Time is both objective and subjective. Social measurements of time are linear, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years, whereas personal experiences of time are experienced through a variety of filters – age, physical and mental health, social conditions, context, and our senses. Grief, particularly following bereavement, is another significant filter.
Many years ago I was standing at a local taxi rank when the woman ahead of me in line interrupted my daydreaming with the words “you look like someone to whom time is important.”
It took me a moment to collect my thoughts enough to respond with “what makes you say that?”
She reached for my arm and looked at the large gold watch I was wearing, her direct eye contact and raised eyebrows inviting a story.
“I’m wearing this watch in memory of my father. He’s much more important to me than time.”
Fortunately, the arrival of a taxi made it possible for me to be alone with my thoughts again, and of course, this time round they included pondering about the meaning of time.
I know time was an issue for most of us last year. Life in the midst of a pandemic!
Closed state borders, lock downs, and social distancing were such an unfamiliar experience that many of us struggled in one way or another until we learned ways of adapting. Some folk enjoyed social distancing and the slower pace of life, while others missed face-to-face contact to such an extent that pre-existing personal or professional difficulties tended to become more intense and difficult to deal with in isolation.
We all wondered how long this strange new experience would last, and for many, time weighed heavily. As I write these words, I’m aware of how strange it would be trying to explain the concept of time to a very young child, let alone help them understand how time could possibly have weight. Maybe we need to explore the concept.
What is Time?
Time measurement as we know it began in ancient Babylonia. Rabbi Brasch talks about time and its measurement in his book ‘The Book of The Year’, explaining that ancient astronomers began measuring the passage of time when they identified in the sky what they called the seven ‘planets’. They believed these to be divine celestial bodies which guarded and influenced life. Seven thus became a holy number to them, symbolic of completion. And seven days completed the week.
The Hebrews acquired the idea of the seven day week from the Babylonians. A little later in history, the Egyptians, followed by the Romans, gave names to each of the seven days.
In more modern times, some folk have suggested that the concept of measurable time is simply another example of our human need to be in control. They posit the idea that the past present and future co-exist, that there is really no such thing as time that is measurable in a linear fashion.
Books and TV series have explored the possibility of going back in time, of moving between now and then, while other writers, movies and TV series have taken us into the future and back again.
The word time itself appears often in English idiomatic language and the quick search I made this morning revealed at least 80 familiar expressions. Those expressions can be used to criticise, to make dire predictions, to express impatience or frustration, to give praise, to philosophise, to set limits, to acknowledge misfortune, to encourage, to set boundaries, to postpone, to describe pain, to invite, or to prevent others from telling their story and ‘laying their pain on us’.
Nature has its own timetable – night and day, the rotation of the earth, the changing tides, and the life spans of all living things.
We experience seasonal changes visually, feel changes in temperature, smell different aromas in the air, hear different sounds and enjoy the taste of the foods associated with each. Seasonal changes are more obvious in some countries than in others, in some parts of each country more than others, and many of us currently acknowledge the global effect of climate change and its impact on seasons as we have known them.
Religions acknowledge the importance of seasonal changes. For example, the book of Ecclesiastes in the old testament of the Christian bible, and the Jewish scriptures, to name but two, acknowledge that ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’.
Around the world harvest and spring festivals celebrate seasonal changes and their bounty. New Year is another of those universal celebrations, a very clear mark in the sands of time as we acknowledge an end followed by a beginning.
Whatever time is, it seems to be important.
Time Through the Lens of Age
If we’re unable to remember our own youthful perceptions of time, we are likely to know, or observe, enough young children to be aware of how they react to their experience of time. When they are having fun, time goes too quickly and they tend to protest when activities are ended before they’re ready.
On the other hand, spaces between birthdays, Christmases, and other times of present giving and receiving, seem to drag on like a wet week. And…how could any of us forget the endless and annoying question ‘are we there yet?’ when the time it takes to travel between points A and B seems to them to take eons?
As we age, time, in some respects, seems to pass as if on ‘fast forward’. The life we have already lived is much longer than the years we can now expect, and as we look back, it seems as if the time between our first day at school and the first school day for our children or grandchildren has passed at the speed of light.
We look at our faces in the mirror (when we’re game), at our friends faces, at our growing or adult children and find ourselves wondering ‘where has all that time gone?’.
If we’re retired and at peace with the passage of time and the brevity of our future, time may not matter much at all. As long as we aren’t in too much physical or emotional pain, we may have developed the skill of simply ‘living in the moment’.
Perhaps we’ve come to terms with our inability to control many outcomes. Maybe we’ve learned to treasure and re-live each special experience, no matter how fleeting. We may take more time to be still, to ‘be’ instead of ‘do’, and to listen to other people’s stories more often instead of just telling our own.
Those of us who have children in our lives may find pleasure in helping them create special memories to store for the future, and model the magical experience of re-living those moments by playing ‘remember when…?’.
