One phrase I heard a lot in the early days following the death of my loved one when my pain was raw was this phrase, “time heals all wounds” or other variations like, “give it time“, “it will get better with time,” “time is a healer” etc. I know most people had the best intentions. However, the phrase sounded stinging and uncaring.
I asked in my head; “so how long will it take for this wound to heal?”, “What does healing from this wound look like?“, “Can someone give me an estimate, so that I know how long I need to brace and endure?”
I also began to hear in my own voice, “Tolu, in time your wound will heal,” like someone standing beside me whispering in my ears.
I have shared my thoughts on what does progress look like in grief? When I thought my grief was linear and could complete the entire grief work in five weeks.
I have also heard the exact phrases repeated to me when the death anniversary of my loved one was near and again in recent times. This got me thinking, and I asked myself the following questions.
Does time truly heal emotional wounds like grief? Does time heal emotional pain? What do they mean by “healing”? Could it be that our interpretation of healing isn’t the same? What role does time play in healing, etc?
Spoiler alert. I don’t have all the answers to my questions, but then I would like to share some of my thoughts based on my experience on what I think about the concept of time healing all wounds.
As we approached the death anniversary of my wife Chidinma, one of the most repeated phrases was, “Oh, it’s one year already, time flies, how are you doing/feeling?” or “I can’t believe it’s one year already” and many other variations. I would scream, “why are most people repeating this?!!!” in my head.
My interpretation of such statements was, “It’s nearly 12 months since the death of your loved one. You should somehow feel better by now. You should have made significant progress with your healing.”
The understanding and concept of time are different for those grieving and those not grieving. We experience it differently even though we have the same 24 hours in a day. I bet that anyone who has experienced grief or grieving is nodding their head in agreement with the above statement. You may scratch your head and wonder, “Tolu, what do you mean by this?”
Let me put it this way: time is faster when you’re having fun. The opposite is true when you’re not. Have you ever sat in a boring meeting or lecture? Have you ever been engaged in a tedious task? Can you remember how time appeared to be slow or dragging?
Better still, have you ever noticed how painfully slowly time passes when you are at a hospital, especially at the A&E? How about when you have a migraine, and you wait for a painkiller to kick in?
It is the same when you are in emotional agony, such as grieving the loss of your loved one. It feels like adding salt to an open wound when I hear someone tell me “time heals all wounds” because, for me, a minute felt like an hour, an hour feels like a day, and days feel like weeks… especially in the first 12 months following the death of my loved one.
It felt like being compelled to a front seat of an endlessly boring movie. The days blur together.
If you’ve followed this blog closely, you may have probably picked up on my passion for reading. I needed to know that I wasn’t going mad and that someone else had a similar experience.
I came across the grief recovery handbook written by John W. James and Rusell Friedmann, which authors brilliantly debunks the concept of time healing all wounds.
The authors said, “The concept that time heals is probably responsible for more heartache than any single wrong idea in our society. The terrible part is, it isn’t true. It’s one of those falsehoods that’s been passed down from generation to generation.“
In one of their seminars, many people showed they were still experiencing pain caused by a death or divorce that occurred over twenty years ago. They believed that time would take care of the pain. They interviewed a woman and asked her if she felt twenty years wasn’t too long to which she replied, “Yes, it is, but I don’t know what else to do.“
I set the book aside to have a conversation with myself. I had an inner dialogue that went like this “would I be able to survive twenty years with this pain?” then I had answered, “well, this woman has carried her pain for twenty years believing time would heal her wound.“
I quickly changed my question to “Do I want to feel these raw emotions for the next twenty years?” My response to that question was dark, and I cannot share that part with you yet. In time I will.
They asked a question, which I also found helped me understand that time doesn’t heal all wounds. “What would you do? If you discovered your car had a flat tire? Would you pull up a chair next to the car and sit and wait for the air to somehow seeped back into the tire?“
Time in itself does not heal all wounds; time is not a healer. Pain is not healed by the passage of time, although it may take the edge off acute pain. We can use time well for healing purposes.
Healing wounds take time, and time is best used when we do something specific with and within it. We take time and shape it to do inner work. Inner work, with courage and honesty, is the key to healing all wounds.
I imagine that you’re wondering, “if time doesn’t heal all wounds, then what role does time play in healing?”
What role does time play in healing?
There are different kinds of times. In English, we use the word time for various things, but there is no apparent difference in how it is used. I will focus on the two main kinds of time; Chronos and Kairos.
For example, the first and most common use of the word “time” is chronological time (the Greeks called it Chronos time). This term refers to clock time, which can be measured as seconds, minutes, hours, and years.
We all live our daily lives with the clock ticking away and everything we do to maintain this pace. It’s planning, tasking, working, busying, completing, etc. Chronos is qualitative. Often Chronos time keeps us moving fast and busy so that we hardly notice what we are feeling.
Our support network of friends and families wants us to get better and often will measure our healing progress based on the outward appearance and activities that someone bereaved engages in. This measure may be false because I know from my personal experience that bereaved people like myself may have applied some filter levels. I will share more on this soon.
Sacred time (Kairos time in the greek). Kairos time is when we slow down and notice what is happening inside and outside of ourselves. It involves paying attention, becoming more mindful, and being open to new experiences. Kairos time is qualitative.
If time heals, it is Kairos time that heals because we are in it with a fuller awareness, rather than being pulled away from ourselves by the clock’s ticking in Chronos time.
If I were to write an equation for what healing from wounds should be, I would write
Grief Healing = kairos time + healing work + continous adaptive support
Losing a loved one forces time to slow down for the bereaved. The days can often blur together. I hope my earlier writings on what you can do in the thick of grief helpful to facilitate your healing as you grieve your loved one. I recommend the below readings.
- How to Accept Your Feelings and Express Your Emotions of Grief with Words
- Why Expressing Your Grief is Essential to Your Healing Journey
- How Do I Accept the Reality of My Loved One’s Death?
- What Does Progress Look Like in Grief?
- Understanding Grief
The different expressions of grief may be different for individuals, but there are some patterns common to each – it hurts, and most of us want to heal.
When it comes to healing, time certainly plays a role. Time may distance some of the pain, sorrow, and other negative emotions associated with an experience, but it is not a healer.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story.
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below? Thank you.