Growing Around Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa

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.


My interpretation of this model. Picturing this in my head has been helpful. #watercolor #artistsoftiktok #therapytiktok #griefandloss

♬ Only in My Dreams - The Marías

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!

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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22 Comments on "Growing Around Grief"

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  1. Dee  February 24, 2023 at 3:56 pm Reply

    I had 2 very unhappy marriages then met my soulmate at 48 years old. 4 years later, nearly to the day I met him he died suddenly of a heart attack.

    It’s been 4.5 years and I feel it as if it were yesterday. My therapist advised me to read this article and it’s a relief to know I’m not expected to ‘get over it’ because I never will. What I can do is continue to build a love around it. Thank you.

    • Jerry  July 3, 2023 at 10:50 pm Reply

      It’s hard. You will never feel relieved as will I. I lost my wife and she is an angel. As r u.

  2. Rudy  January 1, 2023 at 10:15 pm Reply

    This article hits the very core of my grief. Thank you for posting this. I hope to share it with my grieving friends as well. Love and Light

  3. Map Your Healing Journey  June 6, 2022 at 6:45 am Reply

    […] a video that explains it, as well as an in-depth article about the Growth Around Grief […]

  4. Ginny Williams  October 29, 2021 at 1:41 pm Reply

    I too am a grieving widow of just five months. I can understand just how you feel. I’m sorry you are having such a hard time. My husband and I were high school sweethearts and had almost 55 years of marriage. Missed it by three months. I feel I’ll never lose this grieving, but hope in time it lessens.

  5. Liz  October 12, 2021 at 4:48 am Reply

    It is 58 weeks since my husband died. I am still finding it difficult to get through each day. I knew it would be difficult but I had no idea how raw the pain would be. I have a lovely family who support me even though they are grieving too – but they don’t break the ‘bubble’ I have around me. I don’t know how I can live like this, I was so sure I would always feel him close but I don’t.

  6. Martin K.  September 29, 2021 at 8:47 am Reply

    I was a middle child of 3. One sister and a brother. I lost my sister 16 years ago when I was 20 she was 13. Now, just a few days ago I lost my only sibling left my older brother. I’m 37 now, he was 39. My wife who I still love got a divorce and left a year ago now won’t even pick up my calls. My mom’s in her 3rd year fighting breast cancer and still going through chemotherapy and my dads life expectancy has no promise of tomorrow living with diabetes and overall bad health. Now everyday when I get home from work I sit in my room and my mind starts to wonder off about everything that’s happened but one thing that I’ve always feared and that one thing that really gets to me is the thought of being left all alone soon. I don’t really know what to do but just keep breathing.

    • Sunshine  October 6, 2021 at 12:56 am Reply

      So sorry to hear about your losses. I am also a middle child and lost my younger brother in 2016 then my cousin almost a year later as well as my older brother. I also had a miscarriage and was told I had cancer right in the middle of all this. I completely understand your fear of being left alone. It’s overwhelming and the emotions are intense. I just wanted to reach out and let you know you are not alone in experiencing such losses! I have good days and still bad days but feel the good days are slowly happening more often.

  7. Carol  August 25, 2021 at 6:28 pm Reply

    I lost my brother a week ago. We were very close . Everybody is going on with their life and I can’t stop thinking of him and crying and just missing him terribly. I know he’s pain free now and in the Lords hands, but when I’m alone and not doing anything it upsets me that he’s not here. I’m with him over 70 years and now he’s gone. I try to keep busy but I do have to rest. Need some peace of mind

  8. Rosalind  July 12, 2021 at 11:35 pm Reply

    I have been reading different comments from the people who lost their loved one and I am relating to them. I have three children they’re grown to daughters and one son on May 3rd of 2021 I lost one of my daughters the 2nd oldest daughter I never felt so angry heartbroken devastated just totally messed up just can’t wrap my brain around it I don’t have no acceptance whatsoever but I have been talking to her. I hope I am not going crazy I look at her Facebook page I even have a picture of her in her casket I look at that too I am an emotional wreck she left behind two children 12 y/o son and 4 y/o daughter she won’t get to be a grandma or see them graduate or get married etc and I start crying grief grief grief it’s hard for me I am just broken

  9. Pamela  June 29, 2021 at 3:21 pm Reply

    I lost the love of my of 32 years 8 years ago. It was never the length of time but the quality of our relationship. I am struggling,STILL. I miss everything and find myself dreaming of him and waking up to a reality that he is still gone. I find myself driving down the road and flash thought of why hasn’t he called me today..I have to tell myself again he is gone. I dont go to his grave hurts way to much and reminds me of what I no longer have. I am over whelmed with thoughts about how many times he showed me what I meant to him. How loved I truly was, how much I loved him. So, now that 8 years have passed and telling him to go on Valentines Day as my final gift to him as he was suffering it us all i had left to give him, freedom from pain. I did… yet I suffer here without him!

