If you have ever been knocked sideways by an unexpected event – you will know what it feels like to have your life as you know it, utterly shattered. As an estates lawyer I have heard many of my clients describe feeling this way, after the death of a loved one.
If you have ever broken something precious, you will know how devastating it is to look at all the broken pieces laying scattered on the floor. If you have ever broken something that is precious enough to warrant repair, you will know that each broken piece can look quite abstract and putting things back together can be like trying to solve a 3 dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes the pieces don’t quite fit back together, because the break is not clean, because the shatter has splintered off sections that can’t ever be put back.
The art of kintsugi or kintsukuroi
When I travelled to Japan a few years ago, I came across a series of beautiful unique bowls with golden seams running through them. I learned that it was an ancient Japanese art form called “kintsugi” or “kintsukuroi” where each bowl had been repaired using an ancient Japanese method where a broken pottery piece is repaired with a lacquered resin, dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.
Every piece was unique, because each piece had shattered in a different way. The metallic seams looked like scars, in some places thicker than others. Sometimes, where there were pieces missing, the spaces were filled using a piece from another piece of pottery with an entirely different pattern to create a uniquely blended new creation.
I learned that the kintsugi process takes a long time, often several months because of the steps in the process and the drying times that must be allowed for each piece before the next piece can be attached.
This artform celebrates the unique story of each piece by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. It makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original.
What a beautiful analogy this is for our life whenever we feel shattered – it speaks of how we can choose to salvage what is precious, how we can see beauty in the broken and imperfect, how we can own our scars and still function, how we can fill the spaces where broken pieces have gone missing. And perhaps most importantly that the process will take significant time.
Growing around grief
You have probably heard of a counselling “theory” that if grief was represented by a circle – over time that circle would become smaller and smaller in your life until it no longer affected you in the way that it did at the beginning. I prefer the theory “growing around grief” first taught by Dr. Lois Tonkin. It suggests that if your grief is represented by a circle – that circle does not shrink over time, instead, over time you find ways to rebuild your life around that grief. If you have a minute, you can see the model explained in this video. If you have 10 minutes – watch the complete BBC story here.
So, your grief will not ever disappear, but instead you learn to expand your life by doing new things and finding moments of enjoyment. Because of that, there will be times where the “walls” around the circle are not thick, so that even small pressures can bring back the same intense feelings of grief, and why sometimes even years later when the “walls” are thicker, there may still be other events that smash through those walls to those intense feelings. Rather than “getting over” your grief (which you might never really want to do) you instead build your life around it so that the grief no longer dominates your day to day life.
So rather than thinking that in time your grief will diminish, instead use the passing of time to work out how to build the buffers of your new life around your grief. If you build those buffers with a focus on the positives and with gratitude for the good things in your life, they will become like the golden scars seen on a Japanese “kintsugi” bowl.
This analogy breathed new understanding into one of my favourite Ernest Hemingway quotes:
“The world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken places”
If you or a loved one have suffered a recent unexpected event, I do hope you find some resources here on my blog that help you to navigate through the phases of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – to acceptance and some tools to help you begin to vision your “new normal” and help you identify your values so that the decisions you make about how you might begin to build your life around your grief, are based on those values. Just remember that you are not meant to journey this valley alone. Lean on the friends and family who surround you, and seek professional help from a grief counsellor if you feel like you are getting stuck.
As you take steps, however small, to begin to put your life back together I genuinely hope that ultimately you will be able to look back on this time and see that your life has become something of beauty despite forever bearing the scars of your grief.