Coping with grief – The Ball and the Box

Grief is an intense experience for everyone – it is also a unique experience. We often expect others to grieve in a similar way to us and can be surprised or even shocked when they don’t have the same reactions, feelings or behaviours. It is absolutely true, however, that grief affects each person in a different way. This can be related to individual differences but also to the different relationships and relationship dynamics that various people have with the same person. Consider the loss of a much-loved grandmother, for example. That loss may be felt by her husband, with whom she has lived for many years, a romantic relationship which has deepened and been enriched by shared experiences, her children, who will all have their own specific relationship with their mum, her friends, her grandchildren and so on. It would be unreasonable to suggest that all these people would grieve in the same way. Much insensitivity could be avoided if this was more recognised, acknowledged and accepted.

For some people, grief can feel immediate – a ton of bricks hitting you at speed. For others, they can spend a long time in denial, paralysed by shock. This can be particularly difficult for others to understand and it may lead to hurtful questions –‘why can’t you grieve properly?’, ‘Don’t you care?’, ‘Why are you so heartless?’ Actually, what is often happening is that the loss is so difficult that they are simply protecting themselves from it for a while. What many people will say is that, at first things feel easier – there are things to organise and that can be a distraction. They feel supported by others at this time too – the phone calls, the visits, the offers of food left on the doorstep – all of these things can help to ease the despair. It is often when this support starts to fade away that the real grieving begins.

One of the things that might be difficult to understand is that grief may never leave a person completely – and if your expectation is that it will, you may feel that you are always striving for the impossible. Loss can stay with many people forever – but it will become smaller and less overwhelming as time goes on.

There are various models of grief but the Ball and the Box is a relatively recent idea, which resonates with many people who are experiencing grieving. It was shared by someone called Lauren Hershel, whose doctor first came up with the analogy when she went to see him. For many people, it encapsulates grief perfectly:

If you imagine your life is a box, the grief that are experiencing is represented by a ball inside it. There is also a pain button inside of the box, which represents the pain of your loss. Initially, that ball is very large and it activates the pain button all the time – everything you do in your life is affected by it and there seems to be no room for anything but your grief. The ball – your grief - moves around randomly and you have no control over when that pain button is hit and the pain of loss feels relentless.

However, what happens is that the ball starts to slowly shrink over time and when that happens, it still pervades your life, it still rattles around the box, but the pain button is activated less because the grief is smaller. It can still be random and unexpected and still hurt as much when the pain is activated, but it becomes less frequent.

As time goes on, the ball continues to shrink and with it, your grief for the person that you have lost. It doesn’t disappear altogether, however, and will still occasionally be painful. In general, though, life will feel much more normal again, allowing you to begin to enjoy the good memories and the happy times.

There is no ‘cure’ for grief – it is related to love and when we love deeply, it follows that we will grieve deeply as well. This analogy offer understanding and hope, however, that life can still be meaningful and satisfying even after loss.

Therapy can help too. People in grief often feel that they have no one to talk to about their loved one, especially if it is a while since their death. A compassionate counsellor can make a huge difference to your grieving journey.