Time and Grief

Most bereaved people are on the receiving end, at some time or other, of comments that suggest that ‘time will heal all wounds’ or encouragement such as, ‘you’ll be fine in a while ‘ or ‘just give it time’.

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Equally, they are frequently on the receiving end of misunderstandings about how long it may take to become familiar with a world profoundly and forever altered and not of their own choosing.

The suggestion that time heals, in my view, does an enormous disservice to the hard work and sometimes overwhelming effort that bereaved people make to adapt to their changed circumstances after the death of a loved one.   It gives time some kind of active participation in the process and makes bereaved people appear to be the passive recipients of time’s healing efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Time is simply something that is measured by clocks and calendars.

It is a convention to measure existence.  Our perception of time is a fluid thing.  Time can go slowly or quickly even seem to ‘stand still.’  We talk about things being timeless.  We can recall things in our past and they can feel as fresh as yesterday or a very long time ago.

However we may understand time, I would suggest it is not an entity that can ‘do’ things.  To suggest that it works on human heartache in a positive healing way is to deny the very active nature of grieving and rebuilding our lives after a death.

The old saying “time heals all wounds” is simply not true.

Parents do not ‘get over’ the death of their child.  There is no amount of time that can pass that will alter the fact that their child has died and that they must continue to live with this unchanging reality.  Time does not stop the ache in hearts nor does it erase the missing of those we love.

Notions of time do however play a part in the grieving process.

Initially for many time will stand still…the rest of the world seems to be getting on with things while the life of the bereaved seems to have stopped.    People often comment on how their sense of time seems distorted.  It can feel like yesterday or forever ago since they did a particular thing.  The death can seem incredibly fresh and yet it can be years since it occurred.

I suspect that this may be because the intensity of grief in the early weeks, with its capacity to fill every available bit of one’s being, carries with it an inability to connect to calendar time – the passage of hours, days, weeks and months seem completely irrelevant.

Once time stops standing still, so to speak, bereaved people may not think much beyond the present day and the recent past.  It is too overwhelming to think about days beyond because that would mean thinking about a future that does not include their child.

Thinking about the recent past generally involves thinking about all that led up to the death as well as focusing on memories so as not to forget.  It is exquisitely painful to think about the many years ahead.  For quite a long time it is simply not possible to think too far ahead.

However, gradually and with tiny baby steps, those who are heartbroken do start to function again.  It becomes possible again to do the shopping, cook meals, go out, take care of surviving children etc.  Time does not do this…YOU DO and frequently with an enormously huge effort.

However, time does provide a different vantage point that enables people to look back and acknowledge the ways in which they have moved from how they were in the beginning, how they may be different in terms of thinking, feeling and doing.  This awareness may boost confidence about survivability and may herald the beginning of regaining a sense of mastery and control over overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

Many of us recognise that after a while, the time in between moments of overwhelming sorrow becomes longer and the time spent feeling overwhelmed becoming shorter.

I would suggest that it is not the passage of time that does this but your own greater familiarity with your grief, your own better ability to ensure breaks from pain and your own greater ability to re-engage with life within your broader social world.  Such capacities usually occur against a background of learning to live with the experience and discovering ways to build a life around the pain of loss.

All of these abilities are actively engaged in by those bereaved, not always consciously, but nevertheless by the bereaved.

I, as a professional Social Worker, Psychotherapist and bereaved mother of an only child am privy to the painstaking struggle that families make to reconnect with life and rebuild their lives.  Time alone does not do this!!!  To think that it does is to take away acknowledgement of all the hard work and frequently painful work done by individuals and families.

As families engage in the tough task of rebuilding, they are further subjected to time constraints placed on them by the outside world.

Most of us have had experiences where others clearly underestimate the amount of time it takes to rebuild and in particular, the time that people continue to feel sad.

We allow more time for people to adapt to workplace change or moving house than we do for grieving people becoming accustomed to a profoundly changed world.

Family and friends, perhaps especially after the death of a child, are often very attentive and caring in the beginning.

