Lessons in grief
Working with bereaved clients has taught me that a deeply enduring and difficult aspect of grief is the complicated impact it has on time. Most of us take time for granted. But in loss, what time is and how it is experienced shifts disturbingly.
Not only has the bereaved lost a most significant and important person in their life whom they miss terribly but they have also lost their sense of how to be, their permit to be safe and fulfilled in time and their freedom to live out their happy days.
With the death of a loved one comes the disappearance of psychologically linear time. Time feels weird, lost, disorientating, dislocating, confusing and fluid. People in grief find themselves in a seemingly stuck repetitive loop going over again and again what happened, how it happened. And longingly catching themselves remembering how they used to be when life was uncomplicated and everything was about having a decent enough time. The absurdity of what people say, albeit in a well intended way, strikes hard.
“Oh time heals”, “life goes on”, “you’ll get over it in time”, “you’ll meet someone new in time”. What a societal blindspot we have. The psychiatric and psychological professions have determined what is normal grief, what is major depression and what is delayed or complicated grief, and the timeframes allocated for each seem off. As a society we don’t have compassionate leave laws – how much time you have off depends on your employer and your GP – and we don’t discuss or help or prepare children to cope with bereavement when thousands and thousands of children across the UK will be impacted by loss. How strange. It strikes me that we as a society are heavily involved in pretending that life is always good. That in two years max everybody should be over their losses, because we tell ourselves time heals.
Time doesn’t heal. People heal themselves if they learn how to exist meaningfully in time again. But this is hard and a lot of people get stuck, lost and frightened.
I feel that one of our jobs with grieving families is to help them step into time, think about what matters and think about how they matter. This is by no means easy. In a lot of cases, it is frightening, painful, enraging and totally exhausting. How can they give themselves permission to have time, to enjoy time, to make something happy and joyful of their time when their loved one doesn’t have this.
There is however a choice to be made. Bereaved people have not died. They still have life and with that comes the freedom to choose how to give time meaning or they can turn away, and just count minutes and hours. But what’s the point to that?
Learning to appreciate, nurture and take care of time is a healing step. To pay attention to that which nurtures purpose, nourishes self worth and builds meaning is a key aspect of grief work.
Choosing life. Appreciating that time won’t always be available and the choice to choose well is there.
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Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell is a BPS associate fellow and expert in trauma and loss. Her work in this field has been published and she has more than 15 years experience in clinical practice helping people overcome traumatic life events; adapting to depression, anxiety and loss. Chloe also is a senior lecturer in counselling psychology.