The Benefits of Expressive Writing: My Mom's Last Gift
Written by Jennifer St John
“Expressive writing promotes healing, and can help us to better control our emotions, to stop ruminating or obsessing about a traumatic event and instead derive meaning from what happened.” Meg O’Connor
My mantra has always been – ‘Go through the pain.’ I say this from personal experience of having a parent with untreated and undiagnosed mental illness for the majority of their lives. I also say this from life lessons…. I’ve tried to bury, ignore, push away, etc., the pain. And for those of us who have been down this road, you also know how I’m ending this sentence… it never works. Only when you’re ready to go right through it, right into the heart of it, right into the deep end, do you actually start to do the real work.
Journaling had always been a part of my life, and I naturally took pen to paper when I was trying to work out the ups and down of my life. When I was younger and under my Mom’s roof, there weren’t any support groups, therapy sessions, or social services we were accessing. If she wasn’t able to acknowledge or name the disfunction in our home, then how was I going to be able to access any help to manage it? There was just me, my pen and a blank page. That was my therapy.
“Seeking counseling from a therapist is one of the most common recommendations for people who are struggling to cope with a recent emotional upheaval or with past traumas. Yet writing therapy, or expressive writing, has proven to be a powerful, free, and easily accessible remedy for both the mind and the body.” Meg O’Connor
When I became older, I realized I had used my journaling as a tool. Yes, there were many plain ol’ venting entries – many, many actually – but as I grew older, there were also insights, questions, bigger-picture thoughts on how this all tied together for me. I would write out a solution to a problem I was having with my Mom and find my way around each side of an argument in my journal. I would write about the hardest parts of my experiences as a way to get it all out of my head and heart and be moved to tears many times. I wasn’t in a position to seek paid counseling until I was an adult, and I had some financial independence. This was my form of therapy for a very long time.
In 2017, after having lost my Mom to cancer after a very short illness, my Dad called me into their living room. He had come across something he thought I might be interested in – my Mom’s recovery journals. My Mom was a talented writer, and she and I definitely shared a common love when it came to this.
My belief in expressive writing runs deep. I sat with those journals and made it my mission to do something big with them. I wanted to marry my journals and my Mom’s journals together and share our story as a way to ‘pay it forward’. I wanted to create something that I wished had existed for me when I was younger. And by doing so, making it available to anyone who resonated with our story.
When my Mom passed away, I was so hoping to find letters stashed away. As we packed up her things, and then Dad’s ten months later, I desperately wanted to find some kind of final letter to each of us. And it saddened me when nothing was found.
But during the three years I spent curating our entries into our story, pouring over almost two hundred pages of letters and journal entries, I reached another level of healing. It wouldn’t have been possible without all of the material I had to work with, or without the process I went through in gleaming our story out of these handwritten pages.
“It is important to understand that keeping a diary or writing about a traumatic event isn’t the same as expressive writing and will not yield the same health benefits. Simply ruminating about an emotional upheaval can actually negatively impact one’s health and writing about trauma too soon after it occurred can be emotionally overwhelming. To write about the same traumatic experience over and over again is similarly detrimental – rather, deeply engaging with the writing in a way that truly evaluates the experience over a few consecutive days has proven to be the best way to process and heal. Meg O’Connor
I am not saying expressive writing is easy. It isn’t at all. If it was, everyone would be doing it… But I will say that it will change you. You will see shifts, movement, resolution, new ways of processing.
Today, as I hold ‘BE KIND, LOVE HARD, MAKE MEMORIES: a mini memoir meets guided journal’ in my hands, I now know that THIS was my Mom’s final letter, her final gift.
The weight can be lifted. That I can promise you this.
And Mom, our story is resonating. BIG TIME.
** Article excerpts credited to Meg O’Connor, article ‘Evidence of the Healing Power of Expressive Writing', website: www.artandhealing.org.