A Question We All Ask Ourselves: How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?
Elizabeth Harper Neeld, author Seven Choices
I don’t think you ever get over the loss in your heart. I think you have to acknowledge the fact that, when you love someone and that person is gone, you’re going to miss him or her. And that has nothing to do with your spiritual strength or trust or even with whether you’ve been true to your grieving. It’s a perfectly human thing to continue to miss [someone] who has died. When Christmastime comes, Christmas Eve, and there’s no Cliff who’s going to walk in the door with a big sack of presents and say, ”Hi, Mom!” I have a hard time.
But there’s no agonizing over Cliff now. There is peace and a quiet calmness. Dean and I are comfortable with the situation. If something beautiful happens or we’re somewhere Cliff would have been with us, we’ll say, “Hi, Cliff, wish you could see this…how’s it going, ol’ boy?” Something like that, but it’s not heavy. (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)
We feel so bad when we are grieving that it is not a surprise when we wonder, “How long will I have this terrible pain? Will this suffering ever end?”
To talk about this, we need to think about two kinds of time.
There is chronos time.
This is the kind of time measured by a calendar. Chronos time is counted in days, weeks, months, years. Chronos time describes a continuum of past, present, and future. It is the kind of time measured by clocks. A simple way to talk about chronos is as physical time.
Then there is kairos time.
Kairos time refers to “the time within which personal life moves forward.” The movement we experience as a result of moments of awakening or realization measures Kairos time. Kairos time refers to a deepening process that results from our paying attention to the present moment, a process through which we are “drawn inside the movement of our own story.” Kairos is an ordered but unmeasured kind of time outside space-time.
We might be tempted to measure the time of our grieving in chronos time. “Oh, it’s been a year—four seasons have past—I should be ok by now.” Someone may suggest, “Give yourself a few months. You’ll feel like yourself again.” But it is not useful to measure our grieving in chronos time. In fact, chronos time is helpful only in that it gives us a span within which to experience our own kairos time. To think that, because a certain amount of time has passed, we should be farther along in our grieving is to set up a false measure of how well we are going. The mere passing of days and weeks and months and years does not within itself bring integration of our loss.
What matters is kairos time. What insights have I had? What have I realized? What meaning am I making of this terrible loss? We each have our own “entelechy”—to use a term from anthropology—that means our own “immanent force controlling and directing development.”
The amount of calendar time it takes to reach integration in our grieving is determined by our own kairos time, through our own entelechy. That’s why is no right or wrong amount of time an individual should take to grieve.
All that being said, what else can we note about time and grieving?
From my own experience and from the research I’ve done for decades on the grieving process, I can say this: the amount of time each of us takes to reach integration of our loss is usually longer rather than shorter.
What do I mean by this?
That the amount of kairos time it takes each of us to reach a place where the loss is integrated into our lives but does not dominate our lives is longer than “the person on the street” might suggest. Many folks around us would like for the process to be shorter rather than longer because they are not comfortable with the whole experience of grieving. As a society, we have cultural practices that suggest grieving should be short. (Don’t, for instance, many government workers get three days off when they lose a family member?)
The good news is that healthy grieving does result, at the time right for each of us, in an experience of integration. We take stock and say: I am changed by our loss, and I have changed my live as a result of my loss. And we are not shriveled permanently like a dry stick because of our loss. We can feel alive again…probably wiser, maybe quieter, certainly full of gratitude and a desire to contribute from what we have been through.
And all in good time. All in good kairos time.
© Elizabeth Harper Neeld, 1989.