As you learn to cope with grief, many people might tell you that expressing how you feel is important in order to move towards healing. But for many people this is easier said than done – how do you begin to express your feelings after a loved one has died?
Expressing your emotions is vital during grief. Not only can it help you understand and process your loss, but it can actually make you feel a little better. A brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists showed that labelling emotions actually affects brain functioning to lessen the intensity of an emotion.
“In the same way you hit the brake when you're driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses,” said Professor Matthew D. Lieberman, lead author of the study.
Clearly the widely accepted idea that expressing how you feel can help has some basis in science, as well as experience and common sense. So how can you learn to express your emotions in a healthy and positive way?
1. Write a journal
A classic way of figuring out how you feel, journaling can give you the time and space to explore your emotions on your own. You don’t have to share it with anyone unless you want to, and finding the words to express your deepest thoughts can help you understand yourself better.
Don’t worry if you don’t think you’re a good writer, it doesn’t matter. If you feel self-conscious, just start small – what you did that day, who you spoke to.
Don’t be afraid to get creative either. Use different coloured pens, scribble, draw pictures, tear up pages. You can do whatever you feel like, because there are no wrong ways to express your thoughts in a journal.
2. Write a letter to your loved one
One of the hardest things about grief is the feeling that you can’t talk to the one person you want to talk to. Even though you know that they’ll never be able to read it, a letter to your loved one can help you understand how you feel about their death and what unsaid things are troubling you deep down.
Writing letters to other people may also help. If you are struggling to tell a friend or family member how you are feeling, try doing so in a letter first. You don’t have to send the letter – it can simply be a way of clarifying to yourself what you want to say to them.
3. Talk to a friend or family member
For some people, this can be the hardest way of expressing emotions. Opening up to another person can be scary, but it can also be comforting.
Starting the conversation can be difficult, but if they know you are grieving, they should be open to listening to you. Try starting with: “This is really hard, and I’m scared of opening up about how I feel, but I’d really like to just talk for a bit.”
A lot of people may recommend meditation and mindfulness as a way of coping with grief. While you might be sceptical, research scientist David Creswell showed that mindfulness meditation can help you to express your feelings and that expression will be more effective in reducing negative feelings.
The internet is full of free guided meditation resources that can get you started. While meditating, try to think about how you are feeling right in that moment. Think or say aloud: “I am feeling… and that is okay.”
5. Talk to a counsellor or therapist
Counsellors and therapists are trained to help you explore and express your emotions in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Whether you’re used to talking about your feelings, or struggle to open up, therapy can be a really effective way of helping you understand your own emotions. Therapy can be intimidating if it’s your first time, but it can be very helpful.
For more help and advice on coping with bereavement, visit our bereavement support page, or contact a specialist support organisation to find local support groups and counsellors, or to get confidential advice.