For many, such support tends to diminish before the bereaved stop needing it.  Friends and families may think and some directly say it, that it’s time to move on, that you need to get over it, that you have the rest of your lives to think about, other children to pay attention to etc etc

Others may give various forms of “hurry-up” messages.  They want the bereaved person get back to normal and to do so fairly quickly.  Our broader society supports and encourages this notion of a speedy return to pre-existing normalcy as if that were possible.

Bereaved people very simply need to be allowed more TIME to adapt and regenerate.  Time is not the prime ‘doer’…..it is the context within which all grieving and mourning and rebuilding take place.

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with thanks to my colleague Vera Russell

Sadness friend or foe…?

Sadness is one aspect of grief.

The sadness and sorrow after the death of someone central to who we are, is frequently of an overwhelming nature, powerfully uncomfortable and sometimes frightening in intensity.

It is also an emotion that people want to apologise for, thinking it a sign of ‘not moving on’, of weakness and inadequacy.

At its purest, sadness is love in the face of physical absence.

Grieving may be understood as what is experienced as one becomes accustomed to a world forever changed the includes the person who died with a different connection, a non-physical one.

People may die, but our relationships with them do not.

Sadness is, in fact, a useful and necessary emotion.

Leaving aside cultural rules about this emotion, the question may be asked as to what purpose does it serve?…What good does it do?…Why would nature have chosen this emotion?

The emotion of sadness occurs when we have lost someone or something that is important to us, and there is nothing we can do about it.  Sadness turns our attention inward so that we can reflect and think.  It allows a close examination of everything…which is part of what is necessary to rebuild life around the pain of loss.

Sadness slows us down; it slows down our biological systems contributing to withdrawing of attention from the outside world to our inner world.

Moreover, when we are sad, we look sad.  Our face and body language signal to those around us that we may need help, care and compassionate understanding.

We are hard-wired to respond to each other in this way.  We are biologically constructed to respond with care and concern when we see others suffering.

While many of us have been conditioned to perceive sadness as a negative emotion, it is a necessary emotion and has its usefulness and wisdom.

We are expected to be in control of our emotions and while it is important to learn how to ‘dose” ourselves when faced with intense emotions i,e. Get a break from them; it is important not to suppress them, deny or avoid them,

We, in our culture, tend to overvalue reason, logic and the capacity to be rational.  Conversely, the language of the heart tends to be undervalued.

We search and are encouraged to seek quick remedy, relief and recovery.  We don’t like to be vulnerable, out of control.  We tend to keep our intense emotions secret and unseen and may even feel ashamed of them.

We are taught that to give too much room to intense emotions may be a sign of weakness or breakdown.

We turn away rather than toward them because of cultural conditioning and because they can also be frightening.

Grieving people sometimes fear that they will be overwhelmed by emotions like passionate sadness forever.  They may also feel as if they are going crazy because of the intensity and unpredictability of intense sadness.

Our language is full of advice such as ‘get a hold of your self’, ‘get a grip’, ‘stay in control’ amongst many others.

The fear is that overwhelming emotion may be destructive.

We are sometimes encouraged to take medication that will make us feel better.  The focus is on getting rid of strong emotions rather than learning from them.  It may be difficult to believe that having strong, intense emotions acknowledged, listened and attended to, in fact, helps them diminish.

Sadness and sorrow are neither positive nor negative in themselves …it is the way we think about them that is positive or negative.  How we think about things affects how problematic they may become.

Profound and passionate sadness is not a bad thing.  It is the most normal emotion imaginable following the death of a child.  While at the beginning that sadness may fill every inch of your being, it does not stay the same shape and colour for the rest of time.

Feeling emotional pain is not a sign of being sick…it is a sign of having loved deeply.  It is the other side of love and as noted previously plays an important role in rebuilding life around the pain of loss.  It allows an inward reflection on such questions as  ‘Who am I now?’, ‘How am I different?’, ‘What do I need?’, etc. and it acts as a signal to the world around that compassionate care is required.  This care includes the time and space to, for a while, withdraw from our normal concerns.

