We tend to lead our lives trusting that each day will follow after the next, putting one foot in front of the other. We track events on calendars and apps, sometimes crossing them out as they pass. The labels we use — minutes, hours, months, years, past, present, future — point to a baseline assumption that life follows a linear sequence in units of measure. Most of us prefer this predictability and value its routine and it seems this framework serves us quite well when our experiences flow relatively smoothly. We take this conceptualization of time in relation to our lives for granted. We trust it because it makes enough sense to keep us steadily moving forward along this collective continuum. That is, until…
…a catastrophic event occurs. When this experience involves the loss of a close loved one, we struggle to describe its implosive impact. We use terms like “shattered”, “devastated”, and “total wreck” to indicate how we suddenly shift from being an intact whole to “going to pieces.” The circuits of our psyches may become so overwhelmed and compromised that we can barely think straight and function. We often find ourselves in a frozen state. This is a normal — and healthy — physiological coping response to extreme stress.
This suspended animation is nature’s way of helping us survive the trauma and this "freeze" reaction is often our first before we can even entertain “fight or flight” and definitely before we can face the profound shock and internal disorder. Then slowly, gradually, as we sink into and move with our grief, we may be surprised as we encounter many unusual chances to gain striking new insights and learn lessons about what really matters to us. There is wisdom in grief.
My impression is that such a major loss also does something really wild to our experience of time — it suddenly warps, collapses, folds and doubles back. It stretches and races and sputters. It stops and starts — one moment it's flying by, the next it's standing still, and then out of nowhere it abruptly jolts backwards and pins us under a burst of vivid memory. The tick-tock of the clock turns into erratic rhythms as if we’ve been flung into a misfiring time machine.
Lost and Found
Alternate theories about time abound and include exploring it as an independent, relative, cyclical, repetitive or subjective phenomenon, as an illusion, or as a complex time/space dimension. I can’t pretend that my knowledge on this topic extends further but that won’t prevent me from speculating!
Could it be possible that grief holds secrets about time? That, during those instances of extreme undoing we perceive time more clearly? Or could it be that grief is so powerful that it warps time — suddenly standing still to further amplify an intense moment, or racing along in a blur, or staggering chaotically back and forth between the past, present, and future.
In another sense, it seems that grief creates a “stickiness”, in that the event’s energy adheres it in some way to the phenomenon of time so the memories continue to manifest again and again, clear as a bell?
We’ve come to incorporate Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Phases of Grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — into our essential understanding of the healing process. Since the introduction of her original ideas fifty years ago, they have been interpreted and adjusted to allow for a bereaved individual to shuffle, blend, skip and repeat phases rather than going through them in linear progression. This accommodation is grounded in respect for each person’s uniqueness. Some reflective persons, particularly David Kessler, have added a sixth “official” component — meaning, since there is a tendency to search for, and find it as well.
My experiences with deep grief suggest there truly is much more to it than we tend to imagine. I wonder if grief might actually offer rare glimpses into the true nature of time. Perhaps if scientists were to research grief more thoroughly and carefully, we could gain a better and perhaps more universal understanding of both it and time. Just wondering…