One of the strange things about grief, particularly in the early hours, days or even weeks after a bereavement has happened, is that time seems to stop working in its usual, linear way.
Familiar things – including time – suddenly feel half-formed or alien. Your emotions can be so present and turbulent that it’s hard to breathe. It’s like you’re being carried by a wave, and there’s nothing to cling to, creating both a feeling of being trapped and of being rushed away from where you want to be.
Of course, time doesn’t really change. There are still the same number of seconds in a minute and the same number of hours in a day. But, despite knowing this, many bereaved people will recognise the feeling of being out(side) of time.
If you have recently lost a pet, you may be experiencing this phenomenon. On the one hand, parts of your day may drag – just achieving basic tasks may feel like wading through treacle while wearing a lead suit! – but, at the same time, you might feel like the days are flying by. You may find yourself saying, “I can’t believe it’s been 10 days already since they left”.
You may have a sense that your past, present and future have all frozen in place and yet are pulling away from you. Equally, you may find it hard to sort events into an order. If you were with your pet when they died, what was the sequence of events? How long did you sit and hold them (if you could)? What happened afterwards?
As well as time moving strangely, you may have lost chunks of time altogether or have them in your mind but not be able to place where they fit in.
All of the above can be overwhelming, frightening even. Please be reassured that it is a natural grief response.
Time distortion is a common grief response
Why does our perception of time behave in such a strange way after pet bereavement (or, indeed, any kind of loss)?
It turns out that time distortion is a common response to losing someone you love. There seem to be several reasons for why it occurs; researchers can only speculate because we understand time through multiple senses.
- Our emotions affect how we perceive time
Research published in 2011 found that “In everyday life, the experience of a mood changes our relationship with time. When we are sad and depressed, we feel that the flow of time slows down. Every hour seems like an eternity as if time had stopped. In contrast, the feeling of stress seems to accelerate the flow of time”.
This might explain why, following a bereavement – a period of sadness, stress, anxiety and many other emotions – our perception is that time can both fly by and stand still.
Your pet loss grief may be disrupting your sleep, which can quickly lead to disorientation. Sleep deprivation is associated with brain fog, slow response times, confusion, poor reasoning, forgetfulness and lack of focus – all of which can impact how you perceive time to be moving.
Brain fog itself is common in the newly bereaved and affects how we process short- and long-term memories, both of which can influence our perception of time. It’s likely that brain fog is a self-protective mechanism where your brain attempts to cushion you against reality so that you can slowly begin to process your loss. Again, the feelings of confusion and detachment associated with brain fog may affect your sense of time.
As the brain fog begins to clear, you may feel like you have lost chunks of time when your grief was most fresh. You may also feel shocked that the world can carry on as normal and that you’re out of step with what used to be your ‘normal’ life.
- We perceive time in economic terms
Something that isn’t always discussed is that time is often closely associated with economic value.
Many of us run our daily routines to a clock that determines when we start and finish work and how much we get paid for the work we do. Time also dictates when we go for a walk with our dogs, when we feed our pets, our leisure time and so on…
When you’re grieving, your routine can go out of sync. You may need to take some time off work as paid or unpaid leave. You may want to grieve but work for yourself, meaning that if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.
All of these factors and more may affect how closely you’re watching time while you’re grieving and how that shapes your perception of it. For example, if you’ve only managed to take a couple of days off as holiday (something pet carers often have to do when faced with a loss), you may feel like time is running away from you, pushing you back to work before you’re ready. Equally, by losing some of your routines, you may find time drags unfilled.
It’s deeply embedded in our psychology to see time as either productive or wasted. And when you’re grieving and finding it hard to complete everyday tasks, you may berate yourself for time-wasting (not that you are), making you more hyperaware of its passing!
Giving yourself time
Ironically, the only cure to time distortion in grief is time. Gradually, you should find that the brain fog subsides and that your sleep improves, and you find a way to carry the memories of your beloved pet with you.
Grief doesn’t fit a timeline, and it looks and feels different for everyone. You may find that your perception of time slips unexpectedly, even years into the future, throwing you back to the moment of loss. On other occasions, time may pass far more predictably.
We understand how disorientating time distortion can be when you’re grieving, as well as the other feelings of confusion, lack of focus, disorganisation, repetitive thoughts and more. The important thing to remember is that these grief responses are normal – you need time to make sense of your loss, even if time misbehaves for a while!
And do remember that if you need to talk to other pet carers who understand how you’re feeling, The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support