Three jars and three golf balls helped me visualize something I’d felt but didn’t quite understand. Christian neuroscientist and neuropsychologist Dr. Caroline Leaf explained that grief is like the ball in each of the jars.
In the smallest jar, the golf ball takes up almost all the space — as does our grief when we lose someone, or we face a devastating loss. It nearly fills us with its ever-present feelings. We shed tears that come without warning, or we often cannot think of anything besides the one who is no longer here. Even our sleep is plagued by dreams of sorrow and loss.
With time, grief takes up less space — it’s still there. In fact, as Dr. Leaf explained, it hasn’t changed — it’s us who have changed. We’ve grown around it — it takes up less room in our souls.
The ball in the largest jar is the same grief — but taking a fraction of the space. It can still be felt — ask anyone who has lost a child, a spouse, a sibling, or someone so loved that life is never the same. Life isn’t the same. The golf ball-sized grief remains the rest of our days. Grief doesn’t get smaller; we just get bigger.
In this season of celebration, I have a friend who just lost her husband of nearly 41 years. Cancer came quickly and didn’t even give them one final Christmas or wedding anniversary. Her jar is full.
Another friend recently lost his spouse to a different, but devastating disease, and just as heartbreaking — his jar is full.
Live long enough and you’ve got a golf ball of grief. It is there and sometimes a season like Christmas will remind you of the one who no longer shares it with you.
Yet, I have another friend who lost her husband of many decades after a 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis. In the seasons since his passing, she began illustrating many children’s books and enjoys volunteering for storytimes at schools.
Another young mother not only lost her husband and young son, but also her brother and nephew in a horrific car accident several years ago. She now holds an annual Family Day Celebration — honoring all their birthdays. She gets sponsors for a bouncy house and fun activities and the people in her town come together for a day to honor not just those who’ve died but celebrating life and making memories now. Her grief is still there; she’s just gotten bigger.
It is the passing of time that brings healing — and for those who’ve emerged from it with bigger jars, they can use their loss in new ways. They can honor their memories by helping others. “The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). This is just one of the ways God uses our suffering for His glory. For those who have grieved deeply, they can offer compassion with a depth of understanding that’s authentic.
It is the familiarity of Christmas that reminds us of our own journey, and the many seasons we have celebrated surrounded by those we love. Now imagine that you can no longer have the one you loved beside you. You are now in the smallest jar — when the golf ball of grief is heavy and takes up almost every thought. This is not a time of celebration, yet everywhere you look there are reminders of joy. This is a new, painful, lonely and bleak season to live through. How can you even begin to cope?
For those who are facing their first Christmas alone, this is our opportunity to offer that comfort. It’s a season to give extra kindness, love and spend time in ways that can make a difference for those who only have memories to cling onto. Their jar may be feeling very full.
Even though we cannot change the circumstances of those who have lost a loved one, we can offer hope in a restorative way. If it’s too hard to call the person, we can send a letter with words of comfort. We can offer to run errands, wrap gifts, mail packages, or bring a warm meal. We can sit and listen to the stories about the one they’ve lost, or perhaps it was their business that failed, or a heartfelt relationship that is severed. It’s not our advice that’s needed, but our presence. For we take with us the Holy Spirit, and it is His presence within us that brings the most comfort.
Ask God to guide you into their grief and offer the portion of help they may need for that day. Then ask to help again. Try to send a message each day. Visit as you can. Allow them to see your light of hope and eventually, and prayerfully the joy of the Lord will be their strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
As we comfort the grieving, we can assure them with God’s promises that he above all knows how deep their pain goes. “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8). We can offer them our prayers as we are with them. Allow them to hear our words spoken in faith through our Savior, Christ. This is the season when we can assuredly point to all the glittering lights and the songs of Christ’s birth and proclaim its truth. This is a season when grief may help bring someone to see the depth of God’s love amid suffering.
As a reminder of those living with deep loss, I put a new decoration on my tree — a small jar with a golf ball inside. As I look at it, I’ll be praying for the hurting hearts this season — and looking for ways to help make their season one of healing, hope and restoration. While we know we cannot take away the ball of grief, with God’s love working through us we can help those we care for grow bigger through it.
Karen Farris saw the need to help underserved kids while serving in a youth ministry that gave her the opportunity to visit rural schools on the Olympic Peninsula. She now volunteers her time grant writing to bring resources to kids in need. She also shares stories of faith in action for those needing a dose of hope on her weekly blog, Friday Tidings.www.fridaytidings.com