Some aspiring readers of my memoir on early mother loss and long-term grieving have expressed to me that, although they very much want to read the book, they fear the emotions it might stir up from their own past losses or trauma. I’ve had this experience myself, so I reached out to my friend Amy Sullivan, a therapist specializing in trauma healing and body-mind integration, for some tips. (You can also watch a recording of our 19-minute Instagram live interview.) Drawing on Amy’s input as well as my own training as an energy healer, here is a framework for moving through book content that triggers old emotions. I think of it as a ritual for reading.
Set the Stage with Comfort
In our conversation, I loved that Amy’s first suggestion was to identify practices that signal comfort for you. Then, with intention, bring them into the reading experience before you open to the book. For example, brew your favorite tea or a pot of fresh coffee. Wrap both hands around the mug, notice the warmth, and inhale the fragrance. Notice how these sensations affect your whole body (or not).
Another idea is to wrap up in a fluffy blanket and curl up on the couch or in your favorite chair. Does it have a beautiful view out the window? All the better. If you have a furry friend, perhaps having them next to you would enhance feelings of safety.
Tune into Sensations
Having begun the reading session in a comfortable state helps you stay aware of how you’re feeling from a calmer perspective. As you read, notice any changes in your body in response to the content you’re taking in, such as speeding of your heart, tingling in your limbs, or tightness in your chest or gut that indicates rising stress.
To send a calming message to your nervous system, you could pick up the mug again, look out the window and notice trees or birds or buildings, and/or pet the dog. Another helpful practice is to breathe in normally and then lengthen the exhale, repeating three or four times in a row. Check in with yourself. What do you notice?
Trust Your Own Timing
At any point, it’s up to you whether to continue reading, after five minutes or two hours. The clock does not matter. As Amy said in our discussion, it’s also important to give yourself permission to decide when you feel finished with a particular book, regardless of how many pages you’ve read.
If book content triggers old emotions, it can be helpful to give yourself outlets for reflection afterward, immediately or the next day or much later. You could also write about it in a journal. For 10-15 minutes, just write freely about the feelings that you had and what the book made you think about. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation. Another possibility is to create an image in response to your reading experience with colored pencils, markers, or crayons.
Connect with Others
Calling a friend is another way to process your emotions from reading. Even better, join the Healing Power of Stories book discussion group for adults bereaved in childhood! It has grown into a warm community of readers who are also grievers since our beginning in fall 2020. New participants can join at any time. You are also welcome to connect with me via email.