Grief is Like a Ball in a Box – Lauren Herschel’s Metaphor

I have received permission from Lauren Hershel to repost this magnificent metaphor she shared on Twitter about the nature of grief:

“There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button.”

With appreciation to Lauren Herschel for these diagrams.

“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 that 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. I thought this was the best description of grief I’ve heard in a long time.”  (Lauren Herschel)

Thank you so much Lauren Herschel for granting me permission to share this meaningful metaphor for grief.  I suspect it will speak to many, many people who have found themselves grappling with how to manage the ball in their box.

With deepest reverence for the unbearable ache of grief, Karen

[GUEST POST]: Call Them While You Can (Grief and The Stuff We Need to Say)

I am not sure why this touched me so deeply. This concept is not new to me. I make every effort to live in this way … and yet … for some reason I have crocodile size tears streaming down my face in unstoppable torrents. Thank you John for your gift of speaking straight to our souls … about things that are richly needed to be acknowledged. With deepest appreciation, Karen

john pavlovitz

GuyOnPhone

Yesterday my daughter did something really funny during dinner—like spit take funny. (This is rather commonplace in our home these days).

Not long after finishing the dishes I grabbed for the phone to tell my dad about it. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he died two and a half years ago. Suddenly as I started to dial, my brain kind of snapped to its senses and I put the phone down, feeling like I’d just been kicked in the gut.

Grief is a strange animal in this way, as anyone who has lost someone they love can testify. Whether it was ten days or ten years ago, you never quite fully adjust enough that you always remember that they’re dead. Yes, you understand on a cerebral level that they’re gone. Intellectually you know the finality of what’s happened, but somehow your heart’s muscle memory…

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“Come have your tears with me …”

come have your tears with me

We all have those times when a cascade of tears is seriously threatening to burst through.  We try, very valiantly, to hide them.  And, we profusely apologize when we just can’t do it and the flood gates fly wide open.  We feel embarrassed by our excessive emotional exhibition.  We beat ourselves up for not being more effective at keeping our feelings at bay … out of clear view.  And, we often deem ourselves “weak” when we can’t soldier on and just muscle through the ache … when we fail to adequately ‘man up’ through the pain.  And, for some crazy reason, we have been taught to admire and glamorize those who have lost their tears … reverently applauding them for being “so strong.”

And, forgive my language, but it’s all such bulls#*t.  From where I am looking (both professionally and personally) this stoic, stalwart stance is just not optimal for humanity.  There are some circumstantial exceptions (which I won’t discuss now), but it’s typically not beneficial for any one of us to harden our hearts in order to hide our pain … whether we are babies or children or teenagers or adults.

Tears are a natural and normal and necessary part of healing.  They activate our parasympathetic nervous system … which helps to process our pain and dampen our internal alarm system.  That is why we often ‘feel’ like a weight has been lifted after a good, long cry.  Dr. Gordon Neufeld (a renowned attachment theorist) asserts that the tears of pain release toxins from the body … that the chemical composition of tears we cry when we express our emotions is different that the tears that leak out when we are cutting an onion. That is why our eyes burn and swell … and … our cheeks get uncomfortably chaffed after we have spilled our tears without trying to stop them.

I wish we could collectively and universally get comfortable with tears.  We are not. As a counselor, though, I always know we are edging close to a heartfelt ‘truth’ when someone’s eyes begin welling up. Tears are an honest and authentic expression of our wounding.  They are a wise reminder that our tender, tattered hearts need to be nurtured.  Tears are an important invitation for someone to lean in and provide comfort.  And … at the most primal level, isn’t compassion what we most need when we are hurting … emotionally, physically or otherwise?

Imagine a wee little child, helmet on, riding their two wheeler and totally enjoying the thrill of it.  And then, for some reason, they get caught up in some loose gravel and they bite the dust.  And then what happens?  They cry.  And then what?  They seek out someone for comfort.  And then what?  They find you and climb up onto your lap and sob freely while they explain what happened.  And then what? You get the ‘boo boo’ cleaned up, and get them a band-aid and give them a kiss to make it all better.  And then what? You compassionately hold them until there are no more tears. And then what?  They jump off your knee, put on their helmet and gleefully get back on the bike.  And then, at the end of the day when you ask them how their day was … they say “Great! I love bike riding!” Probably no mention of the fall … unless, of course, you inquire about how their knee feels.  They will likely assure you, “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” Their pain has been processed, their hurting has been invited to heal and ‘the crash’ is reduced to a faint recollection of a past event.

