As hard as we try, grief can be a difficult emotion to explain or understand. It can wear different faces and emotions for everyone and it’s impossible to pin down to a timeline. If you’re experiencing grief, this knowledge can be overwhelming.
How can you live with something that you can’t define? How can you ask for support or give others some insight into how you feel?
These questions get one thinking about the analogies and metaphors we use to describe grief and how they can give other people a glimpse into our feelings, as well as help us understand our own all-consuming thoughts and emotions.
The Ball in the Box
On social media last year, a lovely lady called Lauren Herschel tweeted a thread about the ‘Ball in the Box’ analogy that her doctor told her to explain grief.
In the thread, she said, “So grief is like this. There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button”.
“In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without the ball hitting the pain button. It rattles around on its own in there and hits the button over and over. You can’t control it – it just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting.”
“Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less, but when it does, it hurts just as much. It’s better because you can function day to day more easily. But the downside is that the ball randomly hits the button when you least expect it.”
“For most people, the ball never really goes away. It might hit less and less and you have more time to recover between hits, unlike when the ball was still giant.”
A shorthand to explain your feelings
The ‘Ball in the Box’ analogy makes sense to most of us who have experienced grief.
It explains why, in the face of a new loss, we might still experience pain for a past loss. In addition to the new giant ball, the older grief ball is still bouncing around, hitting the pain button occasionally, especially when it’s bouncing against the giant ball that’s occupying so much of the box.
One of the reasons that this analogy is so powerful is because it’s visual in nature and gives you a clear shorthand to explain how you’re feeling. If you share this analogy with your support network, you can follow it up with statements like, “The ball is really big today and has been hitting the pain button constantly” and people will instantly recognise what you mean.
Grief comes in waves
Eight years ago, a Reddit user posted their analogy for grief and it’s been an amazing source of comfort to thousands ever since.
The essence of the analogy is to imagine that you’ve been caught up in a shipwreck caused by a storm that came from nowhere.
When the shipwreck first happens, you’re drowning, surrounded by wreckage and pulling your head above the water, one gasp at a time.
Everywhere you look, you see reminders of the beautiful ship that carried you as you struggle to understand that it’s gone.
All you can do is float and hang on to a piece of the wreckage – whether that’s a memory, an object or another person – while you try to stay alive.
At first, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash down on you with force. They come every few seconds, barely letting you catch a breath. You can’t think of anything but hanging on for survival while wave after wave hits.
After a while though (weeks or months perhaps), you notice that – although the waves are still 100 feet tall and wipe you out when they hit – they don’t come quite as often. You begin to be able to take in what happened during the storm and do more than breathe between each wave. The unpredictability is hard because a wave could hit at any time but, with the sea a bit calmer, you’re able to think about more than just hanging on.
Life after the storm
The analogy says that somewhere down the line (and the timeframe is different for everyone), you’ll notice that the waves are becoming smaller. They’re 80 feet tall, then 50 feet and you can often see them coming before they hit.
You begin to prepare yourself for the impact of the wave and find an inner strength that tells you that you’ll come out the other side because you always have before. You may be struggling to breathe, choked and hanging on to a tiny piece of wreckage once again but you’ll survive and the wave will pass.
Sadly, you may find yourself in other shipwrecks in the future. When you do, you’ll hang on for dear life again and learn to survive.
In this analogy, the sea is never completely calm. There are always waves, although they may be small. In a way, you wouldn’t want the waves to completely disappear because they remind you of the beautiful ships that sailed them and the adventures you shared before and after each storm.
Stranger in a strange land
Other people describe grief as feeling like you’ve landed in a foreign country. In this analogy, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.
Like shopping in a foreign supermarket, you inadvertently buy the wrong things or the right things in the wrong quantities. You mark different days on your calendar to everyone living around you.
You’re constantly exhausted from trying to learn a new language to communicate your sense of loss (or you don’t speak because you don’t know how to say what you want to say).
The landscape around you is strange and it changes without warning. Things that didn’t harm you before – a collar, a food bowl – cut you deep inside. You can see your friends and family but they’re across an invisible border and you feel completely alone. You can watch the old, familiar, ‘normal’ things from a distance but you’re set apart from them.
The currency in this foreign land is unfamiliar too. Money has little value but kindness and compassion are priceless.
You wonder how you’ll survive in this new place.
But, with time, you begin to make a new life in the foreign land you now inhabit. You realise other people live there too. You learn the language, get used to the food and accept that life is different but still worth living. You adapt and grow. You didn’t choose to come to this land but you can make the best of where life has taken you.
Sometimes, you’ll feel guilty; you’ll worry that you’ve betrayed your homeland by learning to adjust to this new place. But, in your heart, you know you couldn’t stay rooted to the spot, eternally reaching for a shore you couldn’t touch. You’ll remember your homeland forever but the foreign land will lose its strangeness as you learn its ways.
Grief changes with time
These three analogies are an important reminder that grief changes with time. It never fully disappears and still hurts sometimes but we learn to adapt to its presence.
If you feel like you’re being hit by 100-foot waves right now or if your pain button is constantly being pressed, we hope these analogies will give you some comfort that there are better days ahead.
You may be a stranger in this foreign land of grief but reach out a hand and there are people in the fog who are walking the same path.
You’re not alone.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support