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Writing Groups for Psychotherapy and Healing

By Joan A. Monheit, LCSW

When a close friend's father, Charlie, was dying of cancer some years ago, I became the primary care person for several months, as my friend, his only son, lived in Santa Barbara. I'd accompany Charlie to doctor's appointments and grocery shopping, run errands and cook for him. On good days, we'd take a slow walk at the Berkeley Marina. Sundays my kitchen smelled like a diner: meatloaf with mashed potatoes, creamy gravy and green beans, chicken Parmigiana and pasta, heavy on the mozzarella, pork roast with scalloped potatoes and spinach. I'd place individual meals in Rubbermaid containers, label them, then stock his freezer (I was trying to fatten him up to bolster his strength for chemo). Charlie moved down to Southern California for the last five months of his life and although I often visited, my care-taking role had clearly ended. I struggled to cope with his pending death and my feelings of emptiness related to suddenly having all that extra time now that I wasn't doing for him. My writing helped me come to terms with my grief and sense of helplessness. From that period came the following poem:

The Pain

seems to come more often now.
What will it be like, your dying?
Will you go quickly, or will
we hardly know it's happening -
like the midwestern autumn,
maples losing their red and orange leaves
so slowly, you're surprised
one day to see naked branches.

For Charlie

Writing provides a way of expressing, understanding and sharing our experiences. It offers solace to ourselves and others, it helps contain the seemingly uncontainable. Like depth psychotherapy, writing offers us a means of accessing our unconscious, our psyche, our inner selves. Writing provides safety, as does good therapy, because inherent in the process is solid boundaries. The piece of paper or the computer screen act as intrinsic boundaries. From this place of containment arises a feeling of safety, which then evokes and allows for the expression of what previously felt like uncontainable, "too huge" feelings or "dangerous" thoughts.

Though I've been facilitating these writing groups for over five years, I continue to be in awe of the power and mystery of how healing and transformation happens. For both my Writing Through Grief® and Healing Through Writing groups, individuals seem to enter into a three-fold process. First, expressing oneself: thoughts, feelings, ideas. Often we even surprise ourselves as we follow our pen on the page and find what emerges. I was surprised, for example, by the beginning of my article, as I didn't realize I still needed to describe my experience with Charlie after all this time. Secondly, reading aloud (a journal selection, a poem, a prose piece) to the group, hearing our words expressed. Words said out loud often make the experience more real to the writer: the emotions more immediate, the physical sensations more intense.

And lastly, experiencing those words witnessed and seeing the impact of our expressed words on others. To see in others' faces their reaction to our pain or courage or joy also makes our experience more real to us, and enables us to feel connected, less isolated. The Writing Through Grief® groups provide a safe, contained place to deal with the entire range of feelings and experiences surrounding an individual's grief over the death of a loved one. Differences in age, gender, race and ethnicity, or sexual orientation seem not to matter, nor does therapy or writing experience.

Individuals often come to the group telling themselves, as well as having heard from others, that they "should be over it now" - never mind if it's been one month, six months, two years or longer. Group members learn that grief has its own timetable, and that that timetable is different for each person and also for each loss. Early in the group I remind people that grief is a process, a process that is not linear - one moment an individual could be smiling from an amusing memory of her beloved, an hour later she may be driving her car and burst into tears.

The Writing Through Grief® group is a place where everyone is in the same position of needing to write and talk about their lost person and often the circumstances of his or her death, over and over again. Group members support and encourage each other by sharing their anger, sadness, hopelessness and hope. I suggest topics each week and hand out copies of other people's writings based on the topic. Members read from their journals or pass out copies of poems or prose pieces they have written. One individual wrote a dialogue between Prometheus and Sisyphus as a metaphor for his grief "eating up his entrails." Here is a poem that Writing Through Grief® member Wendy Leigh wrote in response to the question "What would acceptance look like?"


If I could imagine it
I might feel joy again.
Laughter might ignite
this stoney heart
unveiling these funeral
eyes to behold all
the splendors of this world.
If I could imagine it
I'd hear my heart's song
dancing in my feet
and with new limbs,
warm and supple,
would swim through
a sea of golden light
carrying you with me,
not weighted by your
but alighted with the
wings of your spirit.
Perhaps if I dare
I'd imagine
the whole bounty journey
life and death and love and loss and
Love again
And the song my heart would
sing in my dancing feet would be
Joy! Joy! Joy!

While Wendy was, to a large extent, still imagining feeling acceptance, the poem was her vision of someday how she could feel. I think that expressing that vision helped her, and the other group members as well, to experience the possibility of feeling hope and love again.

I started the Healing Through Writing groups in response to several individuals who were not actively grieving a death, but who wanted a place to use writing as a therapeutic entry to explore their current life concerns such as work, relationships and creativity.

These are ongoing women's psychotherapy groups looking at interpersonal as well as intrapsychic, or internal, issues. As with the grief groups, I give suggested assignments; the women either do them or not. The following was written by Heidi Huhn based on an in-group writing exercise focusing on body awareness:

I'm the side of your shin, your calf who aches with exhaustion. I'm the side you always cross over the other leg, willing me to casually shield you from the world...How to keep out questions and too much interest. How to keep people from looking into you and seeing who you are. You cross crossing your energies you confuse your predators - and - yourself. What is it you want to hide from the world?...I've stood under your sobbing body...when you've been blamed...when you've been misunderstood. I'll stand by you still. But when I ache when you run or bicycle - remember to forgive me for what you've asked me to hold.

I recall that we were all struck with what spontaneously arose for Heidi. It describes so well one of her primary conflicts, how she guards herself from others. At the time, this writing expressed what Heidi and the group knew to be true, but hadn't yet known consciously. The piece gave all of us a greater understanding of Heidi and a way for her to continue exploring this issue within the group.

An additional attraction of the Healing Through Writing groups is the tremendous support the women give to each other. They come in week after week and share the stories of their lives, wait to hear if one member got accepted to graduate school, or what kind of response another got from placing a personal ad. They look to each other as models on how to manage difficult areas of their lives, like asserting themselves at work or surviving a break-up. They practice new ways of being truthful with each other.

The Writing Through Grief® groups and Healing Through Writing groups bring together individuals who want to use writing to explore with others their similar and different experiences. Some people have written for years, some are even professional writers; others have written in their journals off and on; some like the idea of writing, but haven't actually done it before. What each member of these groups has in common is the desire to share their experiences in the belief, or the hope, that healing lies in the writing and sharing of the details of our lives.

I want to thank each member of my groups for teaching me about writing and its therapeutic power. There are so many poems and prose pieces I wanted to include in this article, but couldn't due to space limitations. Though I gave the two women whose writing I used the option of confidentiality, both chose to include their real names.


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