What Does It Mean to ‘Grow Around Grief?’


Losing a loved one is one of the most heartbreaking and traumatic experiences in life, and no amount of time completely heals the void left behind by their absence despite our best efforts. 

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The concept of growing around grief challenges the idea that time heals all wounds. Instead of waiting for a magical moment when the pain of suffering ends, this model of grief suggests that as an alternative to moving forward from grief, we grow our life around it—learning to fill in the missing pieces with new experiences that formulate layers around existing despair.

This simple concept of how bereaved individuals process sorrow shows life expanding around traumatic experiences that never go away. And, instead, suffering forever remains a part of who we are while allowing a continuation in life’s journey centered around it. Growing around grief lessens the overall expectation of needing to heal from loss or that grief is something that eventually disappears. 

What’s the 'Growing Around Grief' Model?

The growing around grief model is another way of examining how a bereaved person experiences grief and recovery. This theory concludes that specific grieving individuals benefit from the relief of the expectation that their grief eventually goes away.

Instead of focusing energy on resolving their suffering, this model suggests that their grief remains the same while their lives grow around the grief. In this model, a bereaved individual can expect to continue living, meeting new people, and eventually regain hope and a renewed sense of purpose. 

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Dr. Lois Tonkin’s growing around grief model challenges the idea that time heals all wounds. In her model, taken from a conversation at a workshop on how one woman expressed her grief experience represented by a series of circles. 

Dr. Tonkin suggests that not everyone eventually heals from their loss and that time doesn't heal all wounds for every bereaved person. From this conversation, she developed a new theory on how individuals mourning a significant loss think about and grow from their grief-related experiences. 

The suffering woman sketched three circles of how grief affected her. In each one, she described how she experienced grief in contrast to how she expected to cope with her loss after her child's death. The bereaved individual soon realized that what she went through was significantly different from how she anticipated moving through her grief. 

Her sketch became the basis for Dr. Tonkin's later development of the egg theory or growing around grief model in the late 1990s. She encourages those affected by a loss to develop a new life around their grief. Her approach is that bereaved individuals continue integrating their loss within their life as they find ways of moving forward. 

How it works

The three circles making up the growing around grief model represent different stages of the grief experience. The first circle, completely shaded, represented the bereaved mother’s level of grief. She colored the entire circle to represent how grief consumed every aspect of her life, leaving no room for any other experience.

The second circle she drew depicted her view of what she thought the grieving process to be. She drew a small shaded circle representing her grief within a larger circle representing her life. She mistakenly understood that her suffering would eventually diminish as her life returned to a new normal following loss. 

The third circle represented how her grief happened. She drew the shaded grief circle as big as the first one within a larger circle representing her life. Only, this time, the unshaded circle was still more prominent, but her new life's experiences didn't diminish her grief as she once thought. Instead, her grief remained the same, and her life adjusted to the size of her pain and suffering. 

Examples of What ‘Growing Around Grief’ Might Look Like

Growing through grief experiences comes in many different ways depending on the types of grief and loss suffered. For a person stuck in their grief, this might look like allowing themselves to experience small pleasures in life without feeling guilty or that it's otherwise disrespectful of the memory of the person who died. 

Another way a person grows through grief is by accepting that their loved one has died. Acknowledgment that they'll always carry the pain of that loss with them for the rest of their lives includes recognizing their loved one's death and the feelings of grief don't mean that they can't go on living, but that they'll have to work at continuing in life despite their suffering. 

How Does the Growing Around Grief Model Compare to Other Models of Grief?

There are different ways of understanding what a bereaved individual goes through in the grieving process. Most models of grief postulate a series of stages leading to healing or moving through grief as time passes. The growing around grief model is a simple way of looking at how a person experiences the extraordinary pain and suffering of losing someone they love. Here are some popular grief models and how they describe the mourning process. 

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Five Stages of Grief

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief model suggest that bereaved individuals experience grief in distinct stages: shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She proposes a linear process to make up how bereaved individuals move through grief before moving on past their losses. Although this is one of the foundational grief models, modern research in psychology suggests that not everyone experiences grief in such a straightly defined process. 

Four Tasks of Mourning 

William Worden’s four tasks of mourning include going through a series of experiences in no particular order for as long as is needed to heal from the trauma of loss. The four tasks, remembered by the acronym TEAR, are:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss
  2. Experiencing the pain of the loss
  3. Adjusting to a new life without your loved one in it
  4. Reinvesting in the new reality or continuing the bonds with the deceased 

Rando’s Six R’s process of mourning

Dr. Rando's six r's process breaks down the mourning process into six categories or states of experiencing loss. They include recognizing the loss, reaction to the separation, recollection of the trauma, relinquishing past attachments, readjusting to life after loss, and reinvesting in one's future post-loss. 

Dr. Rando also lists two categories of loss as physical and psychological aspects and stresses the need to work through these experiences as they come up in the bereavement process. 

The Dual Process of grieving

Margaret Stoebe and Henk Schut came up with this theory in 1995 that states that bereaved individuals suffer through grief in two ways. One way is by focusing on the loss and the things that make them think about or remember their loved one who died. The other is a restoration-oriented process that permits the bereaved a break from thoughts of the deceased. 

Although these breaks are temporary, they allow a grieving individual to focus on rebuilding their lives and healing from their grief. They suggest that a person oscillates or goes back and forth between these two stages of mourning when dealing with their grief. 

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How Can You or a Loved One Use the Growing Around Grief Model?

Every person who's suffered through loss will eventually learn how to negotiate their recovery. What works for one person isn't one size fits all. The growing around grief model doesn't work for everyone, and you shouldn't feel disappointed if it isn't for you or your loved one.

There are multiple ways of dealing with grief to get to a better place mentally and emotionally. Consider the following tips to see if this model works for you or a loved one. 

Stay in touch

Grief work involves a lot of inner soul searching. Whether it's you who's suffered through catastrophic loss or your loved one who needs comfort from grieving, keeping in touch with people who support you is crucial. 

You don't have to stress yourself over saying the right thing, and you also shouldn't expect others to know how to help you. Learn to be a good listener when needed, and reach out to others as you find necessary. Talking about your experiences helps to learn, understand, and grow from grief. 

Offer practical support

Grieving individuals need more than emotional support. And, they also need a reprieve from everyday tasks that require their time and energy. Grief takes up a lot of effort from a bereaved person, leaving them with little to nothing extra to give to anyone or anything else. 

Where applicable, lend a hand with the household chores, errands, or babysitting. If you're the one needing it, don't be afraid to ask for help. Freeing up someone's time from these daily chores gives them more opportunity to focus on rebuilding their lives after loss. 

Keep an open mind

Not everyone’s grief experiences will be the same. Individuals mourn their losses in unique ways while evidencing some commonalities. Your loved ones may deal with their pain and sorrow in ways that don't make sense to you. Even so, remember that what they’ll need most from you is your unconditional support as they learn to cope with their feelings and emotions. 

You can talk about what they’re going through and how their experiences fit into this model’s concept of growing around their grief. You can start with some basic questions to get the conversation going. Try asking:

  1. How did your grief fit into your life this week?
  2. How do you see yourself growing from this experience?
  3. What was the worst part of your pain today?

Tonkin’s Egg Model of Grief Recovery

Eventually, everyone who's suffered through traumatic loss will start to feel better from the onset of grief. A bereaved person's healing trajectory might not always look familiar or the same as anyone else's, but the expectation that one day their pain and sorrow will ease remains. The egg model of grief recovery permits the bereaved to be OK with their grief and rid themselves of the expectation that it'll go away completely one day. 

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