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Do you remember three years ago in the pandemic when everyone – or at least it seemed everyone- commented at some point about how strange time felt? Did you and your siblings ever feel like summer vacations or school holidays went so quickly when you were busy or so slowly when you were bored? Gosh how I long for a slow, boring summer with my brother playing in the empty lot or working in our grandma’s store! That seems like ages ago some days and other days it feels like just a few years ago.
Dr. Ruth Ogden, a psychologist in the UK, studies how humans perceive the passage of time. Notably, during the pandemic, the passage of time was observed to feel slower or halted in many places such as the USA, Iraq, and Argentina (although it differed by age and gender there) but faster for others such as in the UK. Ogden and others have also studied time perception in relation to emotions and loss.
Some days it feels like it was yesterday that my brother died and others it feels like the 41 months that it has been. And sometimes it seems a lot longer. Grief time is weird.
Time perception and the processing of time is complex and not relegated to one part of the brain. While some people may feel time speeds up, others may feel it slows down or stops.
All are valid experiences and suffice it to say: You are not crazy. Grief can indeed change how we perceive time.
But why? Of course, there are many theories and philosophies by psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and even physicists on the passage and perception of time.
One has resonated with me as we explore this concept of a time warp in grief. Carlo Rovelli explains in his book, “The Order of Time” and other writings that the passage of time itself exists in our brains and helps us navigate or to make meaning and understanding of what we experience in the moment. If this is true, it makes sense that time changes as we try to make sense and understand a great loss. We have to learn to live without our loved one. And in the case of a sibling, someone who was supposed to exist in most of the timeline of our lives, making sense of a new timeline feels impossible.
As we learn to integrate loss with life, sadness with joy, anger with peace, we can feel thrown off, confused, nostalgic, or so much more. As we reintegrate into our daily lives changed, we may very much long for the past and the “before.” Being faced with our “after” without our siblings is overwhelming and we may feel stuck. We may resist time moving forward.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do to change how we perceive time during grief. We must learn to just be and let the time be as it is.
Something we can do is to learn to carry our siblings with us in the moments and also when to take a break. Remind yourself that this time will shift again and remember to nurture yourself. Ask yourself what you are feeling physically. Do you need to rest or move? Do you need to eat or hydrate? Do you need to be alone or with others? Notice the emotions you have and if they are prompting you to do something or not do something. Just be.
How can you support us?