Dancing in my Mother's Slippers
NOTE: Journaling practice can be a valuable tool for doing grief work, as well as helping to create and support a more self-aware life. If you’re new to journaling, or would like to read more about it before you begin, click here.

Journaling Prompts

1. Watching Breath Sometimes when we are grieving we forget to pay attention to our bodies. We might even forget to eat or sleep. This is a good way to get yourself back into your body so you can take care of it.

Sit for five minutes with journal and pen in hand. Notice what it feels like to draw breath into your body and to let it out again. Find words to describe what you experience, and write them down. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? How does the air feel as it passes your lips or nostrils? How far into your body does your breath go? Is it shallow or deep, ragged or smooth, slow or fast? Where does it get stuck?  Where does it flow easily? Write down each sensation you feel and describe it in as much detail as possible. Notice if you start thinking about other things, and gently, without judgment, bring your attention back to your breath.

Note: This exercise can also be a lead-in to a meditation session.

2. Watching Body (an expanded version of Watching Breath) Sit for five minutes with journal and pen in hand. Begin again by noticing breath. Once you have paid attention to the way you are breathing in as much detail as possible, start noticing other things about your body. Where are your hands? Are they tense or relaxed? Check your neck and shoulders? What do they feel like? How does your mouth feel? Your heart? Your throat, lungs, ears? Your belly? What’s happening in your feet, ankles, legs, hips? Write a description of each sensation you notice. Find words to describe the qualities of the experience: tight, loose, open, closed, soft, hard, textured, smooth, tense, relaxed, wet, dry, large, small. Be as specific as possible. For example, my foot is red and tender; my mouth is dry and my stomach is queasy.

3. Watching Surroundings (an expanded version of Watching Body). This time as you sit for five minutes, notice how your body interacts with your environment. How does it feel at the points where your body touches the surface where you’re sitting? What is the surface like? What sounds do you hear? What can you smell? What colors do you see? What textures can you feel? Are you aware of other people? How far can you see? What is near you? What is under you, over you, behind you, in front of you? Notice construction materials, fabrics, shapes. Be creative in describing the qualities of what you observe. Feel free to use metaphor to make your descriptions more accurate and concrete: The setting sun has turned the clouds into cotton candy.

Note: The first three exercises are helpful warm-up exercises. You may want to choose one at the beginning of each journaling session to help you focus on the present moment.

4. Watching Thoughts Sometimes in grief we have thoughts racing through our minds telling us how to feel, how to behave, how to think, what to believe. Your thoughts may run wild, you may feel you have no control, or that there is something you’re supposed to do, or that you’ve forgotten something, and on and on. Watching Thoughts is a good way to become aware of all the ideas moving through you. It gives you a chance to slow them down enough to take a look at them and to see which ones really need your attention and which ones can be acknowledged and let go. Watching Thoughts helps you realize that you have choices about what you think about.

Part One For ten minutes, write down every thought that goes through your mind: The fridge is running. I need to wash out the garbage can. I wonder how Mom felt when she died. When is Aunt Mathilda coming? Who will take care of the food while we’re at the funeral? Nobody was home at Jennifer’s house; I wonder where she was. Darn, I missed three thoughts in a row. This is hard. Fred doesn’t want me to work anymore. My left hip is hurting. I haven’t cried since Mama died. . . . Just write it all down.

Part Two Read over the thoughts you captured in Part One. Write for five minutes about what you notice about them. Which thought(s) most caught your attention? What was it about this thought that caught your attention? What feelings come up when you think of this? Are you aware of having had this thought before? Is it something you need to think about right now? Does this thought need a solution? Does it concern a task you might assign to someone else? To whom? Is this a topic you’d like to write about again later? Do you have an insight about this?

5. What have I learned? Think about something you learned today about yourself or your loss or your life situation. How did this insight occur? Where were you at the time? What were you doing? How do you feel about knowing this? Write about how this insight might help you in other circumstances.

6. Thought is Present For ten minutes, notice and write down each thought, sensation and emotion that enters your awareness. Say, “Fear is present,” and write it down, or “Thought is present,” and write it down. Write down the next thing that arises. Name each one: Fear, fatigue, joy, curiosity, depression, itch, hunger, drippy nose. . . . No processing. No judging. No trying to understand. Just write the next thought or sensation. After the ten minutes, or on another day, consider whether you might like to explore further some of the thoughts, emotions or sensations that arose. What have you noticed about yourself in this process? Write about that.

7. The Diagnosis Write about the day you learned of the terminal diagnosis. Where were you? Who was with you? What were your first thoughts? What did you do and say? How did you share this news with others? How did you process it? What have you learned about yourself and your loved ones since that time? What has changed since then?

