The Time Warp of Grief: Going Backwards to Go Forwards

It was the last weekend in February of 2011 when I heard my Dad say, “I have been alone for a year now.”

I was unprepared for his comment. After all, as a retired and reserved German farmer, Dad usually did not speak about such things. Not only that, but initially, I simply did not get what he was saying. You see, the anniversary of Mom’s death was still three and a half months away, so what was he talking about?

Then, I realized: while I was focused on the anniversary of her death, Dad was centered on the day he began his journey of living alone. It had been exactly one year since Mom had been taken to the ER, resulting in her not returning to the farm to live out her days. Blood clots had been found on her lungs, and the doctor determined it was necessary for my mom to receive more care than my dad was able to provide. At the time, we had believed that she would recover and be able to have a much needed hip replacement, enabling her to return to the farm. But it was not to be. A little over one hundred days later, she had a stroke and died the following week on June 18.

Now, Dad was alone . . . adrift, lost on a sea without an anchor.

I never heard him specifically say to me, “I miss Betty,” but it was evident that he greatly missed his wife of nearly 57 years . . . Her companionship . . . Her presence. They had this shared reality, but just like that, she took one last breath, and she was gone. If anyone (and I do mean anyone . . . from the telemarketer to the banker) were to ask him how he was, he would say, “I am lonely.”

I am lonely.

It is really all he knew to say, yet maybe it was the most apt response. Part of him had died the day his wife died. Part of his identity was gone. He was lonely.

My memory recalls gathering at the farm that first Christmas without Mom. As an influx of voices filled the house, I inquired of Dad about the experience of having his family in the house, and he replied, “It is different.” I suppose in my naiveté concerning loss and grief, I had thought that having family near would momentarily subdue his loneliness. I now wonder if having a full house caused his loneliness to become larger than life after we departed. Previously, when family had returned to their own homes after the holidays, his wife remained, a presence that curbed the absence of voices. However, that year, perhaps our recent presence and departure magnified the pregnant, ongoing absence of Mom. Now . . .  there was no one. He was alone.

For the first two years, time ticked on for the rest of us, but for him, it seemingly stood still. This was evident when for over two years, a calendar from 2010 remained frozen in the month of June. It stood as a symbol of both her life and death. The calendar had been Mom’s as she had turned its pages; however, when she had died, it was as if time had stopped, and Dad remained suspended in time.

Maybe what he needed, to paraphrase Alan Wolfelt, was to mourn by going backwards prior to his going forwards.

And perhaps, that is in part what transpired when my husband and I returned to the Midwest in 2012 (see my last blog Being Matters), allowing one or both of us to spend one weekend a month with him. One day, he spontaneously stated to my husband, “I guess I have never changed that calendar. It was Betty’s.” You see, when someone was present to him in his time, he was able to become more present to the reality of his wife’s death, his present. This became apparent when one day the 2010 calendar had been replaced. Time no longer was standing still. Someone had joined him in going backwards, and now he was moving forwards.

And now . . . it is my turn.

It was two years ago in April when my Dad slept at the farm for the last time. Little did we know that on that day, when he was taken to the ER, he would not return . . . ever.

It is during these weeks of April and May, I find myself unexpectedly transported back to my father’s hospital room for just a second. One moment I am in the present, and in the next moment my past becomes my present, as if Dad had not died. Then as quickly as I was transported into the past, I am back in the present, and asking myself, “What just happened?” Grief seems to do funny things to time. Maybe it is like a grief time warp. These time warps seem to occur without warning in these weeks leading up to the anniversary of his death. I may be busily dusting or vacuuming, and suddenly, I have a desire to call Dad, or I picture him in the hospital bed. My response? I take note. Sometimes I linger in that moment, reflecting on what was transpiring two years ago today. Other times I simply notice it, acknowledging that it is a part of my grief journey.

Some may wonder, “I can understand your Dad’s grief as he lost his spouse. But your losing your Dad? He was an old man. It was his time to go. What’s the big deal?” If I were to be honest with you, I resemble those remarks . . . prior to parents’ deaths. I have learned that it is not so much about whether it was a friend, child, husband, or parent, the characteristic of mourning remains: one returns to the past to move ahead. Of course, going backwards to go forwards may look differently for each mourner since no two grief journeys are alike.

So no matter how it appears, in mourning (to take grief from the inside to the outside), one must travel to the past in order to move to the future. One must participate in the dual-process of grief by repeatedly traveling backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.

One of the ways this transpires may be by remembering the anniversary of the death, which may include the days and/or weeks leading up to the death and/or the actual date of the death.

Long after the condolences have ended . . . After the obituary from the newspaper has faded . . . When the grass has grown over their graves and the dandelions have peeked their yellow heads through the ground . . . Mourners remember the date of a person’s death. Like the date of one’s birth, the date of one’s death is not forgotten. The bookends of a life continue to be recalled as grief transports them back in time.

You must go backwards to go forwards.

Such a remembering is not abnormal. Every Memorial Day we pay our respects to those who have served in our military and died. Every year thousands of visitors travel to Pearl Harbor to honor those who died on December 7, 1941, including the deaths of civilians. In our more recent history, our nation recalls those who died during a terrorist attack on our country on September 11. That is to say, there is a precedent for remembering the day people died . . . to visit the past in order to move towards a future.

But don’t get me wrong. I do not expect anyone to say to me, “I am thinking of you today” when June 18 arrives or send me a card for May 29th. But . . . just so you know . . . I will remember. I will honor my parents’ deaths, and in so doing, I am honoring their lives. I am saying, “They matter to me.” I am communicating, “Their lives are of significance and value.” This is accomplished by going backwards in order that I may move forwards.

So, if it should happen that someone says to you, “This week is the anniversary of _____________ death,” I invite you to become curious, and inquire, “What is that like?” Such a question may assist the person to mourn by allowing him/her to publicly go backwards so they are able to move forwards. Of course, asking such a question may be harder for many of us than what it appears. It takes self-awareness and courage on our part since many of us want to immediately fix the pain, which may produce a knee-jerk reaction that eclipses the opportunity to mourn. For instance, at the one-year anniversary, we may be tempted to say, “I bet you are glad that’s over so that now you can move on” as if a year is somehow the cure-all of grief. And if a mourner speaks of the fifth anniversary of a death, some may be alarmed and say, “Don’t you think it’s time to let go?”

Yet, if we are going to move forwards, we must go backward sin time. This is the way of mourning.

As a Christ-follower, I am reminded that Jesus Christ is above time. Time is humanity’s experience. As the Eternal One, Jesus Christ is present in humanity’s past, present, and future simultaneously. Thus, when I go backwards in order to go forwards, he is already in my past and in my future. This means when we remain present to others by simply being with them through listening, attentiveness, and companioning alongside, we are participating in Christ’s ministry through the power of the Spirit. We are being present where Christ is already present. If we remain present with a mourner as he/she moves backwards and forwards, Christ, too, is there in the power and presence of the Spirit. As we join Christ in being present in the mourner’s past, healing comes as we are bearing witness to the other’s mourning as Christ is bearing witness. As we are present in the mourner’s past, Jesus Christ the Healer brings reconciliation (healing) through the Spirit, and the mourner is more enabled to be present to the present by integrating the loss into his/her current life.


Lord, where there is mourning, may I be present to others who may be going backwards so that they may go forwards.


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