writing in a journal

Grief. Loss. A shattered story. Writing can help us get through challenges and troubling times.

In my work with cancer and hospital patients, I found that certain qualities surface in successful writing about an illness or injury.

This kind of writing does the following:

It Accepts Our Story and Makes Sense of It

Kenzaburo Oe wrote to unravel his confusion and despair after the birth of his disabled son. He wrote and rewrote about his life with Hikari. In his memoir, Oe explained: “In the act of fictionalizing those events in the form of a novel, I was finally able to synthesize them, to make some kind of sense out of a senseless situation.” And in making sense of his shattered story, in coming to peace with it, Oe had made his story manageable.

A story is, after all, a mirror of our psychological growth. We are peering into who we are and grounding ourselves as our story evolves. This is why Abigail Thomas wrote about her husband being hit by a car and ending up with a brain that no longer worked. It is why I wrote out my cancer journey. To understand it. To make sense of it. And when I opened up, I found others felt compelled to share their stories with me — and it helped.

It Explores Honest Feelings

Many well-known writers explore their honest feelings and painful experiences as they search to find themselves. Author Elizabeth Gilbert seemed to have all the hallmarks of success, with a husband, a country home, and a successful writing career — but she was miserable. After her divorce, she faced a crushing depression, and it was then she began her search for herself by writing Eat, Pray, Love.

While most of us will never have a publisher, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, who will give us an advance to undertake a journey across the world and write a book, many readers were mesmerized by this honest search for self.

In Rome, Gilbert delights in culinary experiences; on her visit to an ashram outside Mumbai, she emulates the yogis and struggles to quiet her mind; and in Bali, she seeks balance but finds love. While her search seems far from over, her words resonate because they seem to be drilling down in an honest quest to find the truth. Her truth. And that is what we hope our words will give to us.

Kenzaburo Oe was on the same search. He was only 10 when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ironically, it was the birth of his son that compelled him to research and study this tragedy. In 1963 he attended a conference in Hiroshima centered on the opposition to hydrogen bombs. “I recall…the intense feeling that the problem of my child could end up suffocating me if I couldn’t get out into a larger arena, see things from a broader perspective,” he explained.

While in Hiroshima, Oe visited the Atomic Bomb Hospital. There he listened to the director, Dr. Shigeto, who explained that he had just taken up a post as assistant director and was on his way to the hospital when the bomb exploded, killing 80,000 people and instantly wiping out 90% of the city.

He described facing the countless dead, the disfigured and burned bodies in this hospital. In his gentle manner Shigeto explained that all he could do was move forward, trying his best to treat each victim. One at a time.

While listening to how the doctor handled the unbearable incident, Oe felt “profoundly consoled and encouraged.” The author realized that with this piece of truth he, too, could survive his son’s disabilities — one day at a time.

It Uses Words to Heal

While it is important to share our stories, the way we write and talk about our illness matters, too. Remember, we control how we understand our illnesses. And the words we use to interpret an illness impact how we face it.

Jen viewed her stage four breast cancer as a challenge to be met — not as a death sentence. “In a support group I met a woman who repeatedly said, ‘When I die’ as if the moment were imminent,” said Jen. “She also talked about ‘my terminal disease.’ This bothered me.”

Often people take their illnesses — mental and physical — and elevate them to unnecessary heights. A problem evolves when the drama is dressed up, perhaps as a trauma, and the stories get stuck on replay. Most of us hate to hear stories that end up as a rerun without an end.

Andrew is a friend I know from teaching. A few months ago, his daughter, Mia, suddenly lost her sight in one eye. Whenever we met friends for social gatherings, Andrew shared poor Mia’s saga. First, he carefully detailed how Mia had a genetic disorder, which he described in WebMD detail.

The eye muscle had suddenly slipped, which is what had left her blind in that one eye. In coming weeks, the story escalated, and Andrew feared Mia would lose her job as a nurse at the hospital. He shared stories of Mia losing her balance, falling down, causing a car wreck because she could not see well.

A visit to the doctor confirmed that Mia might be blind in that eye forever. The family consulted a specialist, who predicted that as a genetic condition this disease was destined to strike the other eye, eventually leaving Mia completely blind. Andrew was terrified.

Then, a brief respite — a miracle surgeon had been found. Surgery could be done. In the coming weeks Andrew was diagnosed with hearing problems, and a new set of illness stories surfaced. One day I turned to him and asked, “But how is Mia? You haven’t mentioned her lately.”

Andrew shrugged. “She’s fine. The surgery worked.” She regained her sight, which was something to celebrate — something Andrew had overlooked because he was trapped in his latest illness story.

We cannot deny an illness. We have to address and work to solve the problems it presents us. But the more we talk about and dramatize it, the more we impress a mind-set of illness on our brain. We can become too obsessed and create unhealthy thought patterns. Sadly, Andrew lives with them.

Jen, however, does not. “Unless a doctor tells me this darn disease is everywhere, then I am not going to view my illness as the end. I am going to keep living — to the fullest,” said Jen. When she learned of her cancer recurrence, I was worried about her and texted to see how she was. “Oh, I went to NYC to see friends.” Her Facebook page showed her in Central Park, where she was rolling in the grass, laughing with her pals.

It Embraces the Positive

Healing, of course, is not the same as being physically cured from a disease. Nonetheless, we can choose to heal our emotional, mental, and spiritual selves [even] when faced with a terminal illness. A positive attitude shows up as an important key here.

Although Jen has returned to chemo, neither of us knows what this means. We cannot be sure if she will survive her cancer. But she is well versed in her odds, and she understands that life is a precious, tentative gift for all of us. She has scaled back on work, spends more time with her son, Quinn, and insists that her husband keep on schedule with his archaeological research in Kenya.

