by Jennifer Chauhan
This past Mother’s Day was my fifteenth without my mom. She passed away after a short battle with metastatic lung cancer in 2007, leaving me not only without a mom but also without my best friend. I was 38 with small children (6, 4, and 2) and in a marriage that was beginning to unravel. At the time, I was convinced I couldn’t survive. Every day felt unsurmountable as I was swimming in grief—floating and then sinking, gasping for air. I was also dealing with heightened anxiety as I cared for my terminally ill father, who died shortly after my mom, and for the first time I experienced panic attacks that erupted at random—in a supermarket aisle, at a dinner out with girlfriends, in the shower.
My entire system was on hyper alert. I was unmoored, heartbroken, and terrified. And so I did the only thing that gave me any kind of relief.
I poured out my sorrow, my frustration, my confusion in notebooks. I remember tucking one into the console of my car, pulling it out as I sat quietly in the pickup line at my children’s elementary school. I remember asking questions (“Where did you go?” “What am I going to do without you?”) as well as documenting memories that surprisingly made me smile (pushing my mom in a wheelchair on the boardwalk as my two younger children zigzagged, giggling, in front of her; sipping Dom Perignon out of tiny paper hospital cups with her and my brother in hospice).
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was not only processing my raw emotions, I was also capturing a paradox of grief. That I could write and reflect not only on the pain but also on the memories that brought me unexpected bursts of joy. In my writing, I could remember her. I could honor the complexity of my emotions and what it means to love so deeply that the pain of loss is inevitable.
When I started Project Write Now, I knew I wanted to share with others what writing had given me. Yes, it is about writing stories, whether true or imaginative. But, for me, it’s more about the self-discovery and healing that the process of writing gives us.
There are countless studies about the benefits of expressive writing (writing about your thoughts, feelings without concern for structure and grammar). Psychologist James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin pioneered this research in 1986 when he did a study with two cohorts of college students. One group wrote about superficial ideas while the other focused solely on their thoughts and feelings. Months later, the group that wrote about their emotions reported significant benefits in physical health with fewer visits to the health center.
In studies since, it’s been shown that writing about yourself and personal experiences can reduce stress and boost moods. Writing helps you gain clarity when problem solving or making decisions. Writing helps you access deeper parts of yourself—to explore your dreams, desires, who you are, and how you relate to the world around you.
I have witnessed healing and resilience with all the groups Project Write Now works with—no matter the age, no matter the type of writing. Most of the time, it feels unintended, like a surprise after effect. But the more I hear from our students, the more I believe in the power of writing to improve our overall well-being, leading to more meaningful living.
With groups of 7th and 8th graders at Red Bank Middle School, we show up weekly with poetry and prompts that invite introspection. In their notebooks, they freewrite, letting words spill out onto the page, and we encourage them not to censor or edit. In a 2019 survey, our students shared how they felt immediately after class: “I feel like I have let out a bunch of emotions instead of biting on my own tongue,” “I feel happy and calm,” “I feel good that I let everything out.”
Eighty-five percent of these students say they are likely or very likely to use writing to work through strong emotions. Ninety-five percent say that writing and sharing with their peers has made them feel less alone and more connected to one another.
With the mental health crisis plaguing our country—and affecting our children and teens so much that in December 2021 U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address it—expressive writing becomes an important, even necessary, tool.
The beauty of expressive writing is you don’t need a lot to make it happen. A journal or notebook (or a piece of paper). A pen or pencil. A document on the computer. Notes App on your phone.
You can start with a few words, an observation, a feeling, an expression of gratitude. Anything goes, even drawing or doodling. You don’t have to write every day. But the more you get your thoughts and feelings down, the more likely you will turn to it, especially during times of emotional intensity.
For me, I am writing this on the afternoon of Mother’s Day, a day when I straddle being happy and grateful for my own children and missing my mother so much that I just want the day to end so I can exhale.
And yet writing this today has eased the toughness, has made me remember all she’s given me, reigniting why I believe so much in the healing and grace of capturing our thoughts, feelings, beliefs—and essentially everything we are—in words.