FEW: Focused Expressive Writing



Light griefs can speak, great ones cannot. Seneca

Go to a few words about Pet Loss

Nothing prepares us for the death of a loved one. Even if the death is anticipated, it will still jolt our foundation. Grief throws us into emotional turmoil. Most grievers do not seek professional help for six to nine months after the death of a loved one, if at all. Friends cannot always give us the comfort we need. What can we do with all the feelings churning inside?

Focused Expressive Writing (FEW) is an inexpensive, effective way to cope with the strong emotions of grief. We can write down whatever is on our minds and in our hearts: everything from snatches of memory to accounts of daily grief and confusion.

FEW helps us sort out and identify what is happening to us. It also puts our thoughts and feelings in a safe place that we can go back to if we want. Writing down our personal experience of grief relieves us of the need to carry it around in our heads every minute of every day.

But focused expressive writing doesn’t have to be all about pain. We can also write about stories from the life of the loved one in recent times or long ago: tender moments, funny incidents, favorite jokes, or anecdotes that enrich us as we remember the one who is gone. Many friends will believe, in error, that it is kinder to never speak of the dead. This is all the more reason for us to write into being a dear life that has ended.

Focused expressive writing is safe and inexpensive. All it takes is pen, paper and 20 – 30 minutes at least four times a week.(*) You can buy a beautiful blank book if you want, but you need not spend a lot of money on your journal. A three-ring notebook, writing tablet or file folder with sheets of paper is adequate.

Forget about spelling, grammar or anyone else reading it. FEW is private. The challenge comes from summoning the will to protect your writing time from every day distractions. Turn off your cell phone and other devices! This time belongs to you and is important for your healing.

(*)For me, FEW works best with pen and paper. Word processors are impersonal machines. The act of writing is more intimate when my hand guides a pen across paper in my own script, but this is my experience of FEW. Since writing about the death of a loved one is personal, please use the method that offers you the most comfort.

Focused expressive writing is not the same as keeping a diary. A diary is a chronicle of your everyday life: what you did, thought or observed today. There is a random quality to diary entries because the writing usually meanders through the day and lacks a particular focus.

FEW is a specific type of writing for insight and comfort, done at regular intervals. You choose an event, thought, feeling or concern related to your loss and make it the first sentence at the top of the page. You spend the rest of your writing time expanding on the first sentence in whatever form it takes.


Here are some ideas to get you started with focused expressive writing, but your own ideas and words always work best. Not all the partial sentences or questions will apply to your situation. Choose one or two from the list below that “jump out” at you and go with the flow of your immediate response. In no time, you’ll be writing about your personal experience of grief.

How has my life changed since __________ died?

What do I think about at 3 AM? (What thoughts keep me awake at night?)

I need help with…

I do not want help with…

The most maddening thing that people say/do since __________’s death is…

I most want to remember….

I most want to forget….

Real friends are…

I am angry

I find __________ irritating because….

The practical things I need to do now are…

My support now comes from…

I take care of myself by...

I am not taking care of myself when I...

I feel…

God is…

If I could turn the clock back, I would/would not…

My biggest regret is…

I most fear…

I am most surprised by...

My greatest strength is...

When I envision my future without __________, I see…

When I die….

I’ll love you forever because…

People who use focused expressive writing during times of personal crisis and challenge have reported modest, but meaningful, improvement in their overall health and outlook. How can something so inexpensive and simple work?

Research suggests that FEW works by providing a way to organize a narrative about a "troubling event" and the death of a loved one certainly qualifies as a troubling event! Focused expressive writing also helps us slowly adjust to the many negative feelings surrounding the death; and for most, FEW eventually leads to finding hidden strengths, or small comforts, however impossible or obscure they seem at the time.

Your journal of focused expressive writing can become a trusted friend in which you record your feelings, traumas, pain, triumphs, small comforts and insights. For most people, this is therapy enough as they make their difficult journey on the dark and rocky road of grief. For others, FEW can be the key to realizing that professional help or a grief support group is appropriate.

You can start using FEW at any time. It does take a commitment to write down your deepest thoughts and feelings about the experience of grief on a regular basis. When grief is new, you may not have the desire or energy to write. You'll know when the time is right to begin. FEW doesn’t work for everyone, but it is low-risk and easy to try. If it works for you, the benefits of focused expressive writing are worth the effort. This method of writing helped me grieve. I hope it helps you, too.

Pet Loss:

Focused expressive writing (FEW) can be used for any stressful event or challenge in life. It is especially helpful in coping with chronic illness. On this page, I have taken the idea of expressive writing and added to it in order to focus on grief and grieving.

Pet loss is often made more painful because others do not understand how deep the attachment to a pet can be. We hear, "Well, he was just a dog," or "You can always get another cat." What these insensitive people fail to understand is that we had a strong and loving relationship with our beloved friend.

No wonder the pain of loss is so great. Not only have we have lost a member of our immediate family but so many people dismiss our grief as trivial. If this describes how you are feeling, try Focused Expressive Writing to help you grieve the death of your beloved companion animal. 

BACK to your place in the article.

References and Links:

Baikie, Karen A. and Kay Wilhelm. Emotional and physical benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. November 2005, pages 338-346. (Full article)

Smyth J, and Helm R. Focused expressive writing as self-help for stress and trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology. February 2003, pages 227-235 (Abstract)

From the American Psychological Association (APA Monitor):
Writing to Heal by Bridget Murray

From Webmaster Melanie Walters: Obituarieshelp.org offers many examples of sympathy verses

and poems for comfort and support during a difficult time.

Product Description:

This companion workbook to Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart is designed to help mourners explore the many facets of their unique grief through journaling. Ten essential touchstones for mourners are covered, including being open to the presence of loss, dispelling misconceptions about grief, embracing the uniqueness of grief, seeking reconciliation, and reaching out for help. Journalers are asked specific questions about their feelings of grief as they relate to the ten essential touchstones and are provided with writing space for their reflections.

Angel Catcher: A Journal of Loss and Remembrance by Kathy Eldon. Chronicle Books, 2007, 128 pages.

Product Description: Over the past decade, this classic work has helped thousands find meaningful ways to overcome the despair of losing a loved one. Now, Angel Catcher has been revised and updated to convey its powerful message of hope to a new audience. Featuring brand new illustrations and a fresh updated look, the tasteful pages of this journal guide the user through the process of mourning and onward to a lasting sense of peace in the face of loss. Written after the author's son was murdered, it also makes a thoughtful gift for a grieving friend.

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How complicated and individual mending is,
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Mary Jane Moffat
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