Think “Ball in the Box” When You Cope with Grief

By Ian DeHaven

One week ago from the time of writing this, I was not happy, to say the least.

I thought I failed a test. I was waitlisted at one of my top schools. I was bickering with some of my friends over things that were ultimately my fault. As far as I was concerned, it was not “my day,” and would not be “my day” for a long time.

I had no way to think about all these stressors that were upsetting me other than that they dominated my focus - all throughout the day, at random times. My brain was the venue for a “Wheel of Mis-Fortune” game, with contestants spinning a wheel to decide what would aggravate me next. I had no apparent control on what bothered me, and sought out some sort of explanation for the things I was feeling.

Enter the “Ball in the Box” metaphor for grief. First posted on Twitter by Lauren Herschel (@LaurenHerschel), the “Ball in the Box” is a way to not only visualize grief, but also to explain why it seems so impossibly random.

The main components of Mrs. Herschel’s metaphor, first explained to her by her doctor, are as follows: there is a box, a ball inside, and a “pain button” that triggers sadness or stress whenever it is pressed by said ball.

Diagram by Ian DeHaven

Diagram by Ian DeHaven

When something negative first happens to somebody, the ball inside their box is enormous, explains Herschel. It is impossible to move the box around without triggering constant button presses and pangs of hurt.

Seem desperate? Don’t worry, the ball gets smaller over time as one works through their sadness and pain, and the button is pressed less accordingly. Stress and hurt are experienced less often, but with the same intensity and strength as the beginning - making it easier to “function day to day” but harder to cope with infrequent, unexpected button presses. The smaller ball and reduced pain frequency also allows those affected by grief to recover for longer of periods of time, wrote Herschel.

Reading this simple yet effective description, I was trapped in thought on my Twitter feed. Explanations and solutions for problems so enveloping were sitting in front of me in the easily digested form of a box and a ball. I let my foolishness wash over me only for a moment, and set to work righting my wrongs.

I first identified what all of the parts of this metaphor meant for me - the box was me, and the pain button was my emotions, of course. The ball was representative of stress triggers that I held all the power to stop: I spoke to my math professor to ease my nerves about the possibly failed test, I began my continued interest statement for my top school that waitlisted me, and I poured myself into and sent apologies to people, planning to make others if anything else came up.

The “Ball in the Box” school of thought helped me picture, identify, and put to explainable words what was bothering me, all based on “the size of the ball.” I was able to focus on specific factors bothering me, helping me in the process of healing and relief. I spoke clearly and intelligently about the problems that faced me, and resolved them faster than if I just “simmered down” as per usual.

Next time your day is iffier than normal, or something is giving you trouble, consider labelling your problems in terms of a box, a ball, and a pain button. It’s certainly an unusual way to think about the things that stress us, but in times so hectic as high school, the “Ball in the Box” can afford all of us much needed moments of tranquility and clarity everytime things fall apart and “our day” seems distant in the horizon.