of building toys and furniture. “While he built, I did the finishes. I had lost my builder. There was a void in my work, and a void in my hobby.”
Brenda took up oil painting to fill the void. It was there that she met Maribeth Stone and they became close friends until 2012, when Maribeth lost her own battle with cancer. The painting group that had grown so close has stayed together because Brenda arranged for another art teacher to guide the group that meets at her home now.
“When you don’t have your ”go to” person anymore and you’ve never lived alone, well, it’s hard to put into words. But there is something about art and healing,” says Brenda, who also lost her mother after Tom died.
She lost her husband, two close friends and her mother in a five year period. Journaling helped her get through it all. After Tom died she wrote to him as if having a conversation. She found this helpful, and at the one year anniversary of his passing, she shared her most intimate feelings, pouring out everything she had into her journal. It was completely uncensored and free. She didn’t want anyone to read it and when she was done, she burned it.
“Something spoke to me in that process,” says Brenda who has not chosen to journal in an ongoing way. “We have two choices in life. We can lie down and feel sorry for ourselves or we can make the most of every day.”
She chooses to make the most of every day spending time in creative ways. She volunteers both at High Hopes therapeutic riding center and at the expressive arts program offered through the Center for Hospice Southeast Connecticut.
Journaling, also called expressive writing, is a means for healing, particularly for emotional trauma. James W. Pennebaker, a Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the study of expressive writing, His studies have found that the release experienced in writing your feelings about an emotionally traumatic event can positively affect the immune system. Studies are ongoing, and over the years the journaling process has become increasingly accepted by therapists and other practitioners as a means of working through difficulties in life.
Kelly Niebergall has over 10 years experience with writing, editing and group facilitation. She recently founded Healing Pens, where she encourages brain injury survivors and their caregivers to use the reflective writing process as a source of healing, recovery and creativity. She is the assistant director for the University of San Diego Public Affairs Department, but she trained for her Healing Pens work at the Center for Journal Therapy in Colorado, where she is enrolled in the Therapeutic Writing Institute. She has a masters degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her interest in helping people recover from traumatic life experiences surfaced when her father had a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed, unable to speak or write. His whole life changed.
“To help me cope, I wrote through it all,” says Kelly. “I wanted to share that process with other people. I think it (journaling) is one of few avenues where people have to be honest and be themselves. It’s a great way to put your heart out there. Putting it on paper makes it real.”
Putting it on paper enables the writer to look back on a journal entry and see how it applies today and if they have grown, or if their circumstances have changed. She says it’s ideal to write at least three times a week but it is more important to set realistic goals for a writing schedule. She uses writing prompts in her workshops to help get participants started, that are tailored toward helping people work through the traumatic event in their life.
One prompt she uses is to write a letter which may or may not be mailed. Another is to create a dialogue with another person, with the self, or with a higher power. Thinking about hope and how to keep hopeful is another beginning as well as tapping into feelings about what is happening with your body as it works through grief. A third is a springboard list to get started. Here are a few she suggests:
• Today I feel….
• I love this about myself…
• My grief feels worse when….
• My grief is like…
“Don’t worry about spelling or grammar,” says Kelly. “Take a stab at being honest. You’ll be surprised by what you find. It’s an amazing experience. Some people are resistant in the beginning and I am amazed at how they do over the week. Some just don’t want to put feelings on paper. It takes a lot of bravery.”
Resources for writing available at the Center for Journal Therapy at www.journaltherapy.com.