Grief Is Idiosyncratic & Bounces Like a Ball in a Box

a big red button
Image by altemark / CC BY

There are a few things about grief that I wish I had known a long time ago. Before the losses started and I was forced to make sense of it all.

And failed miserably.

These days, I’m much more comfortable with grief. Not that anyone ever wishes it on anyone else — and certainly not themselves. But loss has a way of happening to us all if we live long enough. So you’re forced to deal with it eventually.

And there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that have made life and loss make a lot more sense. Or at least make the process of moving through it all a bit easier. (Although with the biggest losses, it’s never exactly easy.)

Grief Is Idiosyncratic and Unpredictable & One’s Grief Response (or Lack Thereof) Should Not Be Judged

The first thing I had to understand about grief is rather simple and straightforward. It’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable:

Rather than being predictable, grief is instead one of the most idiosyncratic emotional processes that a person can experience. Everyone grieves differently. And furthermore, a person may very well find that they grieve differently from event to event. And sometimes it doesn’t even follow any logical sense. Strangely, the death of a celebrity might hit them harder than that of a relative or close friend.

The end of a brief not-even-official relationship might hit them harder than a divorce.

When I’m working with clients that are experiencing grief, I’ve found that worry about how they should be feeling is often one of their major concerns.

Those who are grieving hard about something small will worry that they’re being inappropriate. “I barely knew them [or didn’t know them at all], why am I taking this so hard?” Or, “We were only together a few months, why am I still not over the breakup?”

And others who don’t feel like they’re taking a death or a divorce hard enough will often worry about that and wonder if it means that they’re still in denial or not really processing the event. Or, in the case of breakups or divorce, I’ve had clients worry that their quick turnaround means that they didn’t really love the person in question. (Which often doesn’t seem to be true, they seem to have cared very much and often still do.)

There’s no should when it comes to feelings. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. You feel how you feel. This is true in general but especially so when it comes to grief.

A big part of helping another person through grief first involves validating that the way that they’re feeling is okay and isn’t indicative of their being an emotionally defective person — that they’re not over-grieving or under-grieving. This need for validation is present with a lot of emotional processing, but I find it basically every time when it comes to grief: Clients will measure themselves against some imagined standard of “normal” and worry that they vary from it. That they aren’t feeling what they should feel. Or that they’re feeling something they shouldn’t.

And if you’re the one grieving, it’s important to not judge yourself for what you’re feeling. Or what you’re not feeling. Even though that might just be your instinctive response. (And/or the unfortunate instinctive response of others around you, who don’t understand that there’s no right or wrong way to feel after a loss.)

The Ball in the Box, A Helpful Metaphor for Understanding and Talking About Grief

The other thing I wish I’d known earlier is now one of my favorite metaphors for grief: The ball in the box. I didn’t come up with it. I was first introduced to it via @LaurenHerschel’s Twitter thread (linked here in an Imgur post).

You can read the Imgur post if you like (I recommend it), and it’s well expressed there — with accompanying diagrams.

But here’s a brief summary as well if you don’t want to click through: Essentially there’s a box with a pain button in it. Your grief after a loss is like a ball that bounces around that box in the course of living your life.

In the beginning, when a loss is fresh, the ball is huge, and there’s no way for it to move around the box without hitting the pain button. Basically, everything you do will activate the pain and sense of loss.

At first, it seems like it’ll never end. With time, the ball does shrink down in size. It does continue to occasionally hit that pain button but not as often. Unfortunately, when the ball hits the pain button, it does hurt just as much as it did initially. But you’re not in constant pain so you’re better able to get things done in your life and generally functional. But it’s unpredictable when the pain hits, which can make things difficult and cause spontaneous emotional crises while you’re just trying to live your damn life.

Herschel is careful to note that for most people the ball never quite disappears. It’s still possible to hit that pain button a long time after an event. The ball only gets smaller and the impacts less frequent.

She notes that this analogy can help people explain their grief to others. After she explains the metaphor to her step father, he replies, “The Ball was really big today. It wouldn’t lay off the button. I hope it gets smaller soon.”

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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