The following article was written by a young woman who attended a presentation on bereavement by Barbara Monroe, the Chief Executive of St
Christopher's Hospice in London. Perhaps it has something useful to say to all of us as we seek to understand our own experiences of grief and loss, especially as we remember loved ones this November.
When I arrived, what I saw resembled a physics lesson. On the table before the presenter was a very large glass jar. Beside it were three balls: one large, one medium-sized, one small. Without a word, she began to stuff the large ball into the jar. With a great deal of effort, she wedged it in.
'There!' she said. 'That's how grieving feels at first. If grief is the ball and the jar is your world, you can see how the grief fills everything. There is no air to breathe, no space to move around. Every thought, every action reminds you of your loss.' Then she pulled the large ball out of the jar and put in the medium-sized ball. She held it up again, tipping it so the ball rolled around a bit. 'Maybe you think that's how it will feel after a time - say, after
the first year. Grieving will no longer fill every bit of space in your life.' Then she rolled the ball out and plopped in the small ball. 'Now, say, by the second or third year, that's how grieving is supposed to feel. Like the ball, it has shrunk. So now you can think of grief as taking up a very small part of your world - it could almost be ignored if you wish to ignore it.'
For a moment, considering my own crammed jar, I thought of leaving.
'That's what everyone thinks grieving is like,' the voice continued. 'And it's all rubbish!' I settled back into my seat. Two other glass jars were produced from under the table: one larger, one very large.
'Now,' she said, imperiously. 'Watch!' Silently, she took the largest ball and squeezed it slowly into the least of the three jars. It would barely fit. Then she pulled the ball out and placed it in the next larger jar. There was room for it to roll around. Finally, she took it out and dropped it into the largest glass jar. 'There,' she said, in triumph. 'That's what grieving is really like. If your grieving is the ball, like the ball here it doesn't get any bigger or any smaller. It is always the same. But the jar is bigger. If your world is this glass jar, your task is to make your world bigger.'
'You see,' she continued, 'no-one wants their grief to shrink. It is all they have left of the person who died. But if your world gets larger, then you can keep your grief as it is, but work around it.' Then she turned to us. 'Older people coping with grief often try to keep their world the same. It is a mistake. If I have one thing to say to all of you it is this: make your world larger. Then there will be room in it for your grieving, but your grieving will not take up all the room. This way you can hopefully find space to make a new life for yourselves.
Grief is like the ocean: it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing.
Sometimes the waters are calm
and sometimes they are overwhelming.
All we can do is learn to swim.