Growing around grief

The idea of ‘growing around grief’ is one that many people have found helpful in recent years. It may help you see a more hopeful future for yourself, without the pressure to ‘move on’.

What is growing around grief?

While working as a counsellor in the 1990s, Dr Tonkin spoke to a woman whose child had died many years ago. The woman explained that at first, her grief filled up every part of her life. She drew a picture, like the one below, to explain this.

She had expected her grief to get smaller over time, as did Dr Tonkin. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead of her grief getting smaller, her life got larger, like in this second diagram.

Two illustrations side by side. The first has a yellow circle with a small white circle just visible around it. The second shows the same yellow circle, only the white border has grown bigger.

There were moments her grief was just as painful as the time immediately after her child’s death. But there were also times she was able to feel she was living outside of her grief, experiencing new things and creating new parts of her life.

Dr Tonkin remembered this explanation when supporting other clients, and felt it more accurately described many people’s experiences. She developed this way of thinking (sometimes called a model) of ‘growing around grief’ and wrote about it so that others could get comfort and understanding from it.

I think as a society we need to understand grief more. Everyone deals with it in their own way. I won’t leave my husband behind but I won’t let being a widow define me.

Read Dottie's story on Grief Guide

Sue Ryder's Bianca Neumann explains more:

Understanding Tonkin’s Model of Grief

When someone dies, many of us have ideas about how we might feel and for how long. These might be based on what people have said to us in the past or the way that grief is presented in books, TV or social media.

For example, it’s common to talk about the stages of grief or say things like “time heals all wounds”. You might feel you are expected to “get over it”. But many people do not find these ideas helpful.

This might be because:

  • They suggest we will all follow one straight forward path, at the end of which we feel ‘normal’ again, something that very few people experience.
  • It can feel like we are being asked to forget that person, how they died or our relationship (good or bad) with them.
  • It can feel like we are expected to reduce their importance in our life, something that feels impossible or like we are betraying them.

‘Growing around grief’ is a different way of thinking about our lives after someone has died.  One that helps us see a meaningful and happy future, without pushing away our grief.

Grief is a journey – a journey without an end. You just have to keep moving forward and take the person that’s passed away along with you.

Read Debbie's story on Grief Guide

The idea of saying goodbye to mum is something I have never liked. That said, I would like to share with you something my mum’s friend from school told me. She said it was important to remember that mum isn't going to just vanish into thin air since she died. Instead, she is just 'going around the corner'.

Read Naomi's story on Grief Guide

Do we grow around grief? How accurate is this model?

No one person’s situation and relationships are the same, and so everyone experiences grief differently. The idea of growing around grief is just that, an idea. A way of framing your experience. If you would prefer to think of your grief differently, that’s ok.

What is true for everyone, is that they should have the opportunity to feel better, to find joy and meaning after a bereavement.

This might be through:

  • having new experiences
  • making new friends
  • learning new skills
  • finding contentment or ‘making peace’ with the way things are.

You might think of this as growing around your grief, or you might think of it as a return to normal. It’s up to you.  

If you are struggling to see that future for yourself, we can help. Take a look at our online bereavement information or explore our online bereavement services.

I think that time does heal. There are probably less triggers now that I’m three years down the line, but they still pop up now and again, often when you least expect.

Read Lee's story on Grief Guide

Who was Lois Tonkin?

Dr Lois Tonkin was a grief counsellor, researcher, lecturer and writer.

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The death of someone can be overwhelming and you may feel a mix of emotions. There are things you can do and people who can support you through your bereavement.
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We explore the stages of grief theory in more detail, focusing on how it was developed and why it isn't truly reflective of the grieving process.
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How long does grief last?
There’s no timetable for how long grief lasts or how you should feel. On this page we explore “How long does grief last?” and the “grief timeline”.