It seems that no matter what our age, time matters in one way or another.
Time Through the Lens of Ill Health or Loneliness
I think there’s a kind of existential loneliness that we all feel at times, no matter how many people we have in our lives, and those lonely times can feel heavy and long.
However, in reality, they’re usually fleeting.
For some folk, loneliness is an accurate description of their everyday lives. Time probably feels as heavy as their heart.
The past year with its Covid restrictions has exacerbated feelings of loneliness for many people, but for those already lonely, the passing of endless days and nights without distractions has felt unbearable.
Time is a significant issue for people experiencing unrelenting emotional or physical pain or illness that severely affects the quality of their life. To them, every moment may seem like an eternity as they long for relief, and for their caregivers whose helplessness feels overwhelming.
For many, waiting for a medical diagnosis and fearing the worst can make the experience of time complex and difficult. On one hand we might want to speed things up, grit our teeth, and just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ happens to be. On the other hand, we may want to slow time, dreading the delivery of bad news.
Our personal experience of time in all of these situations is relevant and important.
Time Through the Lens of Bereavement
When we are grieving and missing those we love, many of us wish we could turn back time, for an hour, a day, or for much longer. The desire to turn back time is often particularly intense when the person we love has died suddenly, prematurely, violently, or by their own choice.
Thoughts of regret, guilt, disappointment and frustration tend to crowd our heads, the words ‘if only’ playing repetitively and affecting every part of our being.
Many years ago I wrote these words about grief:
Stands still –
Weighs heavily –
As I write now, I’m remembering my own grief experiences and questioning the accuracy of those words. For me, in the early days, weeks, months, time certainly felt as if it was standing still, and weighing heavily. Like most other folk, I asked myself a version of ‘how long will these intensely painful feelings last?’ But, even as I asked myself the question, I knew that I might as well have asked ‘how long is a piece of string?’
Why did I use a physical analogy? I did so for a couple of reasons. First, most of us are familiar with physical injury and pain, so physical analogies are easy to imagine. Until we have experienced the pain of grief ourselves, few people can really understand its impact, its physicality, so have difficulty imagining what pain others might be experiencing.
When grief is new and raw, it can feel like an internal, weeping wound, affecting every cell in our bodies. There are times, for some, when they feel as if they are weeping tears of blood, yet, unless tears are seen, unless people’s screams are heard, unless they are witnessed tearing their hair and rending their garments, the intense pain of grief is rarely visible to others, let alone understood.
Do those ‘wounds’ heal? Not really, but, as we build life around them, we can decrease their intensity and the frequency of pain ‘surges’. We learn how to recognise safe people, those who can listen to our story and walk beside us as we grieve, without needing to ‘fix’ the unfixable.
Eventually, we develop skills in living with all feelings co-existing. Even though we miss those who have died, and will do so forever, ‘there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance;’ (Ecclesiastes 3-4). It takes time, patience and supportive understanding from those who care for us to enable us to live our lives fully without feeling guilty.
None of us can continue to live with raw grief permanently in the foreground. Recovery, or more accurately, accommodating grief into the fabric of our being and into our everyday lives, happens almost imperceptibly at first. We seem to take steps forwards, backwards, sideways – like lemonade bubbles appearing briefly, disappearing, and appearing again and again until they begin to connect so that we are able to really feel the change.
Occasionally, that change can be unsettling, as if we are losing contact with the person we love. We may unconsciously do things to re-stimulate strong emotion to reassure ourselves that ‘although people die, love and relationships live forever.’
For me, the sudden, premature death of my father many years ago was my first personal experience of life changing grief. My father loved nature and my sisters and I remember with appreciation the lessons he taught us about respecting all living things. Not surprising then to read the words I wrote in my journal to acknowledge my experience of ‘healing’, of learning to live with his physical absence.
‘Like the first soft rays of the spring sun,
the shy appearance of the first buds on naked trees,
I feel the gentle stirring of life within me
And know that I am whole again.’
I described my father’s death as premature, but, however we define time and what we consider a reasonable life span, in reality, our individual lifetimes are brief.
An American Indian – Crowfoot of The Blackfeet was asked ‘what is life?’ He answered ‘It is the flash of a firefly in the night.’ Life is brief for all of us.
When talking about time, Marie Schell says ‘Peace is when time doesn’t matter as it passes by.’ I think I’m almost at that point.
Whatever our current life experience, or our thoughts about time, there can be comfort in knowing that ‘Spring, summer, autumn, winter – the ever changing cycles of nature – are predictable and reassuring. Nothing stands still – not even the seasons of the heart.’
If any bereaved person reading these words is experiencing raw grief that makes time weigh too heavily to carry alone, contact “A Friend’s Place” or the Centre’s outreach service. I think there is truth in the saying ‘A burden shared is a burden halved.’
Dianne McKissock OAM
NCCG Outreach Support Service
Email support for dying and bereaved people and anyone involved in their care firstname.lastname@example.org