On the other hand, imagine the same wee little child, helmet on, riding on their two wheeler and totally enjoying the thrill of it.  And then, for some reason, they get caught up in some loose gravel and they bite the dust … but they have learned through teasing, shaming or scolding that they are not supposed to cry.  They have determined that there is no safe place to have their tears.  Then what?  Perhaps a bit embarrassed, they look around in the hopes that no one saw them. And then what?  They fight back the tears and pretend it didn’t hurt.  And then what?  They act mad instead of sad and look for something or someone to blame.  And then what? They kick up the gravel and throw some at their bike. And then what? They might think if they had a better bike … maybe a blue one …  they would not have crashed.  And then what? They angrily protest their upset with the ‘stupid green bike’ by pushing it home instead of riding it again.  And then what?  They kick the cat on their way in the door.  And then what?  You sternly remind them that cats are not for kicking. And they sneer something under their breath.  And when you ask them how their day was … they say,  “Stupid. My bike is so stupid.”  And then you tell them to stop being so silly because you know how much they love riding their bike. And then what? They snarl back at you with seemingly unwarranted and irrational rage, “No I don’t. I HATE it!  And I’m never going to ride that stupid bike again! And you cant make me!” And then what?  You firmly remind them, “don’t you use that tone with me” and may even send them to their room with an invitation to “stay there” until they can “be nice.”

And they are isolated and alone. And their pain gets hidden. It is repressed rather than released. And their tears are lost. And the unprocessed pain of their past persists angrily into the present … and then … may be triggered again and again in the future.  And no one else is any the wiser about what has transpired at the deepest level.

And, in all honesty, which experience would you rather have? Unless or until we have transformed into ‘the strong one’ who resists all measure of tearful displays … we instinctively crave comfort when we are wounded.  That is why, on occasion when we have hurt ourselves haphazardly and publicly … all it takes is for someone to say “Are you okay?”and the tears escape involuntarily.  And that is why, when we see a toddler trip and fall, we say “He’ll be okay as long as you don’t look at him.”  We are instinctively wired to cry when we are hurting.

And, it’s almost humanly impossible to hold back our tears in the space of heartfelt compassion.  However, if/when loving comfort is not a safe or viable option to mediate our wounding, we might subconsciously seek to numb our discomfort or distract ourselves with the next best thing … food, drugs (legal or illicit), alcohol, gambling, video gaming, social media, sex, pornography etc.  As Dr. Gabor Maté contends, addictions are not the problem in and of themselves … they are more likely to be a symptom of unexpressed wounding and/or unhealed pain. 

And honestly … don’t each and every one of us deserve to be lovingly supported through our pain? As Dr. Neufeld suggests, at the very deepest level of our being, don’t we all just want someone safe to tenderly and gently and compassionately offer, “Come have your tears with me.”

May we all find our way to that sacred healing space … and also … hold that sacred healing space for someone else, Karen

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And then … I remembered.

Source Unknown

Source Unknown

The other day I was reflecting upon the day as I drove home from work. As I rounded the corner into my cul-de-sac, I recalled that during ‘check-in’ at our staff meeting, I had reported that for all intents and purposes I was doing “really good”.  I remembered acknowledging that I felt like I was in a period of grace given all the challenges that had been landing in my life over the past few years.  As I parked in my drive-way, some of the unfavorable realities I had neglected to acknowledge in my check-in  spontaneously popped into my awareness and I thought:  “Hey … wait a minute.  I need a re-do on my check-in.”  Upon deeper reflection, I had to concede that things were not really as rosy as the picture I had painted for my colleagues.  I mean …

  • How could I say  I was “really good” when  my dryer had just broken down and left me with two heavy wet loads threatening to mildew in my basement?
  • Wasn’t it a bit of stretch to say that I was “really good” when my husband’s computer was still crashed after two attempts to replace the mother board by really techno-savvy geeks had failed … ?
  • How on earth could I  say I was “really good” when my house was covered in a ¼ inch of rock dust that was perpetually drifting down from the seemingly snails-pace renovations?
  • Was it really honest to say I was “really good” when  I have been somewhat indignant and grumbling about having to park outside ever since my garage was converted into a workshop for the renovations?
  • Was it “really good” that I had just spent the lunch hour in the washroom trying to dislodge some chicken that had caught in my esophagus and was causing painful spasms?
  • I wasn’t feeling “really good” about choosing to be courageous in the face of an ethical dilemma … I was feeling downright vulnerable.

