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Grief and the Passage of Time

Personal Perspective: Time brings healing, but also heartbreak.

Key points

  • In grief, we must come to terms with leaving our loved ones behind in time.
  • The passage of time is necessary for healing, but at the same time can be painful.
  • Some physicists suggest that time is an illusion—a controversial but soothing theory.
  • Love is impervious to the effects of time.
Photo by Giallo/Pexels
Source: Photo by Giallo/Pexels

So here we are at the cusp of another year. The third January 1st since my bereavement.

On the day Tom died, an image came to me, unbidden, that still has the ability to bring me to tears. It's of him receding into the mists of time, like watching someone in my rearview mirror as I drive away. He stopped on May 21, 2020, while here I am, moving inexorably towards 2023.

Every new year is a reminder that I have no choice but to move forward, to proceed into a world, an era, a history that Tom will never know. In loss, we find ourselves acutely aware of the passage of time. Each anniversary, birthday, milestone, happy or sad, is an existential clock ticking away our temporal proximity to our lost loved ones.

Time takes on new significance in grief

Of course, rationally, I know that Tom is no more or less gone today than he was the day he died. And yet I remain keenly, and often irrationally, sensitive to time. I kept a container of grated parmesan in the refrigerator until it was a science experiment because the expiration date printed on the label was the day Tom died. I burst into tears upon noticing that the registration sticker on his truck (which still sits in my driveway) expired that month and year. These things are meaningless and yet powerful. Any time I see a date, I automatically and inevitably think “He was still alive” or “He was gone by then.”

When someone dies, we count first the days, then the months, then the years since that day. We count the birthdays, the anniversaries, the Christmases, the milestones. I see time in the changes in the city in which we lived together, pained to see what Tom will never. I can only try to imagine how it must feel to watch children grow up and change in ways a loved one lost will never see.

Time both causes and assuages pain

I imagine that with time, I will stop assiduously tracking its lapse. Time is our friend in that it is the only thing that can dull the sharp edge of grief, although it can’t end our grief, which is forever. Eventually, however, the grief changes from a stabbing pain to a dull and loving ache, the sands of time weathering it like sea glass. But even as that happens, we look back wistfully every now and then, wishing to reel in the days and bring the past, and our loved one, close again.

A theory of time

When Albert Einstein’s friend, Michele Besso, died, Einstein wrote to the family: “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me, that signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

In physics, there is a theory called the “block universe,” which posits that time is merely a construction mankind created to make order of our universe and that, in reality, past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. Some physicists vehemently dispute this theory, but that is not my battle to wage. I don’t pretend to understand the physics behind it—that’s way above my pay grade and intellectual capacity—but it is a soothing thought, isn’t it? Perhaps we are not moving away from each other in time but living together in this block universe, simply out of sight of each other.

The power of time has its limits

Admittedly, this is still cold comfort to me. I wish Tom were here, next to me, passing the time with me, aging alongside me, moving into the future with me. But whatever we believe about time, two facts are indisputable: One is that our loved ones are no more or less gone today than they were the day they died. And the other is that no matter how much time passes, we will not forget them. Days, weeks, months, years, decades, can elapse, and the person we loved and lost will remain in our hearts, no closer or farther away than they were the moment they drew their last breath. Our memories, love, and connection did not die with them. Those are within us and will be for as long as we live. No length of time can erase our loved ones from our hearts; time doesn’t have that power.

So let the new year come, as it must. Wishing you peace in 2023.