Time heals all wounds. This is a lie.
Time does not heal. Not in and of itself. True healing requires a consciousness and constant work. Every day. For the rest of your life without your child.
I don't say this because I have now managed to live eight months without my Gwendolyn, an eternity and a blink all at once. I say this from watching friends over the last 8 years lose their children, the ways they've healed and the ways they never will. I say this from reading writers who faced loss 10, 15, 20 years ago and still ache. I say this from meeting parents who embrace me because their child died 30, 40 years ago and from looking into their tear-filled eyes, I can almost see the cracks in their still broken heart.
Time heals all wounds.
This is a lie we tell ourselves because the thought of carrying our broken heart for eternity initially seems too much to bear. This is a lie we tell ourselves because we are socially ingrained to repair things and we don't know what to do with the unfixable. This is a lie we tell ourselves because when a friend is still falling apart and still struggling months and years after burying their loved one, we don't know what else to say.
But, to those grieving and to those supporting them, time does not heal all wounds.
Time can soften the wrenching intensity of those early days of mourning -- for some. But time can also be a trigger to returning to that wrenching intensity. At any given moment. Sometimes specifically just because of time. And those constant triggers can create numbness and walls as a way of coping and it isn't time that breaks those walls down and helps you to feel again. It is consciousness, determination, and hard work every single day to find a way to carry our broken heart, with the gaping hole, alongside our deep love.
Time does not heal all wounds. This is what time does:
Time makes her scent fade. I cling to her blankets and clothes and pull the last strands of her hair from the brush I keep under her pillow, hoping to draw in one last remnant of her comforting smell. Some days I catch a whiff and weep with gratitude because for a fleeting moment it makes time take me back to where I want to be. With her.
Time makes her sounds distant, almost an echo somewhere in my memory. The very sounds that soothed me and held me together are no longer in my ears. And, I wish I took more videos because that precious giggle that got me through each day has slipped from my grasp.
Time makes the weight of her body disappear from my arms, no matter how firmly I grip, like a mist heading out to sea.
The warmth of her flesh on mine, the very weight that grounded me as I snuggled into her every fiber, melts into time. It makes our rituals and daily life of carrying her and holding her and finding solace in her sweet pudgy finger taps start to feel foreign and unknown.
And, the continued passage of time will eventually lead to no longer knowing who my child would be. I will know her love -- always. But, each passing year she would have grown so much. Would she still want her hair long? Would she still like princesses and butterflies? What books would be her favorites in the future? Her interests. Her experiences. We will never get to know. And each passing milestone of time: birthdays, graduations, events missed, family changes... are losses all over again.
Time does not heal all wounds. This is what time does:
Time makes people uncomfortable with grief, even more so than when death has just occurred.
Time makes people stop asking and stop mentioning her name. It makes them shift in their feet and look away when I weave her into a conversation.
It makes people judge and place expectations to be "better," even if they don't mean to. But when someone believes that time heals all wounds and when time has passed and you are still broken, something must be wrong... with you... with me.
Time makes people tire of your aching and emboldens them to say things like:
"Just give it time and you will move on..."
"You had a good run there..."
"You knew she was going to die..."
"You need to have more children so you can get on with your life..."
About your child. Your precious, incredible, irreplaceable, life-changing child. My child.
Time heals all wounds.
Those very words undermine the depth of grief and the courage it takes to live after loss. The death of a child is out of nature's order and completely disorienting. It would be nice to count on the simple passage of days to recenter the world after it has fallen down around you. But when you have held your precious child and felt them exhale their last breath part of you goes with them, a reattachment of the umbilical cord that gave them life, tethering your souls for eternity. With one foot in death and one in the living, and the debris of what was your whole world all around, you must relearn to walk. Time does not do it for you... for them... for me.
No, time does not heal all wounds.
Instead of preaching clichés about time, this is what you can do:
Mention their name. Whether it has been 1 month, 5 years, 10 years - speak of them. You aren't bringing up a sensitive topic or bad memories. There will never ever be a day our child is not on our mind. Parents may cry hearing their child's name spoken aloud, but these types of tears are fresh glue to a broken heart that will never be fully mended.
Remember their child's birthday. If you do one thing, make it this. Send a card for the parents to open, let them know you are thinking of them, even send a gift. To get to untie a bow, pull apart wrapping paper on your child's birthday, when they are no longer there to do it themselves, is a gift in itself.
If they ask something of you, DO IT. It took enormous courage to ask.
Say something when you know certain days are hard. The anniversary of a child's death. A special event they once enjoyed. Holidays. If you don't know what to say, simply tell the family that you are thinking of them, of their magical child.
Know that holidays will never get easier. Ever. A seat will always be empty and a void will always be felt. Mention it. And, if you are spending holidays together, embrace a way for the parents to feel their child is still included: a new ritual, a blessing, a candle lighting, a poem or book read, give a gift in their child's honor... Acknowledgment is, at least, something when nothing makes things better.
Be there. With no expectations. Grief is exhausting, bone-tiring. But calls, texts, emails of support matter. Don't get offended if you get no response or if the parents don't want to be social. It isn't personal. Sometimes words need to soak in and linger to be soothing. Sometimes the simple act of responding to outreach feels completely overwhelming. Know your outreach reminds us we are not alone. That our child is remembered! When you are together, let your friend cry and cry with them. You don't need to be strong for them. (Even in their weakness, they are already stronger than you could ever possibly imagine.) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and not being able to fully understand. Share empathy - not pity - for what you can imagine. We need you.
And to the grieving - You are not failing at grief, at life, if you still feel broken even when time has passed. You need to know this, too. I need to know this. If you are waiting for time to mend, to fix the unfixable, it will not come. You are the key. Your deep love is the source. If you allow yourself, you will find a way to carry all the broken. Not because of time. Because of love.
Time does not heal all wounds. Owning this truth is one healing step.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.