Aunt Toya died two days after I saw her at a big family gathering. Her passing has left a huge, gaping hole in my heart, and I am certain I’ll never be able to fill it. I lost two loved ones before she died—my step-father and an uncle—but I think something broke with her passing. It was unexpected and she was far too young. Both anxiety and depression manifested in my life in ways I didn’t expect. I couldn’t stand to be alone, I barely slept, and I blamed myself for not calling her or answering her phone calls enough while she was still with us. I didn’t share my thoughts or feelings with anyone because I’m a generally happy person, and I didn’t want anyone to know that I was feeling deep sadness. I know now talking about it is actually quite helpful—but journaling helped me get to that point.
I’ve been wanting to share Toya’s story and how writing helped me through the grieving process since I started this blog but feared it would be too heavy for my readers. But after I learned April 7 was World Health Day, and this year’s topic was depression, I thought that maybe sharing might finally be okay. I started writing but things weren’t coming out as easily as I had hoped. And so, instead of going in-depth about my personal experience with depression, which I hope to be able to talk about more freely one day, I’ll just share a little about my silly, loving aunty, and how I used journaling to get me through a tough time.
Toya was one of my favorite aunts but we interacted like cousins more than anything else. She was the auntie you’d sit beside at Thanksgiving dinner just so you could whisper snide remarks that no one else could hear. She’d squeeze your hand—attempting to make you laugh out loud—if the blessing of the food ran long, and she’d let you get away with cursing. On Christmas, she’d arrive to our house with a car-load of perfectly wrapped presents, stuffed inside black trash bags. She had a thing about giving figurines to people as gifts, and I still have the sweet little black angel girl she gave me a few years back. Toya was obsessed with electronics, cell phones specifically, and had just made me promise to help her get on Facebook a few months before she passed away. Toya made me laugh a lot. She had the biggest heart, and I miss her tremendously; my entire family does. Like I said, she was far too young when she passed away and, two years later, I still get sad more often than I’d probably like to admit.
But writing helps me remember her, and it helps me explore my feelings and fears about death, losing loved ones and how to make every moment I have with family and friends count. Writing reminds me of my blessings and all the things to which I have to look forward. Personal journaling has gone from a creative hobby I started in the 4th grade to a detailed recording of my thoughts and a therapeutic/life-saving exercise.
A few weeks after Aunt Toya died, I opened my journal to start writing about what I was feeling. And the flood gates burst wide open. I cried a lot. But I wrote every night and began to understand my feelings more and more over time. Death is a finite occurrence. It is something that I will never be able to undo or remedy no matter how hard I work at it. Plus, I can never bring her or any of the other family members I’ve lost in recent years back. I was constantly terrified of the thought that I could lose anyone at any time AND the guilt of living so far away from my family plagued my mind. I don’t like those feelings of being helpless or unable to control situations; and that sat at the base of my sadness.
But I was honest with myself about my feelings and asked the tough questions that helped me get to the bottom of my emotions. Finally, one day, probably just a few months ago, I was able to write about all the amazing things I remembered about her and how important it was to make the most of my time with family and do things that would honor her life and sustain her memory. I have since freed myself from a lot and forgave myself for some things too. I still write about her and any emotion (sadness and otherwise) because it helps. Maybe some writing will help you too…
Here a are few personal journaling tips + some prompts I really like to write about when I’m sad.
- Decide on one notebook or journal to record your entries. (I like one that is big enough to accommodate my huge handwriting but small enough to keep in my purse and by my bedside.)
- Write daily and try to write at the same time each day so recording your feelings becomes routine and natural. When I’m not fighting the snooze button, I try to write first thing in the morning. But usually, I write immediately before I go to bed because it is the only time I’m alone, quiet and can reflect on my day and feelings in peace.
- Be honest with yourself. You’re the only person reading your entries so holding back or lying to yourself is pointless. I think honesty leads to breakthroughs and epiphanies. (Why DID YOU ignore those red flags when you started dating him? Maybe your shoe habit IS the reason for your crushing debt and high credit card balance. Yup—you feel guilty about her passing because you hardly ever answered her phone calls.)
- Go back every few months and read your entries and compare them to your current state of mind to measure progress.
A few prompts to get you started:
- Write a letter explaining your feelings to someone close to you. You don’t have to share it with them—but you can.
- Write out your prayers.
- Ask yourself a difficult question. For me, it is always, “What is your role in this issue?” or “How did you contribute to this unfavorable outcome?”
- Write about your perfect day, being sure to identify all the things that would “go right” that day that may currently be going wrong.
- Make a list of what you’re grateful for and things you’re looking forward to.
- Set one easily achievable goal that may help improve your current condition. Make it an easy goal because success feels good.
*I want to be clear that I am absolutely in no way an authority on depression or methods to cope with the condition. And I don’t think writing can replace one’s current mental health solutions. But I do want to share how I currently manage my emotions in case there are people out there who are looking for additional, supplementary mechanisms. I certainly support the idea of therapy and counseling.
If you have more tips for writing through sadness, share them below or on social media using the World Health Day tag #letstalk.