Ep #218: Time Doesn’t Heal Our Grief

The Widowed Mom Podcast Krista St-Germain | Time Doesn’t Heal Our Grief

You know that phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” right?

Isn’t it so comforting to imagine that all we have to do is wait for time to pass so we can finally feel better one day?

While it’s a phrase that has become commonplace, it’s not that simple, and it has some unintended negative consequences. Tune in to find out what they are, and the real role of time in grief.


Listen to the Full Episode:


If you want to create a future you can truly get excited about even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to apply for Mom Goes On.


What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why we say time heals our grief and the damage it can do.
  • What healing really entails.
  • The real role of time in grief.


Featured on the Show:


Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 218, Time Doesn’t Heal our Grief

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief, to grow, evolve, and create a future you can truly look forward to. Here’s your host, Master Certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St-Germain.

Hey there, welcome to another episode of the podcast. As you listen to this, because I’m recording it a little bit in advance, tomorrow from when this podcast episode releases is the seventh year deathaversary of my late husband, Hugo. And I kind of wanted to just bring this up because I saw someone post in my private Facebook group the other day that they kind of wondered when will it ever feel not so weird. When will they get past the point where it feels like it happened yesterday, but it also feels like it happened eons ago?

And I just want to say that I don’t think we need to worry about that because here I am at the seven year mark and it still feels that way to me. I’m living my life, I’m loving my life and also I remember it like it was yesterday and it feels forever ago. It still just feels weird and I think the human experience of the passing of time can just be like that.

So if you’re wondering that, it’s not what this episode is about, but I just wanted to say that because it has been my experience. And I just don’t think it’s something we need to worry about. We’ve got enough on our plate. We can just let that one go, So for what it’s worth.

The other thing I want to tell you is if you have not applied for Mom Goes On, now is a really good time to do it because we decided that if you apply during the month of July, which means today is your last day. You will get just for applying and answering the questions, which doesn’t mean you have to join, but you have applied and answered the questions and you get the training that explains Mom Goes On, explains the framework that we use, is such a powerful training in and of itself.

You will also get a copy, a downloadable copy of The Widowed Moms Bill of Rights, which I love. We created it based on the podcast episode, called the Widowed Moms Bill of Right. But I love it because it’s a printed reminder that you can carry with you or refer to and it’s great for when you’re kind of doubting yourself, when you’re feeling misunderstood, when you’re feeling lonely, when you’re just feeling like other people in your world don’t get it.

That Bill of Rights is a powerful thing to point your brain to and we’ll give you a free copy of it just for applying for Mom Goes On. And then you’ll get all the information about Mom Goes On too. So everybody wins.

Okay, let’s talk about time not healing our grief. I feel like I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. And yet the other day I posted on Facebook and I said, “What is some advice that you would give to an early widow?” And so many people said, “Time heals.” And I just wanted to scream a little bit because it’s not that simple. And I hate that advice because it has some unintended negative consequences.

So in this episode, we’re going to talk about why we say time heals, why I think we say it, the damage that that phrase can do and why I really want to encourage you to stop saying it. I also want to look at what healing is because I think it’s a word we just throw around. And I want to talk about what it actually is. And then I want to talk about the real role of time and grief. So a short story edited version of this podcast episode.

If we gave it a Reader’s Digest, we would simply say, it’s complicated. It’s nuanced. It’s so convenient to just say time heals. It feels so comforting to just imagine that all we have to do is wait for time to pass, and we will feel better. And I get why we say it. I get that we don’t want to feel bad and we’re looking for ways to feel better. And so it feels good to think that all we have to do is just wait for time to pass. We have confidence that time will pass. If all that needs to happen is that time needs to pass and then we’re going to feel better, don’t we want to get behind that?

I get why we get behind that, I’m all for that. I understand it. And it’s been used, this time heals all wounds, this has been used in self-help for decades. I tried to look it up on Google to find the original source of it. I couldn’t, but basically Greek philosophy, it’s that old time heals all wounds. And yet we know that if all that needed to happen was for time to pass then we would all make the exact amount of ‘progress’. We’d all be in the same place simply because time had passed and that is not the case.

We can look around and see different people in different amounts of time since their loss and they are in different places. So it can’t be as simple as we just need time to heal. It’s just not that simple, but we understand, it feels good to say it. It’s got a nice long history. There’s some quotes about it if you go to the interwebs but it’s just not that accurate. And I would propose that it can honestly do a little bit of damage. Now, not always, again, it’s nuanced, it’s complicated.

But when we believe time heals, what we end up doing in grief often is white knuckling the whole experience, it’s just resisting it. We try to get away from all of the feelings because we’re just trying to bide time. We end up using coping mechanisms that maybe help us in the short term but create something we don’t necessarily want in the long term. So maybe we just keep ourselves super busy so that we are distracted, because we think time will just pass and that’s all we have to do is stay busy. I heard that so many times.

