Dr. Lois Tonkin, in her 1996 article Growing Around Grief: another way of looking at grief and recovery, tells the story of being in a workshop with a mother whose child died years before. The woman made a sketch to express to the group how she expected her grief to progress contrasted with how it actually unfolded. In the article, Tonkins shows three figures based on the sketch. The first two show how she expected grief to unfold.
Figure 1 represented her life, and she shaded it in because in the beginning her entire life was filled with and by her grief.
Figure 2 what she imagined would happen as time passed. She believed her life would remain the same size, but with time her grief would become smaller. This is not what happened.
But she created a third figure, one that she felt represented the way that her grief actually unfolded:
In this figure, her grief is exactly the same size as it was to start. But her life around it is larger. The grief and loss never felt smaller, but her life slowly felt bigger. It grew around her loss. Her grief was always there, as large as ever, and she still spent time within it. As her life had slowly expanded around her loss, she was now able to experience life in the larger part of the circle as well. With this, the ‘Growth Around Grief’ concept was born.
This is a far cry from the many complicated grief theories and models that we have written about here before. It captures a single, simple-but-remarkably-relatable feeling that resonates with many grievers. If you have ever felt that your grief was not shrinking, but rather you were just learning to live with it, for your life to grow with and around it, this may be just the theory you have been looking for. You go to new places, meet new people, try new things. You may not want to, but life gives you little choice. That grief is still there, with life expanding around it. As Robert Frost famously said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on”.
Tonkin’s Growing Around Grief Model, Interpreted
Though we deeply appreciate the images in the original 1996 article, they leave a little something to be desired. This simple theory has captured the hearts of many grievers over the years and we have loved seeing the way this concept has been reinterpreted in other ways.
The Ralph Site, a website and social media community dedicated to petloss, expanded the idea using jars. I love this depiction, as it captures the space that exists in our lives to be filled alongside grief.
Another depiction we found absolutely stunning is from an artist Amanda Carillo on TikTok. She created a beautiful video that describes Tonkin’s idea, while she paints her own expression of her grief with her life growing around it.
Another depiction we love is from Cruse Bereavement Care, one of the largest bereavement charities in the UK. They show this image as a plant that continues to grow, while the grief itself remains the same size. Though I am not sure it is intentional, I love that in this depiction the grief is almost like a bulb or root. It is not simply something that life grows around, but perhaps something that is integrated within the life that grows around it.
This has me thinking of how WYG might depict this concept and we hope it has you thinking creatively too. Not everyone will connect with this theory. Like all grief theories, it works for some and not others. You can take what is useful and leave the rest. If this one resonated with you and you want to create your own depiction of it, send it our way! We would love to share some other creative depictions of Tonkin’s Growth Around Grief model!