In light of these realities, whose ‘really good’ life was I telling my colleagues about?  I found myself curiously wondering how all that stuff had completely fallen off my radar during the meeting.

And then … I remembered.

I remembered that it started out like a usual day.  The sun was shining and the day was planned …BUT … things don’t always go as planned.  On this particular day,  a very cherished friend/colleague of my daughters had been hit head-on in a horrific accident that promptly claimed the life of her best friend.  Her own precious life was miraculously hanging in the tentative balance between staying ‘here’ and going ‘there’ to join her friend.  No one knew what the next moment would bring.  Tears flowed … spirits gasped … and … fears all but eclipsed the tenuous hopes timidly trying to prevail amidst the uncertainties that no one dared to sputter aloud …

They said her prognosis was grim. They said most people could not survive the extent of her injuries. Pelvis broken in 3 places, back fractured in 3 places, all ribs crushed, a punctured lung, a perforated aorta and every bone in her face  pulverized.  It seemed though, that the feisty spirit of this most beautiful soul was determined to defy the odds as the minutes turned into hours turned into days.  I carried her in my heart as I went about my usual routine.  I know I was not alone. She remained foremost in all our thoughts and prayers.

As I reflect on it now, I am guessing that  during ‘check-in’, I was subconsciously taking my own inventory from this humble, tender and fragile space.  I’m speculating that I neglected to mention the realities that were irritating me, because they were simply that … irritating.  I can live with irritating.  My choice is whether I decide to do it begrudgingly or not.  I’m guessing that somewhere deep within my psyche, my testament to being “really good” reflected my perception that, in the grand scheme of things,  irritations are preferable to crises … but only 100% of the time.

I am recognizing, more and more, that in each and every moment, it is not what we are looking at that matters, it is what we choose to see.  Our perspective frames our interpretations.  Perception creates reality and as Debbie Ford points out in her book “The Right Questions” we can spend our moments looking for what is right or we can spend them focused upon what is going wrong.   It all depends upon the perspectacles ( a term coined by Glennon Doyle Melton) with which we choose to look … we can see things as desirable or undesirable in any situation, event or circumstance.  I don’t consciously remember putting on my rose-colored glasses before the meeting, but clearly something inside me was wisely adjusting the lens through which I made my assessment. I wasn’t lying to my colleagues or to myself.  I wasn’t in any kind of Pollyanna-ish denial.  Despite the irritations that could have shifted my perception to an unfavorable place, I can see that I probably was feeling “really good” … all things considered.

When I am looking for what is right, I can see miracles are unfolding around us with each and every breath.  In fact, my daughter’s friend continues to affirm my belief in miracles.   So far, she is still ‘here’ … and … so many hearts are holding her with much tender love and eager hope for brighter moments ahead. She is teaching me to believe that a prognosis does not have to be your reality. She is teaching me to not let the moment define you, but rather, to define the moment. She is teaching me about never giving up.  She is teaching me that there are blessings worth living for … but only 100% of the time.

As for me, when I am looking for what is right in this very moment , I can see that my the dryer is fixed, my husband’s computer was replaced free of charge by DELL (Yeah DELL!), my esophagus is not currently in spasm so I can eat again  and the dust is mostly cleared.

When I am looking for what is wrong in this moment, I can see that the door of my medicine cabinet broke off in my hands, there are a few imperfections in the renovations and I am still parked in the driveway … I guess I’ll be scraping ice and snow off my car for a while yet.

Although it’s tempting to let the ‘wrong’ steal the ‘right’ from my view, in the final analysis, I am ‘seeing’ that I don’t need a re-do on my check-in after all.  Despite what I am looking at in my life (at any given moment),  the truth of the matter is this:  I really am “really good” … until I decide that I am not. But only 100% of the time.

Looking for what is right and seeing so many blessings that tears have filled my eyes,  Karen

P.S. Since writing this yesterday, we had a big dump of snow and my husband very unexpectedly cleared the garage.  We just never know what the next moment will bring.  May we be looking in such a way that we miss not a single blessing as we all see our way through the days to come …

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