In spending time with intense and profound emotion, it is possible to discover or renew the capacity for gratitude, joy, faith, courage and compassion.

Healing is a journey through pain not a departure from it.

The purpose of intense emotion is not to make us miserable forever but to help us heal.

with special thanks to my social work colleague Vera Russell

Supporting Grieving Adolescents

fantastic-wallpaper-with-butterflieMany bereaved families may have surviving adolescent children who are mourning the loss of their brother or sister.

This is often new territory both for the teenager and also for the parents trying to work out our best to care for them especially when they are feeling so emotionally depleted.

Some things to think about:

1. Grief is not always visible

Grief is not just the outward display of emotion. It is also the thoughts and behaviours that we experience in response to the death of someone we love.
As adolescents are in the process of becoming more independent of their parents and other important adults, they may at times feel reluctant to show feelings or talk about their thoughts as it can reinforce a sense of dependence and vulnerability. They may also choose to inhibit some of their thoughts and feelings out of a desire to protect their families. They may also prefer to share their experiences with their peer group.

Strategy: Be available

It is when we are listened to and heard is when we feel most understood. Create a home environment where open communication is encouraged. Convey to them that it is okay to have the thoughts and feelings that they may have and that you will be available should they decide to let you know what is going on with them.
As with adults, at the beginning of grief, it is sometimes very difficult to communicate what we are thinking and feeling…it is no less difficult for adolescents who have less life experience than adults and who, when they are feeling vulnerable may find it difficult to put things into words.

2. Don’t try to “fix” the pain associated with grief

It is difficult and uncomfortable for parents to witness the pain of their children. They usually want life to be okay for their children and are pained by what they see and uncomfortable about the helplessness it can create in them. This means that we may want to take away or fix the pain of those we love. This may take the form of avoiding conversation about the person who has died or distracting them from thinking or feeling their pain. While this may be momentarily effective, it can result in the adolescent hiding their grief or withdrawing or expressing their grief in destructive ways.

Strategy: Talk about the loss

Invite the adolescent to talk about the person who died. Encourage questions. Should the teenager not want to talk, respect this. Offer others that they may speak with about their feelings.
Always answer questions honestly and clearly. If you do not know the answer to something, say so. Share your memories, thoughts, beliefs and don’t expect that your teenager will always see things as you do.

3) Understand that grief does not proceed in orderly predictable stages.

Young people grieve in doses. Like with adults, their grief is more likely to go in waves. Sometimes adolescents may have outbursts of grief after a period when they have seemed perfectly okay. Know that this is normal. Their grief like yours, may at times seem unpredictable. They are no better at grieving or making sense of the world than adults. The difference is that they may seem unaffected for periods of time and a burst of emotion can catch parents unawares.

Strategy: Allow for adjustment

Because grief does not proceed in an orderly fashion, teenagers need to be allowed leeway as they adjust to a life forever changed. Providing a secure, consistent environment with predictable routines is important. This helps to generate a renewed feeling of safety and security. Be aware of any danger signs such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, risk-taking behaviour or dramatic changes in personality. Seek help when necessary.

4) Model Healthy Grief

Like all of us, adolescents learn from those around them. They will pick up implicit and explicit messages from those around them on how to grieve. This is how they think they should behave or are expected to behave. They take their cues from important grown-ups in their lives (even if they do not look like they are paying attention).

Strategy: Mourn together

Be aware of the messages that they may be receiving from those around them about how to grieve and offer alternatives when appropriate.
The more adolescents observe healthy communication and the appropriate expression of the many feelings associated with loss, the more likely they may understand, accept and manage the breadth of emotions and thoughts they may have.

Try as much as possible to consider what things might look like from their perspective. Give thought to the closeness of the relationship your teenager shared with their brother or sister. Acknowledge the deep loss it is for them too.

When you can, in the midst of your grief, set aside time, attention and availability for the adolescent. That does not necessarily mean talking about the death but maybe just time spent together doing something that is fun and thereby communicating that they matter and they too are important.

Finally, remember that this is new for all of you and that there will be some trial and error as families become better able to take care of each other.