“Time is a Great Healer”

One of the pieces of counseling wisdom that has become widely accepted is the belief that “Time is a great healer”.  It is particularly common when a person is bereaved, but it is also applied more generally to situations where there is trauma and loss. I heard it again very recently at a funeral, and realised that the time had come to decide whether or not I believed it.

Because Mill Grove has been around for over 100 years and in many cases remains in contact with members of its extended family throughout their lives, it seemed appropriate to consider whether this nostrum rings true in the light of our substantial and long-term experience.

My conclusion is that time of itself is neutral when it comes to the healing process.  A physical wound may heal, but it may also fester and become gangrenous. An experience of loss, neglect or emotional abuse may come to be accepted, forgiven and dealt with; or it may haunt a person throughout their lives leading to neurosis and even suicide.  The passing of time in itself is not evidently that which heals.

Understanding Time

So why is it that the whole idea of time as a healer persists despite so much evidence to the contrary?  It may have to do with routines that mark the passing of time, daily, weekly, seasonally and yearly, providing some comfort and support to those who grieve.  It may be that the need to get on with life over time works as some form of therapy.  And there are many who have experienced loss that come through in some shape or form to tell the story of how it was possible to survive and even cope without recourse to any further thinking.

My intuition is however that the matter lies deeper, and takes us into what we might call the philosophy of time itself.  The nature of time is a riddle.  We can talk of time past, present and future, but as Augustine realised, we relate to these different aspects of time in different ways: memory in relation to time past; attention in relation to the present; and expectation which relates to the future.  We can only do any of these things or be conscious of them, in the present, but the present is a moment so fleeting or ephemeral, that the future has become the past in the time that it takes to read this sentence!

Somehow, as T.S. Eliot realised in Burnt Norton, there has to be a coherence or integration of time past, present and future that leads him to conclude that “Only through time time is conquered”.  In this sense, and I realise that it is paradoxical to the point of being inscrutable, time is a healer: because outside of time there can be no healing. (“If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable”.)  One has to bring the past into the present if one is to come to terms with it in any way.  That is the essence of much psycho-analysis and psycho-therapy.  Not that time is a healer of itself, but that in time alone healing is possible.

And in this sense time works backwards.  As those working on resilience have found, a crucial element is the way in which children and young people are able to relate to their life stories and personal narratives.  If these are shut off (frozen) then there can be no healing; likewise, if they are rigidly and immutably held as if set in concrete.  But if there is the willingness to revisit and reinterpret them, then healing, though painful, is possible. If time past is open to reflection in the present then, though events cannot be undone or changed, our relationship with them can change.  Instead of being prisoners to the past, everlasting victims unable to take some responsibility for what happened, seeing the past in terms of black and white, with others always the oppressors and the goodies and the baddies forever fixed, it is possible to come to a more nuanced and deeper understanding of what happened and the motivations of the prime movers in our stories.

For Example

Enough of the theory: what of the practice?  Here is the example which sparked my recent thinking on the matter. I was talking on the phone to someone who had lived at Mill Grove as a child over fifty years ago.  Her brother had just died and she had rung me because she wanted to talk about his funeral and her feelings.  We connected because we were part of the same extended family and shared a lot in common.  There was little need for explanation or background detail.

She was proud of her brother and his achievements as well as his fortitude in the face of chronic ill-health and a terminal illness.  She mourned the loss of someone in her family to whom she felt close.  But there was something more: she had been prevented from saying exactly what she wanted to say at his funeral because his widow had asked her not to say it.

At face value it didn’t seem to be a very big issue at stake.  The part of the story that was deemed unsuitable for the occasion was the fact that she and her brother had both lived “in a home”, because their mother had been mentally ill.  The widow did not want this brought up, presumably because it would add distress to an already distressing situation.  So my Mill Grove sister remained silent.

Except that she didn’t, for now she was speaking to me. What she couldn’t speak in public she now told me in confidence. As she unburdened herself to me it became clear that by withholding this fact in the family narrative her own mother-role in the story had been erased.  Because her mother could not care for the children, it fell to my sister to do so.  In addition to the cooking and cleaning, she also nursed her brother when he was badly scalded.  And other particular incidents were fresh in her mind.

At the funeral people had spoken to her as her brother’s sister, but few if any knew that she had lost a person whom she had come to know and care for in part as a mother figure.  It wasn’t that she wanted praise or thanks, but that she wanted to share this aspect of her past with someone else.  And this is what she did with me.  I was able and happy to listen, and to share with her the joy that the brother she looked after as a teenager turned out to become such a valued husband, father, friend, and work colleague.

More than fifty years after a period of her life, we were talking about it together, and although the time in between did not seem to have healed her emotional wounds, perhaps it was not too late for her to know that now at least one other person understood and appreciated a little more of this part of her story.

I haven’t mentioned the fact that she and her husband did not have children, so when her brother died it was as if she had lost a son too.  This loss and grief was not known, and therefore unacknowledged, at the funeral, but now it has been accepted and affirmed.  Thus in a single conversation decades later, something has been passed on to another for the first time, and that changes the way the two of us now relate to her past.


I suppose one could ask what difference this might make in the future of her life.  And at this point I would want to call a halt to the investigation.  For that I cannot even begin to guess.  What I do know is that staying connected with members of the Mill Grove family throughout their lives always makes possible this deep sharing and empathy.  Had we simply terminated relationships at the point when a child or young person moved on from our home, then past emotional wounds of all sorts might remain still bleeding and sore.  At least by allowing for the possibility of remembrances of times past, there is always the hope that healing may still occur.

Not healing by time itself, but healing in which the past and present have been reconnected in order to allow for reinterpretation and new knowledge to be shared.

It just so happens that, while I was pondering this, another of my Mill Grove sisters, a younger one this time, but still one who came to live with us fifty years ago, was baptized in the USA.  We weren’t able to be present but we were able to send her a Bible produced by Mill Grove, and just before the service she telephoned us to let us know how thrilled she was to be holding a piece of home.  Had she not been baptized by immersion I think she might well have held the Bible throughout the ceremony!  Her decision to be baptized can be traced right back to the time she spent with us, what she went through, what she learned and what she was taught.  The past was still almost unbearably painful, but she was seeking to relate to it in a whole new light.

Sometimes I am asked questions aimed at discovering how often Mill Grove has “succeeded” in a child’s life. I am always agnostic in my replies because I do not and cannot conceive of things in this way at all.  But part of my response is always to point out that for many the story is not over yet, and so even in some of the saddest cases, we never know when or how healing, in time and through time, but not caused by time, might come about in the future.  We live in expectation that this might be so.

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