Journaling With My Grief

I have three journals.

The first: my day to day black hardcover, the one that includes my therapy notes, my stray thoughts, my morning pages, my whole brain. The second: a small softcover I bought right after my dad died, where I write him letters and tell him things I wish I could still share by just picking up the phone. The third: a beautiful cloth-covered grey book with silver writing on the cover that says The Grief Journal, a book of prompts that my best friend sent me as a gift right after it happened.

My intention is to spend some time specifically with The Grief Journal today because this month has taught me something I already suspected, but now am certain about: getting in touch with my grief is not the same thing as getting in touch with my dad. Grief is something entirely different from the memory and the reality of my father, of the person I am grieving. Grief landed at my door because I lost my dad, but grief is not a substitute for remembering my dad.

I try to keep the two things separate; otherwise I confuse myself.

I’m exhausted. I barely slept last night, and even on the days when I wake up from a full eight hours, I find myself tired before the day begins. But last night I evaded sleep, or sleep evaded me, but either way I only closed my eyes for about three hours before it was time to begin the day. My brain is fuzzy, warm, too slow. My head feels achey. I know some of my friends in grad school said they enjoyed writing in this weird state — it feels like you’re on drugs, in the dream space, like you’re lucid dreaming, one writer said during one workshop which, okay, goddess bless, but — I hate feeling like this. I miss the clarity of my mind. I miss being sharp.

The truth is I was disappointed in the column I wrote for this series last week and I wanted to end on a really impressive note this week.

The truth is it’s embarrassing to admit I am trying to impress you when I write about the grief I feel around my dad’s death.

The truth is I’m scared this is ugly, that I should be holding my grief closer to me, that it should be private, that it should live only in my journal and not on the internet.

The truth is I’m a writer and I have to write this down.

Should it go without saying that I’ve been sobbing since I pulled out my journals today? Three hours of sleep and a small grey grief journal as the seasons turn to autumn — a perfect spell for tears.

The grey grief journal is filled with prompts. I have already filled some of them out although my brain won’t recall which ones. A close friend who is also a writer and who also lost her dad a few years ago told me almost as soon as it happened that I should try to write down anything I really needed to remember this year. You’ll forget things, she said. Grief does that to you. I can’t remember the whole first year after my dad died. Not a single thing I didn’t write down stayed in my mind.

I am the kind of girl who needs to remember everything. I close my eyes and envision the layout of my life: the people I love who I am now terrified to lose suddenly, the jobs I enjoy and the jobs I resent, the magnolia tree in my backyard, the route from my house to the person I love most in Portland, the route from her house to the airport, the route from the airport in Boston to my parents’ home, the way my mom, my brother, and I lived like ghosts for the month of January, wandering the hallways my childhood home not understanding our purpose anymore, sleeping on the floor of the living room so we could all avoid our own beds and our own loneliness, my new loneliness that just lives in my body and outside of my body at all times now… I want to remember it all.

That’s why I journal, right?

I’ve spent a lot of time with this writing exercise — this column, specifically — trying to get out of my head and inside my body. But today I am letting myself live inside my head. I hate it, here, now. I used to love my brain. Grief has broken all my favorite things.

Let me try that again. Here are some of the prompts:

Is there something you wish you could tell your loved one?

What is your last memory together?

Describe the moment you found out they died.

When did you realize they were going to pass away?

What did they do that made you laugh?

What I miss most about you is…

I really, really, really, really understand why so many people would actually rather not sit with their grief, thank you very much.

I know I told you that spending time with my dad and spending time with my grief are two different things, and they are, but sometimes they are also the same. That’s something horrifying and also incredible about grief: it somehow encapsulates everything. I hate when people say “grief is where the love lived” because fuck you, I don’t want any of this grief, but then I say it too sometimes because fuck me, there was so much love. It would be so incredibly fucked up if I felt okay.

My dad journal, the one where I write him letters, is the place I land today even though I haven’t written to him in weeks. It hasn’t felt like anything going on in my life would be of too much interest to him, maybe, or I’ve just been busy, maybe, or I say I want to remember everything but actually I’d love to forget every single moment of the year, maybe. I last wrote to him at the beginning of June. So much has happened and I want to tell you all about it, I wrote. I think you would be proud of me. 