8. This I believe Write down something you believe to be true about death–or about life. How does this belief affect your behavior? Where did you get this idea? How long have you believed this? Do other people you know believe the same thing? Who does? Who doesn’t? Does this belief still serve you? Are there other beliefs that conflict with this one? How does that affect you?

9. Wanting It to Be Different Consider what you’d like to be different in your life. Start with less intimate things, like the traffic where you live. Be curious about that. Why do you want it to be different? What would happen if it didn’t change? Think about more personal issues, like the condition of your home. And even more personal, like a particular trait of your personality. Why do you want it to be different? What would happen if you did nothing to change it? Notice the feelings that come up in your body when you write. Think about larger or even more personal issues, like a loss, but only when you are ready.

10. The Day My Loved One Died Write about the day your loved one died. Write in great detail. Write as much as you can remember. Were you there? How did you find out? What did you feel? What did you think? What did you and others say? Did you feel fear? If so, about what? How does your body feel when you write about this? As you write, you may experience strong emotions. You may want to keep writing until the wave has passed. You may prefer to take a break and come back to it. Consider doing Journaling Prompt 1 or another breathing exercise to help you relax and feel the emotions as they come up.

11. Writing Poetry Read a prayer from Circles, or a poem. Read it aloud or to yourself. Notice the feelings and thoughts that are prompted by the reading. Have you ever felt this way? What is similar about your own experience? What is different? Write a poem that expresses your own experience, your own thoughts and feelings.

12. Writing Letters Read an entry from Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers, or perhaps another book, or a letter from a friend. What feelings arise in you as you contemplate this writing? Are you moved to write yourself? What would you share about it with someone who cares about you?  See where your mind takes you as you contemplate your selection. Write to a friend about it.

About Journaling Practice

A journaling practice is a wonderful tool if you wish to learn more about your way of being in the world and about the world around you. Journaling involves paying attention. It can help you see the details of your environment in new ways. It can help you understand your relationships with friends and family, co-workers, neighbors. It can help you understand yourself and the choices you make. Journaling can bring new perspectives, personal insights, explorations of mind, body, spirit and psychology. Journaling can be healing. It’s a good way to bring those thoughts that grind round and round in your mind out into view so you can articulate them and see what is real in this moment and what is based on memories of the past and thoughts and fears of the future. Journaling is a good way to open to the possibility of forgiveness and of moving on in life, past your stuck places and on to peace of mind and peace of heart. Sometimes journaling can bring up feelings that may be challenging or uncomfortable to process. You may want to talk with a caring friend or counselor if this occurs.

If you don’t already have a journaling practice, I suggest you buy or create a special journal that you will use only for this purpose. It can be a simple school notebook or copy book, or something more elegant. Sketch books are fairly inexpensive and can be easily transformed by pasting a card or photo on the front. I prefer a wire binding that allows the book to lie flat or be folded back. Some people prefer to journal on a computer. You may want to keep all the entries in one sub-directory so you can find them easily.

Plan to spend five or ten or fifteen minutes each day at the beginning. You can always write longer if you feel like it. If you journal daily for a while, it is easier to create a habit. I prefer to write in the morning, but many people write before bed as a way of processing the day. Of course, any time of day can work, and it’s helpful to choose one that you can do consistently at the beginning. I had a writing teacher in high school who said, “Write every day, and I don’t care whether it’s a story or a shopping list. Just write.”

When I first started journaling in the Seventies, I was living in Mexico, and I simply wrote down where I went and what happened during the day. After a short while, I realized that I had reactions to and feelings about those events, so I started recording those, too. Then I saw that I sometimes had insights about those reactions and feelings, and that was the beginning of my journaling practice. I soon learned that those insights helped me cope better with the daily and not-so-daily challenges of life. I discovered patterns in my behavior that were sometimes self-sabotaging. That insight allowed me to make different choices. I learned that when I paid attention to the way I lived my life, it increased my sense of satisfaction. I was happier and more relaxed. I related better with other people. I felt a growing openness to the spiritual part of myself that was striking and different for me.

My book, Dancing in My Mother’s Slippers: A Journey of Grief and Healing, is written in journal format. If you would like to see some examples of journal entries, you can go the Dancing Excerpts page on this website.

You can journal with short notes, long explanations, descriptions, ponderings, observations – whatever is in your mind. No need to worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or even whether what you write is coherent. This journal is just for you. No one else will read it unless you decide to share it.

Be sure to date your writing, as it can sometimes be interesting to go back weeks, months or years later and see what is similar and what has changed in your life.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Fayegail Mandell Bisaccia. All Rights Reserved. Design by LightWerx Media.
Sunset photo © 2006 Benjamin Fisher. Portraits by Shianna Walker, Georgia King, and Lance Bisaccia.
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