Jen marches forward bravely, keeping her illness at bay as she reintroduces chemo into her routine. She does not deny her illness. She talks about it, and she writes about it — [and] she makes every effort to find the upward path on the slippery slope she faces.

Writing that heals:

• accepts our story and makes sense of it

• explores honest feelings

• uses words to heal

• embraces a positive outlook

Rewriting and Re-Creating Ourselves

There are five stages to writing and healing. These stages can lead to story transformation. Here they are:

1. Experiencing pain and grief. Grief is the process that helps us adjust to a major life change or a loss — a death, a lost love, an accident, an illness, a rape, or any other setback. There is no set order for what transpires, but initially we might want to ignore or deny what happened because this helps us endure the shock.

Later we can experience various emotions such as anger, frustration, and sadness. Sometimes sadness can be so overwhelming, it turns into depression. Often we ruminate or keep replaying what happened in our brains. In the initial throes of a traumatic event, it appears best to embrace silence and avoid writing.

2. Breaking the silence. In this stage we are willing to share our shattered story with others, perhaps with a friend, a counselor, or in our writing. This process may center on simply pouring out painful emotions. Often the release of a painful story can prove quite significant if it has been buried deep inside for a long time. If we can find our voice and free up our broken story, we can begin to work with it.

3. Accepting and piecing together a shattered story. At this stage we reach acceptance of a painful experience. We acknowledge the event or circumstance, as well as the sadness and pain associated with it. With acceptance we begin to move our emotions into a logical framework. Writing can be profoundly helpful here. It allows us to begin making sense of what happened. We can explore various perspectives and gain some insights by distancing ourselves from the pain. Ruminations may continue during this stage.

4. Finding meaning or making sense of a story. In this stage of a setback, we are able to stand outside the experience and see the complete picture. This objectivity allows for a breakthrough of understanding, a complete story, and a feeling of closure. We can reframe a painful experience once we can make sense of it, and writing is a powerful tool in this process. When we gain an understanding of difficult experiences — why they happen and how they will fit into our lives — often the pain and ruminations subside. The incident becomes integrated into our life stories as a finished chapter, allowing us to move forward.

5. Rewriting our story and moving forward. Without the emotional struggles caused by the traumatic incident, we can recover the energy needed to rewrite our stories and move ahead with our lives in fulfilling and creative ways. This often leads to personal story transformation through redefining or reinventing the ways we view ourselves.

We often put our renewed energy toward creating something (designing a new room or writing a book) or becoming politically active (advocating for cancer funding or working for gun control). Frequently we focus on helping others face or avoid a similar trauma, while allowing us to create something good and meaningful from the pain we have endured.

Writing Prompts

If you have begun to establish your writing practice, get comfortable, select a prompt from the list below, and begin writing. Give it your best.

• Writing Prompt: A Positive Change

Choose a person who has changed you in a positive way. You can also choose an experience that has changed your life. Describe this person or experience. Tell the story. Discuss how and why your attitude changed.

• Writing Prompt: Finding an Ending

Is there an experience inside your head that won’t seem to go away? What is it? Why does it haunt you? Does this story need an ending? Explore your story.

• Writing Prompt: A Letter

If you are struggling, write a letter to a loved one. Decide what you need to tell her or him. Then simply put your pen to paper and let your message and your stories come. Write for as long as you need to. Come back to this if you need to. When you reread this letter at a later time, decide if you should send it, destroy it, lock it away, or publish it.

• Writing Prompt: Dialogues

When you are faced with an illness, disease, or injury, you need to reach an understanding of what has happened. You can begin by having a conversation with your body. A dialogue is a script that bounces back and forth between you and another person, pet, thing — or, in this case, your body.

By talking you allow your inner voice or wisdom to help you understand your illness, disease, or injury. Don’t judge or criticize what you write. View this as a search that might reveal some important insights.

It might start like this:

Self: Body, why are you so exhausted?

Body: You saw the test results.

Self: I did, and I didn’t like them. I am afraid of my disease.

Body: I think we need to make some changes.

Self: What are you thinking? Maybe diet?

Play out your conversation with yourself to find answers that will help you get a handle on your situation.

Writing Prompt: Exploring Your Truths

Choose one of these prompts, and free-write for five minutes. If the topic takes off, stay with it until you reach a point of completion. If the writing seems stuck, choose another prompt. Revise it if needed:

I have never talked about this…

The hardest lie I ever told was…

The way it really was…

It is dangerous to…

This story is hidden in a box in the back of my mind. It begins…

Writing Prompt: Words That Heal

Choose a word associated with healing: hope, resilience, courage, endurance, patience, fortitude, tenacity, heroism, optimism, confidence, or strength. (Choose a word not on the list if you think if fits.) Write a brief character description of one person you know who mirrors this word in the way she lives. Now choose a word that you want to embrace more fully in your life. Start with a statement like this:

I want to be more hopeful…

I want to be more patient…

I want to be more…

Then write a brief character sketch looking into your future. Create a portrait of you as someone who is hopeful or patient or ______.

Writing Prompt: Downside-Upside

Make a list of all the difficult aspects of facing an illness, injury, or any difficult situation. Write first about what brings you down, what you hate, what isn’t fair — the downside. Then scribble it out or draw x’s through it or rip it up.

Now write about what you have learned, what you value, what you can build on from this experience. Draw a frame or stars around your upside. Write how you can live your upside more fully. Then go out and live it.

About the Author:

Sandra Marinella, MEd, is a writing teacher and author of The Story You Need to Tell and has taught thousands of students and fellow educators and presented hundreds of workshops to veterans, educators and cancer patients. She lives near Phoenix, Ariz.

Excerpted from the book The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss. Copyright ©2017 by Sandra Marinella. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.