Existing on this planet with my grief and without my dad here to be proud of me is — I don’t know what it is. The truth is I’m a writer and I don’t know how to write this down.

It’s easy to let my brain wander during this grief exercise because journaling means you’re allowed to go anywhere you want in your own mind. When I ate breakfast with my grief, when I walked with my grief, even when I lay on the floor with my grief, my brain was doing the work of trying to keep my grief contained, which is an impossible task because as I have said already, grief is nothing if not an endless expanse. The idea of keeping grief contained in a body is hilarious, and that brings my comfort. I simply cannot hold all of this. I have heard from so many people since I started writing this series — we are not alone. We are holding our grief together. At least there is that. If you’re here and you’re also holding grief I want you to know there is that. I am grateful.

My dad taught me that my brain can be an endless expanse too, and I think that’s why this grief exercise is my favorite, or the easiest for me, even if I am crying so hard that I have made my brain feel fuzzier, warmer, somehow even slower.

I try to figure out what grief is in the pages of my journal and I know my dad would be excited that I’m learning something new. I’m a student of life, Vaness, he used to say, and though we were so very different he loved when my mind grew, even if it wandered far away from the things he believed. He was so curious about me and my ideas; he was so curious about the whole world. It’s so hard to stomach that his curiosity is gone.

Journaling felt good today because writing things down always feels good to me. That is a cool thing to know about myself; I hope we are all able to learn what always feels good, and that we can cling to those things when everything feels so bad. I wish I didn’t have to learn about grief. There’s no bright side here. I’m not going to wrap things up neatly. I wish my dad was alive and I wish this series didn’t exist. But he’s not, and it does.

I have three journals.

I no longer have my dad.

I’ll write this story for the rest of my life.

[Blank] With My Grief is a weekly mini-series by me, Vanessa, about intentionally sitting with grief. This is the last installment. If you’re currently experiencing big grief, please feel free to share specific activities you do with yours in the comments. I’m really fucking sorry we’re all here together.

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Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 404 articles for us.


  1. I got too scared to write it all down. The first year was a haze, compounded by quarantine. I’m a writer too, and everything just… stopped, back then. Impossible to create in a fugue, all hollowed out, hazy and dull. I felt like I was dead, because my dad was dead, because the world around me was dead. After reading this, though, I think it might be time for me to write again too. Not just the novel I’m working on, but about my grief too.

  2. This article was exactly what I needed. Thank you. My father is currently dying on the other side of the world. I’m currently journalling my journey – but it’s so tough to find the motivation to go and get the book that makes it feel too real.

  3. I was going to quote a few of my favorite lines, but I couldn’t choose because truly every single piece of this essay resonated with me. It’s like you took my relationship with grief right out of my brain and wrote it down. Sending you and your dad lots of love.

  4. Vanessa. Thank you so much for this. We will be writing this story for the rest of our lives.
    I lost my mum last year and I meticulously wrote everything down. The last few, feeble jokes she made, how scared and small I was, how the weather was, how her hands were as cold as the stone windowsill next to the open window in her room after she was gone. It’s a lot harder to write now. That spacebrownie-type of headspace leaves no place for words. Grief expands and swallows everything that brings joy. Exactly.

  5. The truth may be that you need to share the pain. It can be with a friend, a family member, a therapist, or an intangible figure: the readers of this post. That is how it might feel better.

    It seems scary to share it with strangers, then it is ok because it is a normal feeling, a part of life.

    Also, could help somebody in a similar situation. Your process can be a light to others. The quote “getting in touch with my grief is not the same thing as getting in touch with my dad” is a new perspective for me. That helps me improve my understanding of grief.

    If you write something like this, it will have a purpose.

    Although some people would rather not sit with their grief, they will have to. All the feelings we avoid will be there waiting for the moment we will deal with them. It is an evolution of the soul to discover pain is not bad. It is a feeling like love.

    We must learn how to control our emotions. Once we do, we are in balance with them. They are no longer a threat, we know ourselves. The fear is gone.

    Yes, we are students of life.

  6. This is the first time I have really related to a series on grief. I mean I also lost my father at a young age. Till this day 30 years later it shocks me to still at times feel sadness for his death. I am learning like you to realize Grief is an endless expanse. I love how you framed that. I am going to read the rest of your series. Thank you for your vulnerability and discomfort. I really needed to read this and see that we are not alone in this.

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