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Does Time Heal All Wounds?
by David Fireman, LCSW
Occasionally, I am asked by students of the helping professions certain compelling questions. Recently, one such set of questions came across through the Center’s website. After responding, I decided to post my answers. If you or anyone you know might benefit from asking similar or different questions regarding grief or personal growth, please encourage them to email me through our website.
1. What do you think about the phrase, “Time heals all wounds.”
Time in itself—unlucky for us—does not heal all wounds. I think it was Lilly Tomlin who said, “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” There’s something to that. We can all look back at certain hard or painful situations in life and laugh now about them. But the main point is time is just a concept we use to measure minutes, days, hours, months, years. Time is not a healer. The passage of time may take the edge off of acute pain, but it does not heal pain. On the other hand, time can be used well for healing purposes. When time is used well, in terms of healing wounds, then it is because we do something specific with and within it. We take time and shape it in order to do inner work. It is inner work coupled with courage and honesty that heals all wounds.
2. What do you believe in this phrase? Can you identify where those feelings came from?
Since I don’t believe in the phrase, I have no particular feelings about it in the way you’re asking. But, I do believe there are different kinds of time. For example, there is chronological time (the Greeks called it chronos time). It’s the clock ticking away, and everything we do to get our activities of daily life going. It’s planning, tasking, working, busying, completing, etc. Often chronos time keeps us moving fast and busy so that we hardly notice what we are feeling. This kind of functioning in time often leads to injury, because we can’t really notice what is happening. We’re numb. But there is also sacred time (kairos time in the greek). Kairos time is when we slow way down and start to notice what is actually happening inside and outside of ourselves. It is about paying attention, becoming more mindful and open to experience. 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 ticking of the clock in chronos time.
3. Do you have any facts (those allowed to share) about time healing wounds?
Not facts, per se, but lots of stories. One short story: When he was 8 years old Jerry lost his older brother to a hunting accident. He was 11. Jerry’s childhood was shattered. His parents didn’t know how to help him grieve. His teachers and friends didn’t know either. But later in life, Jerry found a therapist who did know how to help him grieve his loss. With the help of this person, he got in touch with his anger, helplessness, sadness, guilt, fear, and vulnerability. Later still, Jerry became an educator and then a social worker. He founded a social service agency called The Center for Grief Recovery and Sibling Loss. Through a lot of deep inner work, Jerry was able to transform his early childhood loss into a positive energy source aimed at helping others going through similar circumstances. It wasn’t time alone that did that. Sometimes a deep wound can become something else. It takes more than just time to transform loss like this.
4. Have you witnessed or experienced something that relates to this topic? If not, have you seen someone who cannot let go?
I have seen many people go through phases of loss and wounding who have trouble letting go. But we have to be careful about that phrase. If I need to hold onto something that is making me feel safe and secure, why would you want me to let it go? If, on the other hand, I am able to grow in feelings of security and safety and feel more structured and strengthened inside of myself, then I may be more able to independently--often with the help/support of others--“let go” of that to which I am clinging. When it comes to loss, letting go is usually a long-term process with many, many layers. If we tell someone to let go, then we should be prepared to offer them something meaningful and sustaining enough to them as a replacement. Can we really do that? Research has shown that the most common experience in bereavement is longing or yearning for contact with the deceased. Sometimes our longing is so intense we think we see or hear the deceased when they are not there. As we learn to cope with the fact of mortality, however, we begin—slowly and tentatively—to “let go” of our attachment to the physical presence of the person we lost. Perhaps we could say the relationship changes. Letting go is no easy thing and we have to be able to do it in our own way and at our own pace.
5. I have heard that people do not allow themselves to move on because they do not want to get hurt again. Do you believe this is true? Why?
