My mother died at 40 years old, back when I was 18. One thing I heard the most was that “time heals all wounds.” It didn’t sit well with me then, or when I heard it again when my brother-in-law, father, and grandfather also passed away.
When my baby niece left this earth at five days old, I heard it again. However, this time I fought the urge to tell my sister that “time heals all wounds.” Yet, it just seems like a blanket phrase that those of us wanting to help our loved ones often say.
While I don’t feel the same as I did the day each of those people died, I wouldn’t say that time has healed me. Should you stop telling people that time heals all wounds?
Here is the truth about time and grief; it comes in waves. It has been nearly 20 years since my mom died, and most days I am more than ok. Then randomly, in the middle of an afternoon walk, I will feel the urge to breakdown and cry for all the things she has missed.
In those moments, the pain is intense and hurts as much as it did the day she died. However, I also go months straight not thinking about her death at all. So, what is the deal about grief, heartache, and time?
“It has been said, time heals all wounds. I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” — Rose Kennedy
Time and wounds
Time heals all wounds is used to describe how feelings of sadness and grief lessen with intensity the more time passes. The saying implies that just the passage of hours, months, and years, will remove all these feelings. However, it is not just the arbitrary ticking of a clock that decides how long those feelings last. It depends on the person and how they spend their time after a loss.
According to the Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services, “Time is not a healer. The passage of time may take the edge off of acute pain, but it does not heal pain. On the other hand, time can be used well for healing purposes. When time is used well, in terms of healing wounds, then it is because we do something specific with and within it.”
That is why it feels like time itself has healing power because we spend the time after heartbreak engaging in activities that help us heal. There are several things you can do to help heal grief or encourage a friend to do if they are grieving.
“I’ve learned… That love, not time, heals all wounds.” — Andy Rooney
Why you shouldn’t say time heals everything to someone
Megan Wildhood reminds us that, “Our brains are wired to form a response to our environment; what changes our minds is experience.” When we tell someone that time will help them, it implies that they just have to wait long enough and they will feel better, without doing any processing or work on healing. They actually need to have experiences to help heal. This might be crying with a loved one, laughing with a friend, or learning techniques that help with grief.
Megan also points out that, “Time itself doesn’t heal all wounds. Time seals and conceals all wounds unless something different happens.” If we think of these emotional wounds in the sense of physical pain, you can see why this is a problematic philosophy.
Let’s say you cut a giant gash in your leg and did nothing to help it heal. No washing it out, no stitches, nothing except waiting for it to ‘heal.’ Well, chances are you would die of an infection. Or maybe have to have your entire leg cut off. Now, if you washed it and stitched it, it would likely heal (painfully) and with a gnarly scar. If you went the extra step further, and applied antibiotic ointment, took a pill for the pain, and applied scar cream, you might have an easier time and a less noticeable scar.
The time that passes is the same, but it’s the activities that differ. When it is all said and done, no matter what you do, you will probably have a scar there forever. Depending on the severity of the damage, it might still cause you intermittent pain. Incredibly painful things do not just go away because some time passes.
Implying that someone needs to just wait a set period and then they will feel better does them a disservice to their healing process. Grief isn’t something you can just wash and stitch, but there are things that people can do to help heal.
“People say that time heals all wounds, and maybe they’re right. But whit if the wounds don’t heal correctly, like when cuts leave behind nasty scars, or when broken bones mend together, but aren’t as smooth anymore? Does it mean they’re really healed? Or is it that the body did what it could to fix what broke.” — Jessica Sorensen
Things you can do to spend your time while grieving
Socializing is probably not high on your list of things to do after a devastating loss, but it helps. Now, I am not saying go to go to a party if you don’t feel up to it but lean into your circle of friends. Let people come over and cook a meal with you and eat together. Take the invite from a friend to take you to run some errands, even if it is going to the grocery store.
Grief is heavy to carry, and if you have people around you to help you shoulder the burden, then please let them in. Their support, love, and understanding will help you heal more than isolating yourself.
Maybe your friends and support system mean well, but you don’t feel like they understand. If you are looking for someone who has been through something similar to your experience, then consider joining a support group. While no one’s grief is the same, a support group will bring you together with people who have been where you are.
While some counseling usually happens in a support group, you might want to look at finding an individual counselor. The time spent in therapy can help you name your feeling, understand them, and process them healthily. A counselor can also help you use tools like meditation to reframe the way you think about your feelings.
They might even help you establish some rituals that honor your loved one, or help you handle tough days. They help us work through our grief while remembering our loved ones and can include things like:
- Visiting your loved one’s grave
- Carrying something that was important to them
- Lighting a candle for them on special occasions
However, you work through your grief, just know that it is important to do so. A grief counselor will help you come up with ways that work for you. The healing will take time, but you won’t heal by time itself.
“The defects and faults of the mind are like wounds in the body; after all imaginable care has been taken to heal them up, still there will be a scar left behind, and they are in continual danger of breaking the skin and bursting out again.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Other things you can say instead
It is so difficult when someone you love and care about is hurting, and you are trying to find the right thing to say to them and help them feel better. Instead of offering “time heals all wounds” you could give these sayings a try.
“I don’t know what to say, except I am sorry that you are hurting.” It is ok for us to not have all the answers sometimes. We can let people know we don’t always know how to help, but that we love them. We are here to listen if they want to talk. We are here if they just need a shoulder to cry on.
“Take it one day at a time, you won’t always feel the way you do right now.” Taking life one day at a time is excellent advice for nearly anything, but it works in painful situations too. Let them know that if one day seems too hard, they can take it hour by hour too.
“I’ll check in with you tomorrow.” Maybe your friend doesn’t need your help at this moment, and that’s ok! Reassure them you will be there and then follow through.
These sayings can convey to your friend that you feel for them and want to offer love and compassion to help them through a hard time. The support they receive, the ways they learn to cope, and the experiences they have over time will help them heal. Maybe they will help someone else heal someday too, in time.
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” — Gautama Buddha