Does Time Really Heal All Wounds?
“Time heals all wounds.”
It’s one of the most unhelpful clichés you can pull out when speaking with a grieving person, right up there with "It’s all part of God’s plan," "They’re in a better place now," or any sentence beginning with “At least…”
Then again, there’s a bit of truth in plenty of unhelpful sayings—and research does attest to the healing nature of time. For most people, by 18 months post-loss, symptoms of acute grief — listlessness, pervasive sadness, lack of pleasure in life, anger, nightmares, insomnia, yearning, numbness, etc. — have generally greatly lessened in severity.
And so, even though there’s some truth in the phrase, I disliked it when I was in the acute stage of grief — and I still dislike it today in my clinical work, but for different reasons. Here’s why:
1. Sometimes things actually get worse before they get better.
Ask many people who have suffered a significant loss, and they’ll tell you that the initial shock and pain—while agonizing—wasn’t the most difficult time for them. That may come weeks or even months later, when the reality of life without a loved one begins to set in (and those who supported them through the early days of the loss take a step back). The sense that you can never, ever speak with this person again—never touch them, hear their voice, or feel the unique way you did with them—has begun to sink in.
We can even stretch out the metaphor of grief as a wound here: Horror and disbelief courses through you in the seconds after you receive a bad cut or break a bone, but the pain only sets in later, once the numbness of shock fades. Such is often the case with grief, too.
2. Even in the long run, time doesn’t actually improve matters much for some people.
I have written before about those who suffer from "complicated grief" — people whose grief symptoms are still acute (or potentially even worse) 18 months out from a significant loss. They become "stuck" in mourning for a variety of reasons. For example:
Not wanting to accept the reality of the loss, because the feelings attached to it feel so overwhelming.
Denial that the loss has had such a powerful impact.
The intensity of the loss is compounded by traumatic circumstances — for example, if a death was violent or self-inflicted.
Not wanting to let go of the pain, because it feels like a betrayal or negation of the feelings they had for their lost loved one.
Not having a safe place (or more important, safe people) with whom to process the loss and renegotiate this new, forever-changed world.
3. Time goes really, really slowly when you’re hurting.
Ever notice how painfully slowly time moves when you’re sitting injured in a hospital? Or when you’ve got a migraine, and you’re waiting for the painkiller to kick in? The same rules apply when you’re in emotional agony.
"Time heals all wounds” is like a slap in the face when minutes feel like hours, hours feel like days, and the days, well ...
4. …the days can all bleed together.
An autobiographical memory process called Overgeneral Memory Bias (OGM) has been found to play a role in grief, particularly grief that becomes prolonged. OGM is the tendency to view one’s past in terms of generalities, as opposed to specific events. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and an inability to imagine positive future experiences, since happy memories of the past are difficult to recall in detail.
5. Trauma is literally timeless.
As mentioned earlier, traumatic deaths are typically harder to heal from because of the way traumatic experiences are processed and stored as memories by the brain. When a traumatic memory surfaces — as they often do in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts and images — as far as the brain is concerned, they are happening right now.
This can still be the case long after the triggering event has passed.
To recover from trauma, the brain has to learn to stay at least partially in the present experience — something that often requires therapeutic assistance in the form of group or individual counselling.
6. The "truth" of the statement, even when it is true, depends entirely on what you mean by "heal."
We’ve talked about the nature of time, but what about the nature of wounds? What particular kind of wound is a major bereavement, and what would it look like when it heals? Are we talking a cut that heals completely? A nasty burn that will always look a bit mottled and weird? A deep gash that leaves an ugly scar? An amputation? I can't tell you the answer, because...
7. Nobody can tell you what your unique experience of loss will be like.
We all have an idea of how grieving goes, and unless we have our own experiences, they’re often a mishmash of assumptions gathered from movies, pop culture, and anecdotes. Often these simply involve lots of crying. It’s rare to see an accurate representation of angry grief or numb grief, but they’re very common experiences, too. Even when we have our own experiences, they may not be that useful when we’re attempting to comfort someone else. Because although all grief shares some key similarities — it hurts — each individual person’s grief is different.
So time may, indeed, heal you, and probably will, even if it's not a straight road. But what that healing will look like, how long it will take, and what you will think and feel and do and experience along the way, nobody can say. Your grief is yours, and nobody can tell you what will happen. I imagine that is both a comforting and disconcerting thought.
But then again, perhaps not.
After all, I cannot speak for you.