The grief-time continuum
Updated: Apr 2
What is yesterday? Does it even exist? Does it exist to you as it exists to me? Or it is just different versions of the same light? On a general basis, time might feel generic, but when it comes to grief, time shifts into a completely unique dimension for each of us...
I remember a friend at college telling me that his mother had died the year before we met. By the time of this conversation I had never grieved before, so when he described his loss as having taken place a year ago, all I heard in my head was the past. I remember instinctively assuming that this sad event was history. A year is a long time, after all; plenty of time for things to become the past. So his story did not evoke any concern that perhaps he was in a fragile place. I had no idea.
I touched upon this in my first blog No Plasters, No Books; How to Help Someone Survive the Grief Vortex but I wanted to give the topic it's own focus because I believe this is a major obstacle when it comes to overcoming one of the toughest forms of adversity.
Grief entirely warps the spacetime continuum and creates a paradox where a year is a heartbeat and a day is a year. Before you know it, you are faced with the first anniversary of your loss; then the second, then the tenth and so forth, yet it can feel as though the event took place both yesterday and a lifetime ago. The character Dr Amelia Brand in Christopher Nolan’s Interstella sums it up beautifully: “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
The grief-time continuum, as I like to call it, makes confused time-travellers of us all, capable of losing years. The uncovering of an object that still carries a scent can throw you back to yesterday with a deep longing. A new celebration that brings with it the reminder of an eternal absence can propel you far into the future with fresh dread.
I can still discover something that took place publicly during any one of my grieving years, and only on noting the date, do I realise why it didn't hit my radar at the time. I can still find myself shocked at the release-date of a film that feels like it came out yesterday, because it came out during one of those years, or a conversation that somebody else remembers that has entirely vanished from my memory.
This is, again, one-hundred-percent personal to the griever. It is theirs and theirs alone to experience, wrestle with and resolve. One day, they might arrive back on the same spacetime continuum as everyone else, or they may not. They may always feel like the seconds that make up their day are slightly warped compared to everyone else's.
This seems to be one of the biggest barriers between people who are grieving and people who want to help. Firstly, few individuals acknowledge that the griever has shifted onto the grief-time continuum, assuming that time has healed, or at least has started to. Secondly, people who have never grieved before tend to believe that old saying that time heals. But when your life has been ruptured by loss, you soon discover that time does not heal, it simply hardens us to the pain. We become resilient, that's all, and we keep on going.
Attempts to shift a griever back onto the standard spacetime continuum causes unnecessary strain on an already agonising experience. It’s been a month; you shouldn’t be crying so hard. It’s been six months; you should be back at work. It’s been a year; you should be moving on with your life. It’s been many years; you should be a fully functioning pillar of society by now. You should be able to talk about your loss. You should see a counsellor. You should be kind to yourself. You should, you should, you should. Well, you should fuck off. How about that?
Grief redefines us as much as it redefines our timeline. There is no avoiding it. The only part we may control is whether the redefinition is good or bad, and while choosing good is the only way to truly honour our loss, it's hard! If the griever is still eating, breathing and putting one foot in front of the next each day, who are you to ask them to do better, sooner?
Sometimes, when the rest of the world has moved on, feeling the pain can be a way to stay connected to the loss. If all a person feels they have left is the pain associated with their loss, and they don’t feel ready or even able to let go, that's ok. They may never entirely heal. They may forever be broken or difficult or craggy or uncouth. They may never again return to someone you approve of. At this, you have two choices. You either accept this new version of them, warts ‘n all, or you let them go, and perhaps you may need to grieve that decision.
But if you want to stick around and help, one of the best things you can do is forget about your own conventional idea of time and be mindful of the grief-time continuum. Even better, help the griever be mindful of it too. Remind them that it's ok to still feel raw years after the trauma. Don't pressure them into achieving milestones when it comes to moving forward. Let them stick to their guns and don’t allow others to try to shift them onto the norm. The grief-time continuum highlights how personal and isolating the grieving process is. Let them go at their own pace, even if it takes them forever.