“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
We are all intimate with grief and trauma.
What it feels like, how it slices into us, leaving us staring at the shadows cutting across the ceiling, the all-consuming pain and terror, the lingering neural firings forcing us to gasp for air, the way it shaves inches from waists. It exists as an inexorable part of the human experience. It is inescapable. Trauma leaves us shattered, struggling to find the strength to put the pieces back together.
I am a writer, thirty-two, an English professor, but before, I studied clinical psychology, working as a therapist, mostly with children with autistic spectrum diagnoses, but for a period, my focus was on cases where there was suspected child abuse. After my practice, I found undergraduate students often carry unresolved trauma, and through my course material, assignments, and frequent emotional visits to my office, they discover an expressive outlet. Eventually, I designed a course called The Psychology of Creative Writing, which I taught for three years, with a significant portion focusing on the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing.
Then, there is my personal life. In the past six months I was laid-off from my teaching appointment, my dog died unexpectedly, and then my grandmother died. For the last six months I have been overcome by grief, having sunk into a relentless depression, like quicksand, and all I have been able to do to cope—in a healthy way, at least—has been to write about all of it. All this is to say I intimately understand grief and trauma.
Over the years I have immersed myself in the research and writing about grief, some of which I agree with, some I don’t [i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v]. The simple truth is there is not a right or wrong way to write your way through the pain—every writer has a different process—and all I want to accomplish with this column is to share my opinions and experiences, substantiated with research.
That said, without equivocation, the first step is for you to turn on some music, white noise, whatever you need, and just write, clear your mind, journal, vent, get it all out. It is for you only. Nobody else has to read it.
The last night my grandmother was alive, I stayed with her in the hospice room. I sat next to her, writing, talking to her, even though she was unconscious—she was close to the end. I cried and paced the floor. In the morning I had written 14 pages. They were for me only. You need to get out the emotions, the sorrow, the agony. You need to exorcise yourself, and then, you can think about the art.
The ultimate benefit of writing through suffering is deceptively simple. The research suggests once we put our trauma into words it transforms how we perceive these experiences, changing these psychological constructs into something defined and categorized, something we can understand and deal with, not a grotesque amalgamation infecting the entirety of our reality, which leads to stronger coping skills.
Exposure, habituation, extinction.
Conceptually, these terms regarding treatment may be familiar, but they are inordinately important, developed from an incomprehensible amount of research. Yes, our individual grief and trauma are not easily identifiable. Our suffering is unique and personal, ubiquitous.
Here’s a simple example: I have snake phobia—true story. A therapist may expose me to my fear, like trapping me in a room with a snake for a few seconds and gradually increasing the time over several sessions. Slowly, I would stand nearer to the snake, then touch it, maybe hold it, creating habituation, which is when comfort with my phobia develops. We then work toward extinction, which is when we destroy the fear—maybe I allow the snake to slither all over me, giving the animal absolute control. The same process is comparable for trauma and grief.
The more we write about our pain, expose and habituate ourselves to the trauma, the more we create cognitive restructuring—healthier organization and understanding of the emotion. We learn to compartmentalize the pain, no longer allowing it to dominate our daily lives. Furthermore, as we express our suffering, we subconsciously learn to dissociate from the emotions on the page. We think about the words more rationally, logically, removing their power. The words are no longer representative in a personal way, but rather a communication intended for a receiver. The pain becomes something outside of our sense of self.
And, here is the difficult part: as a writer you must decide where you are in the process. In On Writing Stephen King writes we must write “with the door closed” first. Figuratively —maybe literally—we close the door to our writing space and just write. At some point though we see and understand the message, the value, the greater audience for what we have written, and we begin chiseling away. As writers, we ruminate on our own suffering, but at some point, we experience a cathartic moment, in which we are able to take a step back and view our scribblings as something helpful, important, and at least suitable, for an audience. This is such a galactic moment—it’s when we assign ownership from ourselves to the reader, and at this point, we focus on audience reaction and comprehension. This is when we take our pain and carve it into something digestible for someone else. Catharsis. Art-induced sadness. Think of how refreshed you feel after a deep, all-encompassing, ugly-cry. It’s the same idea.
Lastly, one of the pleasures of art is you can ingest the benefits without creating it. While statistically less profound, you can gain some of these therapeutic benefits by viewing, appreciating, and discussing art. Art exists in human society because of an evolutionary necessity, which permits the exploration of intense emotional experiences. Just talking about and feeling creative expression can be helpful.
So, go ahead, cry. Seriously. Please. It will make you feel better.
Write about it. Then “open the door” and revise, edit, re-write it for an audience. This is the beauty of writing. We take our painful experiences and give them to others in a way they can appreciate, in a way that may help them.
[i] Pourjalai, Skrzynecki, Kaufman. The Creative Writer, Dysphoric Rumination, and Locus of Control.
[ii] Kohanyi. “The more I write, the better I write, and the better I feel about myself”: Mood Variability and Mood Regulation in Student Journalists and Creative Writers.
[iii] Perry. Writing in Flow.
[iv] Sexton and Pennebaker. The Healing Powers of Expressive Writing.
[v] Chandler and Schneider. Creation and Response: Wellspring to Evaluation.