Even I remember at Hugo’s memorial service, people telling me, “Just stay busy, the first year’s the worst, just stay busy”, as though busyness would somehow solve grief, question mark. Some of us then turn to food to distract ourselves from our feelings. Some of us turn to shopping to distract ourselves from our feelings. We have lots of ways we can distract ourselves from our feelings. And it’s not that it’s wrong to distract ourselves, but sometimes it creates consequences we don’t want.

Sometimes I’ve seen people go traveling, for instance. This has actually happened a number of times with clients where they go traveling, but then they’re afraid to stop because they know that one of the things traveling helped them avoid was thinking about their loss being in the environment where the person no longer is. And then they actually feel really uncomfortable with the idea of slowing down enough to see whatever is left for them that they had been able to successfully avoid with traveling.

Again, it’s not wrong, it just can create consequences that maybe we don’t want. I like to think about it like a beach ball, too, my teacher, Brooke Castillo teaches it this way, which is when we’re trying to avoid emotion it’s like shoving a beach ball under the water. You can do it temporarily. It takes a lot of energy and effort. You can do it, but also eventually you get tired. And when you finally get tired and let go, the beach ball will come up with great force and perhaps smack into you. And a lot of us are doing that unnecessarily because we’re believing time will heal.

And so we’re just kind of shoving whatever it is under the water so that time can pass and resisting whatever it is, not looking at it and adding energy to it and then eventually it’s going to come up and smack us. Also, when we believe that time heals, it can make us a little less passive than we might want to be. It can make us advocate less for the kind of support that we want, than we might otherwise be if we didn’t believe time healed.

If we fully just believed, I’m responsible for getting myself where I want to be now that this loss has happened and time is not going to do that for me. We might be a little more assertive in how we advocate for ourselves in whatever that means for us, different resources for different people. But if all we think is just, I’ve just got to lay low until time passes, it makes us a little more passive. I’m not loving that.

You’ve heard me probably talk about the dual process model of grief, distraction, immersion. But it’s worth bringing up again here because if we understand it, we can use it to our advantage. If we don’t and we’re buying into the myth that time heals, then we can lean a little bit too much into distraction. So dual process theory of grief teaches that there’s essentially two buckets of activity. So there’s grief related activity and there’s non-grief related activity. So the ‘work of grief’ and respite, things unrelated to grief. And so oftentimes we think well, I’ve got to do all the work of grief.

Or we fall into the other binary of, I just need to let time heal and just distract myself as time does something magical. And really, neither one is all that useful. Forcing ourselves to only do the work of grief and then also going into the binary where we’re just avoiding and waiting for time to pass isn’t what the dual process model teaches, helps us. What the dual process model of grief teaches is that it’s the back and forth that helps us. It’s the doing the work of our grief, thinking about our loss, coming to terms with it, doing the stuff related to the loss.

And then also distracting ourselves, so it’s immersing and distracting, and immersing and distracting. Netflix binges are distracting. Getting outside, gardening, doing things unrelated to your loss, hobbies, anything unrelated, living life, back and forth, back and forth. If we’re believing time heals then we tend to drift too far into distraction, too far into the respite bucket. When what we really want to do is go back and forth, back and forth.

So that’s why I think we say this time heals thing, makes us feel better. We’ve been saying it that way for eons, since Greek philosophers. And why I think it’s not helpful for us to say, it actually makes us white knuckle. It makes us less likely to learn how to feel our feelings. It makes us more passive than we might want to be, less able to advocate for ourselves. It might have us drifting too far into distraction when we really want to be going back and forth, dealing with the grief, avoiding it, back and forth, back and forth.

What I really want to question though, is a word we don’t often question, which is healing. What does that even mean? Have you ever thought about that? Sometimes I like to question words that we just throw around commonly because we don’t all have the same definition of what that means, healing. So I wonder what your definition of healing is. Have you ever considered it? You can stop, if you want to stop and consider it before I tell you mine, you can but I’m about to tell you mine.

I think typically what people think of when they think of healing is they relate to healing as though it means something happens like you get a cut. And then you get stitches on that cut and then that part of your body is no longer wounded. It’s like it didn’t happen. Something broke, we fixed it and now it’s like it was before. But I don’t think that’s a useful definition of healing. I don’t think healing is really equivalent to the same as it was before, especially when it comes to grief and loss. We for sure are not ever going to be the same as we were before.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to be happy. That doesn’t mean we can’t love life again. That just means we’re always changing and we’re always different after things happen in our lives. It’s just the way it is to be a human. And really honestly would we want to not be changed by the death of our person? No, probably not. So the way that I want to encourage us to think about healing is I want us to use the word integration.

Let’s use healing and integration as equivalent words, which means we’re not going to be the same as we were before but we are going to decide on purpose what we want to think of what happened, what we want to think about our future, who we want to be given what happened, how we want to live, considering what happened. We do get to take what happened and like a new color of thread in a tapestry, weave it into the fabric of our lives.

When I was, I don’t know, in my late 30s, went on a camping trip, was with my mom and we were riding four wheelers. She wasn’t very confident on her four wheeler and she got to a part, we got to a part of a mountain pass where it was too high to cross over because there was a bunch of snow. And so I got off my bike and I turned it around and I, well, I turned around my bike then I got off of it because that would be interesting. And then I was going to help my mom turn her bike around because it was kind of a narrow place in the road.

