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The Difficult Things: Writing About Pain, Grief, and Hardship

Life is full of difficult things. From a layoff to a car accident, from a chronic illness to a terminal diagnosis, anyone can be thrown off by any manner of pain, hardship, or grief at any time.

The Difficult Things

Harvard Health Publishing says that while it’s not a panacea, the act of thinking about a stressful or traumatic life experience can become a coping mechanism when you try to frame the events in a story. Writing about your experience may help you organize your thoughts, give meaning to the experience, and break free of circular thinking that tends to drag you down.

Of course, the act of writing can be just as painful as going through your subject matter, so make sure you take certain steps as you find the words and try coming to terms with your experiences.

Writing through pain and hardship

It’s easy to say that you can think of how sharing your experience will help others, as in the case of Tessa Miller, whose memoir about living with Crohn’s disease gives valuable advice on communicating your needs, advocating for the best care, and adjusting to your identity as the sufferer of a chronic illness; or William Styron, whose memoir about recovering from crippling clinical depression was a pioneering work in mental illness literature and raised awareness for depression; or Paul Kalanithi, whose posthumously published memoir about his life and battle with stage 4 lung cancer became a worldwide bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—but your priority should always be your own journey.

Take all the time you need.

You alone can determine when you’re ready to write your story. When you do begin, don’t feel pressured to start dedicating eight hours to writing. You can start with at least 10-15 minutes of free writing daily.

Write for yourself first before writing for others.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be the one that others get to read. For now, write without worrying about an audience. Doing so may help you overcome your inhibitions and focus on the cathartic aspect of the activity.

Tap into your support network.

You don’t have to go through the process alone. Let your family and friends know that you’re embarking on a project so they can support you during particular rough chapters.

Don’t hesitate to walk away if you need to.

When reminiscence threatens to overwhelm you, go ahead and take a break for a few hours or even days. The important thing is that your writing helps you through your pain and doesn’t aggravate it.

Writing through grief

After the death of a loved one, writing might be the furthest thing from your mind. But writing can be an instrument of self-discovery and self-expression for you to explore unsaid things and unshared feelings.

Here are some prompts to help you sort through your thoughts and emotions about death, the departed, and yourself.

  • How did the departed influence your life?
  • What are the things about them that you miss?
  • What do you wish they would do, know, or say?
  • What are things that you wish you’d said? How do you think that conversation would go?
  • What are things that you wish you’d done with them? What would a perfect day with them look like?
  • What are your best memories with them?
  • What are your regrets in your relationship with them?
  • What will you remember them for?

Writing about pain, grief, and hardship can be very uncomfortable as you become open and vulnerable in ways that might affect not just you but also your family and friends. But your honesty will be rewarded with catharsis—for you and your readers. Take courage in the thought of keeping your readers company long after even the memory of your pain has faded.


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