The dread and fear of repeating the experience of being hurt are real feelings. After receiving a wound, we typically recoil from and avoid situations that could cause the same or similar kinds of wounds. That seems rational, right? And from a certain standpoint, it is rational. The problem is we can become so fearful and so full of doubt that we begin to shy away from taking initiative or risks. The fear of getting hurt again becomes overpowering and paralyzing. However, we also know that to take one experience and live your entire life by that one experience is severely limiting. This tendency cuts us off from life and potential. But it is understandable. Who wants to get hurt? Perhaps the antidote to this kind of fear is faith (not necessarily religious-based). A simple example: a child falls from her bicycle and scratches her knee. She cries. Her mom or dad or someone bigger, wiser, stronger, calmer helps her out. But how? By attuning to her feelings (is she disappointed, sad, angry, humiliated, confused?), and empathically calming her down. Then when she’s ready, this guardian figure helps her get back up on the bike and try again. That’s an organizing and skillful approach to helping. The child is more likely to be able to “let go” of her hurt and move on to the next activity. She is more likely to have faith in her strengths, because there was someone there for her in a hard situation who validated and supported her with skill and compassion. She witnessed herself going through a hard situation and with assistance move on to the next effort. She feels more competent and confident.
6. People do not want to let go of the past for many reasons; relationships, love, death. What reason do you think is the hardest to forget?
Again, we have to be careful about pushing people to “let go,” or “forget.” In fact, grief is a natural and unlearned healing process. People wanting to be helpful to those who are grieving do not give pat answers to profound questions. They do less advising and more listening. They understand the meaning of memories. Memories are not dead. Memories are alive and dynamic. Memories help people retain their needed connection to the deceased. The old idea about grief was that we should encourage people to cut their ties and move on. Well, it doesn’t usually really work that way. People need to feel free to remember, and grieve. As friends, we need to provide a safe place for people who are in mourning. A place where they can feel the intensity and depth of their feelings without being judged or pushed by someone else with an agenda. Done this way, the grief process usually allows the person to slowly come to terms with their loss and then begin considering withdrawing some of the emotional energy they are putting out to the lost loved one and redirecting it toward other relationships or causes. If we go back to Jerry’s story, he would have never created his Center if he “forgot” about his brother’s death. Perhaps the reason it is so hard for us to forget the people we love is because we are not designed to forget the people we love, but we are pressured to do so by others who may be well-intentioned, but not understanding.
7. What are some things you may do to help people let go of living in their memories?
I try to help people understand that grieving is not about forgetting. To the contrary, grieving is about remembering; remembering the love and the loss; the good times and the bad times. All of it. I also convey to them that remembering is not the same as staying stuck. Remembering and grieving are ways to honor our love and attachments, but living life is also about adapting to change. We don’t want to live our entire life on the basis of one or two experiences. Adaptation comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s about stopping and resting. Sometimes it’s about movement and swiftness. The issue is learning to become aware of our needs at any given time. That means paying deep attention.
8. Does another person help you move on? Can they become your ‘rock’ or person to lean in some ways?
As in the example of the child scraping her knee, sometimes another person is needed to help us get up and move on. Yes, I believe there are times in life when we do really need to rely on the kindness and skills of others. We are social animals. John Dunne said, “No man is an island.” When you stop to think about it, while we think we are very independent and “should” be able to “handle” it all on our own, who really can and does? Don’t we depend on others for our food, clothes, shelter, services, clean water, etc. We are more dependent than we’d like to think. I think in times of loss and mourning, we need to be able to rely on the kindness and compassion of others. This is why all the great religious traditions have so much focus placed on mourning rituals and ceremonies. In Judaism for example, a mourner is not supposed to do any work at all. All responsibilities fall on the community to offer practical and spiritual help. I believe this is the way to go. That said, we need to modify the statement somewhat. We also cannot overburden our friends with our sorrow. People can only do what they are capable of doing. Our goal should be to refrain from harming self and others, even when we are in emotional pain. Therefore, it can be very helpful to meet with a professional or some other person completely unrelated to the situation who can provide a safe and comfortable place, a non-judgmental stance, and an empathic perspective.
David Fireman, LCSW