And as I was trying to help her turn her bike around, she got confused and she thought she was in reverse, but she was actually in drive. And she pushed down on the throttle, and it literally took her bike over, a cliff would be an exaggeration, but a very steep drop off that was completely full of jagged rocks. So I grabbed onto the back of the luggage rack on the back of her four wheeler and told her to jump off. And I’m trying to hold on to this bike and she jumps off.

And then, of course, when she jumped off, the weight changed and I don’t know what happened. But basically the four wheeler lurched forward and it pulled me with it, and then I went tumbling down this hill. And I broke my ring finger, the knuckle on my ring finger on my left hand, and I gashed my knee. And of course, we’re up in the mountains. Anyway, long story, when I look at those scars, yes, they are healed, but also they are still there. I still can’t bend that knuckle all the way even with a lot of therapy. I still see the scar on my knee, that happened.

That experience happened and there was emotionally challenging aspects to it too, that I had to go back and process. It’s no longer bleeding or broken, but the scars are there. And also I have chosen what I want to think about that experience and what I want to make that experience mean. There for a while I was a little mad at my mom. My dad was really mad at my mom. But I have done the work on that so that those scars don’t define me, that experience, it doesn’t have any power over me.

And I get to choose and have chosen the story that I tell myself about it. That to me, is integration. That to me is what we do in grief, which is the loss happens and then we decide who we want to be after the loss happens. We decide what we want to take that information and make it mean in our lives. We decide how to integrate this life experience into the broader life that we are cultivating and creating for ourselves. Are we going to live more aligned with certain values? Are we going to make changes? What do we want for ourselves? What’s our new way of being in the world? That’s what we do, that’s integration.

Now I want to talk about very quickly, the real role of time in grief. Mary-Frances O’Connor, I interviewed her on the podcast, she wrote The Grieving Brain. We did a podcast episode about it, I can’t remember the title or the number about it, but you can go find it if you want. And to put a long story short, essentially what’s happening as time passes is that our brain is learning and updating. Our brain has encoded the we-ness of our situation, the we-ness of our identity.

It has gathered enough data that for attachment purposes it knows where our person is at all times, I mean basically, you have an idea of where they are, when you’re going to see them next, you know that. Every time they left your house and you didn’t if you’d see them again, you’d be an anxious mess. So the brain believes it knows when they are coming home, when we will see them, that bond is supported. But then they die and our brain has to relearn the new data and get enough exposures to that data so that we understand they actually aren’t coming back and that feels weird to us.

To intellectually know that they aren’t coming back, but yet a part of our brain keeps looking for them. Part of our brain keeps yearning for them. The part of our brain that has attached to them and prioritizes them, creates this yearning feeling for us so that we will go and find them. And we need time to pass for that to happen, for our brain to learn. So in that way, if the brain is learning and time is passing, there is value as time is passing because the brain is learning.

And hopefully in addition to what the brain is doing with learning and updating, so that it’s making accurate predictions in the future. We’re also learning ways to support ourselves. We’re learning new skills and new ways of being. We’re learning how to allow feelings to flow through and surf the waves of grief. We’re learning how powerful the stories are that we tell ourselves. We’re challenging the stories that we tell ourselves that aren’t serving us, which is exactly what, all these things are what I do in Mom Goes On.

We’re learning to think about ourselves and our lives and our loss and the present and the past and the future powerfully on purpose. We’re choosing the way that we see ourselves in the way that we see the world. We’re thinking about who we want to be, deciding who we want to be, reconsidering our values, reconsidering our purpose, looking at what do we actually want next? Is it safe to dream again? We’re learning that skill as time is passing.

We’re consciously, intentionally authoring the next chapter of our human life instead of being a victim to years of unconscious patterning that exists in our mind and in our nervous systems. All that can happen as time passes if we are doing it for ourselves, it doesn’t happen automatically, we have to do it. We can’t rely on time to pass. So it makes sense why we say that all that needs to happen is time passes makes us feel better. It would be great if it did, it’s old. We see that it’s not so helpful all the time.

And what we want to know is that really, yes, we do need time to pass so that our brain can relearn, but also what we do with our time really matters. So to say it succinctly, it’s nuanced, it’s complicated. To say that time heals is to oversimplify grief in a way that doesn’t help. It is inaccurate. Grief isn’t simple, it’s actually quite messy and more than time passing needs to happen for us to decide what we want to do and who we want to be. So let’s stop saying time heals, please, let’s stop saying that.

Alright, that’s what I have for you this week. I love you. You’ve got this. Take care and I’ll see you next week. Bye bye.

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence.

Please don’t settle for a new normal that’s less than you deserve. Go to coachingwithkrista.com and click work with me for details and the next steps. I can’t wait to meet you.

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About your coach

I created a new life using small, manageable steps and techniques that made sense. The changes I experienced were so profound I became a Master Certified Life Coach and created a group coaching program for widows like us called Mom Goes On. It’s now my mission to show widowed moms exactly how to do what I’ve done and create a future they can look forward to.

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