Grief. A small word, really. 3 consonants, 2 vowels. A small word that sounds like the exhale of a sob you have been choking on, but doesn’t really do justice to the engulfing emotion and breadth of losses it can be applied to; the mortal loss of someone through death, the physical loss of an intimate relationship, the loss of innocence and childhood, the loss of friendships, the loss of a family unit through divorce or separation, the loss of your future, the loss of your dignity or privacy in situations of abuse, the loss of who you once were. As I’ve got older the hardest realisation for me is that life is full of losses; some you barely notice, some you manage to adjust around over time, and some destroy you.
I’m sure we’ve all been the victim of having the cliché “time heals all wounds” thrown at us at some point in our lives, and perhaps even been the one delivering it to others; I probably have, years ago, before I realised how much I hated it. The thing is, it’s such a pointless, empty, insulting phrase because there are some wounds that time simply cannot heal – some losses, broken hearts or sufferings that forever remain open-wounds or, at the very best, visible scars. Some injuries to the heart change everything – they change the meaning you take from life, the very person you are, and the world as you know it. Yes, you might learn to exist around the empty space left by a lost loved one or build on top of the damage created by trauma, but the destruction is still there. Some things are irreparable, so to assume that anything is time-healable and to offer that to someone consumed by their sorrow – whether or not offered with good intentions – is, quite frankly, thoughtless, ignorant and selfish.
Because, you see, we say these things that we believe are helpful, reassuring or comforting often because we ourselves cannot handle the sadness and the pain of others – because we want them to be healed. It’s true that watching someone we care about suffer is often harder than suffering ourselves, and we want so much to fix it and make that suffering disappear as it is too real and raw for us to bear. Making it better for them makes it better for us, so we try to do – or say – things to lessen or remove that pain. “Time will heal” is a means of achieving that, but rather than enabling them to heal (if healing is even possible) we are depriving them of the human right and opportunity to really mourn and feel broken.
If you share your wounds with someone – open yourself up and let them see your weeping scars – and they respond with “it’ll get better” or “time is a healer”, you feel physically pushed out of where you are at, moved on from the feelings you are having before you are ready. It almost feels as though you should be over it, leaving a feeling of foolishness for the emotions you are having. Moreover, you are not being truly met at the place you are at in that very moment and are therefore unlikely to put yourself in such a vulnerable position with them – or anyone at all – ever again. You therefore isolate yourself for fear of not being understood. Grief, despite being something we all inevitably share, is a lonely enough place as it is, with your experience of grief being yours and no one else’s; it doesn’t need any more embarrassment or seclusion. Because then you hide your grief and it becomes like a dirty little grief-secret, one which nestles in your pores, building power and permanency.
I think we all have that one profound loss in our lives – the one that completely floors you and changes your very being; your shape and size. For this loss (or losses), grief is an all-encompassing, immeasurable emotion that you feel in every single atom of your being. It swallows you whole and injects a hazy, devoid, intangible sensation to your thoughts, your senses, your movements. Everything slows down in a clipped and sudden way, like the spinning doll in a jewellery box as the wind-up mechanism comes to an eerie end. Grief is limitless and it exists outside of time, therefore “time will heal” is hollow and irrelevant. There is no “time” in grief and grief doesn’t wait for time. All time does for grief is create a pressure, an expectation, to move on and get better – one that is then inevitably met with disappointment and devastation. Time is grief’s enemy, not its friend.
Ultimately there is nothing anyone can say that will reverse the damage or magically make someone feel any better because grief is inconsolable, so I would suggest that we don’t try. Instead we should love them, support them and hold them – offer compassion and understanding for what they are feeling in that moment, thus allowing them to grieve, mourn, break, split, collapse or crumble. Only through being able to express all the emotions they are battling with inside themselves will they have a chance to heal; not necessarily complete healing but enough to function in the world and live their life, and not necessarily the life they had before but a modified version with grief sewn into its structure. Because life has a shape and a size, one which is then contorted by grief; not only is there the infinite sadness and mourning of the loss itself, but the discomfort and struggle of somehow forming a new shape and size to fit into this unfamiliar, grief-stricken world.