Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds

What they tell you about bereavement may well be wrong

Posted Apr 22, 2018

When a friend’s wife of more than 40 years died, I thought that few people were better prepared to deal with the aftermath. He had been a minister for longer than his marriage and during that time counseled countless people who were bereaved.

His wife’s death has been exceedingly difficult for him. Perhaps because it had come unexpectedly. Not until she suddenly collapsed did anyone know that she had a fatal and rapidly spreading form of cancer. He had no time to prepare. The rapidity of her death left no time for psychic preparation. From the moment she became unconscious until the time she died, he was consumed with taking care of her, arranging for whatever treatment might be available and ultimately being with her at her bedside as she died without consciousness.

My friend knows about the stages of grief. But it is one thing to know about something and another to know by experience.  While Kubler-Ross’s schema of denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance can be helpful to someone who is bereaved, it can also be harmful in some circumstances. The problem with it is, like any broad theory, a one-size-fits-all approach to human suffering. Like any generalization, there are outliers and with grief, most everyone is an exception to the rule.

Each person’s experience with death is unique. Generalizations can be made about the nature of bereavement, but like all generalization, they don’t apply to everyone. I have known those who have had wonderful marriages and within a year of their spouses’ deaths have remarried. Because they had known love, it was easy for them to find it again. And I have known those who have had wonderful marriages who could not marry again for they would experience it as a betrayal of their dearly departed.  

There are crucial differences between deaths that are expected and those that one cannot prepare for; between that of an old person and that of the young; the death of a beloved relative and one who was problematic; that which results from an illness and that from an accident.

Time heals all wounds, it is said, but it isn’t true. Time doesn’t heal all wounds for all people all the time. Timetables differ as much as one person differs from another. Everyone arrives in their own way what to hold on to and what to let go of. Trusted companions, professionals and rituals can help when matters become overwhelming by helping to raise the right concerns and point in the right direction. But they can’t determine the correct path, for the way forward is uncertain. Nor can it prescribe how long it will take to recover, for that is unknowable. To say more is wishful thinking and sometimes positively harmful.