During the winter months when my children were young, I would often set up a jigsaw puzzle on a table in the living room. It would always have at least 1000, often more, pieces. The table would be a place where one or more of us could sit whenever we felt inclined, to sort pieces into piles, or put some pieces into the puzzle.
Occasionally I would stop by the table as I walked past and spot a piece and its perfect space, placing it, then moving on to wherever I had been going as I passed by. Other times I would look over and two of the kids would be sitting quietly but with intense concentration on whatever individual parts they would be working on, sometimes offering advice or a puzzle piece to the other. The table would be a place where we could sit in complete and comfortable silence together, or a place where sometimes the most meaningful of conversations would take place as we worked alongside one another.
As the picture grew, pieces were sometimes found to be in the wrong place, and removed, or moved elsewhere, occasionally the right piece found straight away, or sometimes this left another gap to be filled later.
Some puzzles were completed in only a few days or a couple of weeks, others would take many weeks. Twice we had puzzles that were found to have a couple of pieces missing and this would create immense dissatisfaction for us all. Even then, I would find it impossible to throw the puzzle away for the sake of one or 2 missing pieces and would sometimes forget when I brought it out in another year. Once, on a second around, the puzzle with missing pieces the year before was now found to be complete.
As I began working more with people who had experienced the death of a loved one, I would find the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle in relation to the journey of grief to be really helpful. Exploring grief as an ongoing journey in the creation of a new picture for the future, and for today was a way to explain finding a new ‘normal’. It could be a messy journey that sometimes frustrated with so much out of order, and sometimes delighted with the finding of a piece, or memory that delighted. Most of all it was a very individual journey.
No two people put the same pieces down in the same order or the same way. Some look for all the edges and carefully place a frame. Others select randomly. Others sort. The purpose is a new picture, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish. It doesn’t even matter, at the end if one or two pieces are missing. The new picture sometimes looks like this, spaces that feel empty and can’t be filled. It might be the case that one day in the journey the piece for that spot becomes obvious.
Sometimes it is very obvious what each piece represents, whether it is fear, or anger, or sadness. Other times it is just another piece in the journey and it feels lousy, but it doesn’t need a name. Sometimes the puzzle has 1000 pieces and takes a few weeks or months. Sometimes it has 100,000 pieces and will take many years. As long as new pieces keep being placed, both of these are okay.
Some people need to work on the puzzle alone and find helpful advice from others to be annoying and distracting. Other times, having someone sit beside, helping to identify the parts of the journey, or just sit in silence brings great peace.
Eight years into our journey since our son died from cancer, I sometimes think the puzzle is nearly complete, and other times there seems to be so many gaps. A piece of delightful memory will catch me by surprise one morning then a piece of disbelief and sadness later in the week. There is no ‘right’ way for our picture to look. No one way to put all the pieces in place, and no timetable for when it has to be complete..