Throughout the past two decades, writing in a journal has saved me. At first, writing helped me release anxieties and express thoughts that I didn’t dare to say aloud while my thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, fought a rare pediatric bone cancer. After Elizabeth’s death just one year later, writing gave me a way to express my maelstrom of grief, my devastation, and my brokenness.
In time, my daily writing practice helped me recall times when my daughter was younger and well, and this helped to soften the raw edges of my grief. My journal writing began to include writing poetry, which allowed me to give form to the shapeless void of my despair. This was one way that poetry helped me to process my range of feelings, and I frequently expressed those as metaphors with the natural world. This process allowed me to find moments of comfort, rest, and peace. Decades later, I reread my journal writings and then wrote a memoir of my sorrows and joys, my despair and hope, my grieving and healing. Without being able to write about my feelings and experiences, much of what I felt over the past twenty years would still be bottled up inside.
Curious about why the process benefitted me, I began to do some research to find out if a daily writing practice has helped others too. I discovered that I was not alone.
For decades, researchers spearheaded by James Pennebaker, PhD, have been studying the benefits of writing following adverse circumstances for cancer patients, trauma survivors, veterans, and others. Again and again, evidence showed that people who wrote for even fifteen minutes a day for a designated period of time had improved physical and psychological outcomes compared to people who didn’t write. Pennebaker calls this type of writing expressive writing. I began to understand that what I wrote about in my daily journals was expressive writing, and for me this was healing.
Medical professionals are taking notice now. A recent article, “Journal Writing by Families of Critically Ill Patients” in the journal CriticalCareNurse, compiles research studies done on the efficacy of journal writing by family members when a loved one is in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), or an intensive care unit (ICU) setting. The studies included in this review represent journal writing experiences of 426 relatives of critically ill patients.
One research study focused on mothers of infants who were hospitalized in a NICU in the previous two to fourteen months. One group of mothers was required to write in a journal for at least thirty minutes for four days in a row. Mothers were asked to write about their most emotional and upsetting experiences in the NICU. The key finding was that there was a significant decrease in psychological distress for the mothers who participated in the journaling intervention after four weeks compared to the control group of mothers who did not have this intervention (1). An additional benefit was the increased understanding of a family member’s stay in an intensive care setting. The article’s authors summarize, “The findings of this review align with previous research indicating that expressive writing in a diary can produce substantial improvement in psychological well-being and reduce stress.” (2)(3)
As it was for the mothers mentioned above, journal writing was beneficial to me. In time, I began to wonder if I could bring a journal writing program to those who are suffering as I did. I gathered my courage and approached a family advisory council in a nearby pediatric hospital. I shared information with them about the research that highlighted the benefits of expressive writing, and explained how I would bring a journal writing program to this hospital. They responded with a resounding, “Yes!” This program is called Journals of Hope.
Before COVID-19 changed our world, once a week I boarded a train with journals in hand. I reached out to parents, grandparents, and caregivers and encouraged them to begin a practice of writing in a journal. I also spoke with adolescent children about the benefits of sharing their feelings or simply writing about favorite places and times as a way to draw their mind away from their hospital setting. I gave parents and patients writing prompts to help them generate thoughts if they are having a tough time beginning. To date, eighty-five percent of the patients and caregivers who I have spoken with pick up a pen and write. I will resume the Journals of Hope program after COVID-19 is behind us.
Writing has been a gift to me. Through my writing, I’ve walked in valleys of grief, over mountains of despair, and through tunnels of fear. I’ve also reached hilltops and been able to see tomorrow, a future where I will always remember my sorrow but which is now filled with hope for a brighter tomorrow.
(1) Barry LM, Singer GHS. Reducing maternal psychological distress after the NICU experience through journal writing. J Early Intervent. 2001; 24(4):287-297.
(2) Pennebaker JW. Emotion, Disclosure and Health. 5th ed. American Psychological Services; 2007.
(3) Lepore SJ, Smyth JM. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-being. American Psychological Association; 2002.
Author bio: Faith Fuller Wilcox believes that self-expression through writing leads to healing. Her writing is reflective of a growing body of medical research about “narrative identity,” which highlights that how we make sense of what happens to us and the value we give to experiences beyond our control directly impact our physical and psychological outcomes. Faith learned these truths firsthand when her thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer that took her life. Faith’s journey from grief and despair to moments of comfort and peace taught her life-affirming lessons, which she shares today through her writing.
Faith is the author of Hope Is a Bright Star: A Mother’s Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning to Live Again (publishing date June 8, 2021) and Facing Into the Wind: A Mother’s Healing After the Death of Her Child, a book of poetry. Faith leads a journal writing program at a pediatric hospital for patients and their families designed to give participants the opportunity to express themselves, alleviate stress, celebrate victories, and honor their grief. To learn more, go to https://www.faithwilcoxnarratives.com.