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

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