    • Joan  July 26, 2021 at 7:58 pm Reply

      Pamela, thank you for sharing. I resonate with all you shared. I lost the love of my life over 5 years ago. I agree that the depth of grief is related to the quality of the relationship. Today, as I was just washing dishes I was hit with such sharp pain of her absence & the missing felt unbearable so I just sobbed for a while. Like you, my anniversary gift to her was letting her stop every measure and die because her suffering was extraordinary for over 4 months in an ICU. I still can’t get over the fact that was my anniversary gift to her.

  10. Carmen  June 23, 2021 at 7:02 pm Reply

    Working with grieving families, I liken grief to having a puppy. At first, it is all-consuming. Everything you do revolves around the puppy: potty-training, feeding, exercising, socializing, making sure she has everything she needs to grow and move and be content in life. You love her so much you feel life your heart might burst from all the joy you contain!
    As time goes on, the puppy becomes a dog. You have learned each other’s routines and triggers. You care for your dog, but she no longer takes all of your concentration. You don’t love her any less than you did when she was new, the love is something that you carry all the time – it is no longer constantly overwhelming. It’s still hard sometimes, but there’s a shift over the years in how to approach it.

  11. Dan Zwicker  June 9, 2021 at 8:30 pm Reply

    I agree with your model.

    We never stop grieving.

    However, we can distract ourselves through interests and activities that we enjoy.

    Your website is excellent!

    Thank you.

    Dan Zwicker
    Toronto, Canada

  12. Toby  June 8, 2021 at 1:59 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. I lost my husband in April. He loved gardening and taking care of the yard. The last year, I found he had been collecting small rocks from the yard that he found interesting. I initially thought it kind of “cute” but silly. Since his passing, I have those “cute” rocks as on of the things I think about that brought him simple joy. I’ve been trying to think what I can do with them to honor his memory. This article has given me an idea to add my own rocks to his collection as I continue to live my life. Maybe a little rock for each milestone I have without him or one from each new place I discover without him. In time, my collection may become larger than his collection, but his collection will always be the core of my collection. Reminding me that life moves on, that my grief for him will never diminish, and that he is very much a part of who I am.

  13. Gary B  June 8, 2021 at 10:42 am Reply

    I am only 3 years in but I can feel myself starting to become more of that sunnyside egg feeling in # 3.
    My grief is always there-not a moment or situation goes by without it hitting me and it always will.
    But while life goes on and things seem to improve around it- its always and I know it will always be there.
    It to me signifies the love that I/we had as you never really stop grieving.
    Things just move around you and you get better at masking it and realizing the happy times and moments have taken the place of the last tragic months/days that seemed as if they would never leave.
    They have-it took a little over 2 years to eliminate them.
    I dont know if thats fast or slow-good or bad- but its been me.

  14. pauline Stacey  June 8, 2021 at 9:15 am Reply

    this so resonates with me.. 18months on, dh died, after 50 years of togetherness.. well
    thank you for this.. I haven`t gone through , well not much, the “guilty” phase that is mentioned, but had a touch of it, and surely this helps assuage that..

  15. Alexis SPICECALDER.  June 8, 2021 at 8:06 am Reply

    Six years in October 21 my hubby who I had known since I was 13 years old & we had been married for 53 years passed away, 5 months & 5 days later my 43 year old son also passed.I can not seem to come to terms with this.I have 1 other son who has turned into a control freak,demanding that I let him take care of my finances,had control of my “P.O.A.” & I had to move to a warden assisted flat, I said NO so until I say yes” which I never will! I do not see him now. This has been too much for me to cope with.I just go from one day to another. I have had counselling & was told until I accept their loss I can not move on. I feel that I will never accept it,so where do I go from here.

    • Sue  August 23, 2021 at 10:44 pm Reply

      We don’t “move on” from grief. We move forward with it. Check out Nora McInerny on YouTube. Her Ted talk is awesome and hopeful.

  16. Ghazala Khan  June 8, 2021 at 7:52 am Reply

    I still feel deeply the loss of my beloved sister to cancer now 16 months ago. The pain of losing her still hits me hard on some days and sometimes I feel that the more time that passes since her loss the more I feel deeply the sadness of her being gone from us
    As more time passes can the grief of the loss of a loved one become deeper?



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