Understanding Grief Using the Ball in a Box Analogy

September 26, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Human beings come from all different walks of life. But one thing that most – if not all – of us have in common is, at some point, we will lose someone we love. This is a sad fact of life. People die. And the rest of us are left behind to mourn them.

It can be hard to describe the experience of grief using words. One analogy that may help you understand it is the “ball in a box” analogy. In this article, we’ll go over this analogy and how you can use it to process your own grief.


What is grief?

Grief is the emotional response to loss. The American Psychological Association defines it as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.”[1]

Although we’ll talk specifically about grieving the death of loved ones in this article, people can experience grief after any type of loss, not just death. For example, we might go through a period of grief after losing a job. We might grieve the loss of our identity after a big life change or a marriage after divorce.

Although grief itself is a universal human experience, every individual grieves differently. Some people may feel crushed by grief or so sad they can’t imagine how their lives will continue. Others may feel numb or in denial about the loss. Others still may try to repress feelings of grief.

There is no “wrong” way to feel while you are grieving. You’ll probably experience a wide range of emotions, from sadness to anger to guilt and even relief. You likely will feel a deep yearning to have the person back, and might even obsessively dwell on the past. The entire range of emotional experiences is to be expected while you’re grieving.


Grief using the “ball in a box” analogy

Grieving someone you’ve lost is painful. In the beginning, you might feel like that pain will last forever.

And that’s true in some ways – there may be a part of you that never “gets over” the loss. You may miss the person you’ve lost forever, and that’s perfectly okay. There is no timeline to grief.

Even if it doesn’t feel that way now, the acute anguish you feel immediately after the loss won’t stay the same forever. The nature of your grief will change with time. But even as time passes, many people still get waves of intense grief. This can be very confusing.

A Twitter user named Lauren Herschel shared an analogy of grief that her doctor shared with her after she lost her mother. Herschel’s analogy, in which she compares grief to a ball in a box, can explain how the nature of grief changes over time and why we can still experience waves of grief even years after the loss.

Using Herschel’s analogy, we can think of grief like a bouncing ball that’s inside of a closed box. The box also has a “pain button” inside of it, which triggers intense emotional pain every time the ball of grief hits it.

The initial stages of grief

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, the ball of grief is huge. It may even take up the entire space of the box. Because the ball is so big, it’s constantly pressing the pain button. Anytime you move the box at all, the pain button gets pressed. The grief ball might even be squeezing against the sides of the box, holding down the pain button continuously.

Because the pain button is being pressed so often, you always feel a heavy sense of grief. The emotional anguish is so intense, it’s hard to ignore. You may cry often. It may be hard to go about your day-to-day life. The big ball of grief takes up all of your emotional space and attention. This is normal. You are trying to make sense of losing someone you love.

During this period, it could feel like this intense pain will never go away. Even if you take care of yourself, the ball of grief is so big that it can’t help but press the pain button. Any little thing, or even nothing at all, can trigger it.

The ball gets smaller

It might feel like the ball will stay this big – occupying the entire space of the box – forever. But it doesn’t. As time passes, the ball of grief gradually begins to get smaller.

There is no timeline for when grief will get easier. Some people may feel the ball of grief start to get a little smaller soon after the loss. For others, this may take months. There is no “right” way to grieve.

As the ball gradually gets smaller, it starts to occupy less and less space inside of the box. This also means that it doesn’t press the pain button as often. It’s still bouncing around, so it will naturally hit the pain button sometimes. But it’s not continuous like it was before. You find some reprieve from the anguish.

You may start to find ways to get back to other aspects of your life. For example, if you have been on bereavement leave from work, you might start thinking about returning to the office. You might start reconnecting with friends, or revisiting places you used to enjoy with the person you lost.

Eventually, with time, the ball may become so small it very rarely hits the pain button. You may have also filled your box with other things – new experiences, friends, identity changes, laughter, and more – which protect that pain button from being pressed as often.

When the grief ball does hit the button, it can be a startling and painful experience. You may have seemingly made “peace” with the loss, only to have your grief triggered by something you see or experience. The grief ball, although it’s now small, hits the pain button, and the grief comes flooding back in a wave. But then, it goes away again, until the next time the pain button gets hit.

This doesn’t mean you’re “over” or have forgotten about the person you lost. It doesn’t mean you no longer miss them or aren’t sad they’re gone. It simply means you’ve reached a state of acceptance. You have moved forward with the loss and have redefined your relationship with the person who died.


How to live with grief

Grief is something we all go through, and the way each of us grieves is unique. You may be grieving for weeks, months, or even years. And the world will never be the same place as it was when your loved one was alive.It’s not about “getting over” grief, it’s about learning to live with it.

Here are some tips on how to live with grief.

Name it

Some people may prefer not to show any outward emotion while they’re grieving, and that’s okay. And your feelings of sadness and anguish may be mixed in with other feelings like resentment or relief. This is all part of the grieving process. The jumble of emotions you feel during this period can be confusing. It can help lessen confusion when you name it: “I am grieving.”

Honor your loved one

Many people find it helpful to create rituals to honor the person who died. For example, you might create a special place for them on their birthday each year (filled with pictures and other memories). You can also honor them by honoring their legacy – what they left behind. What did they teach you while they were alive? And how can they live on, through you, using those lessons?

Talk to someone

It can also help to talk about how you feel with a compassionate person who understands. This might be someone who also knew and loved the person who died. Sharing memories can often be healing. It might simply be a friend you trust. Or it can be a therapist or grief counselor. You don’t need to talk if you aren’t ready. But once the ball of grief starts getting smaller, talking about it could help you begin to make sense of the loss.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we deeply understand that grief isn’t pathological – it’s a normal human experience we all go through. At the same time, grieving someone you love can absolutely impact your mental health. We use a unique Whole Person Care approach in all of our mental health treatment programs. This means we take every aspect of you into account when working with you. If you’ve lost someone you love, we understand the grieving process.

If you need to heal from grief, depression, or anything else, we are here for you.

Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.

[1] https://dictionary.apa.org/grief

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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