Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

Grief can’t tell time, but it obsesses — I repeat — obsesses over calendars. It highlights dates better than a Fortune 500 CEO’s social secretary. Grief tracks anniversaries better than hungry jungle cats on a grey-muzzled gazelle tending a newborn.

I thought I was going crazy. Without hesitation I answered anyone who asked me how long it had been. I told them exactly how long since my husband died.

My answers unnerved people, but I wasn’t sure which aspect disturbed them.  Was it because I already knew the answer (perhaps I’d channeled my inner-psychic to anticipate and answer their question)? Or was it because my too precise answer was detailed to the point of confusion?

I couldn’t answer a simple, “It’s been four months,” and leave it at that.  No, I had to say, “It’s been 4 months and 2 days (if you go by the date) but it’s been 4 months and 5 days (if you go by which week of the month and day of the week it is). If you’re counting a month as 4 weeks , then it’s been 4 1/4 months, plus another 5 days, but it might be easier to call it 4 months and 12 days.”

(By this point the kind soul who’d bravely addressed the calendar-crazed widow probably remembered the snarky adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mistaking my pause for an end while searching for escape , my poorly rewarded friend would back away slowly, probably recalling Boy and Girl Scout merit badges earned for escape from rabid creatures. Avoid eye contact. Don’t make sudden moves. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention!)

Alas for my friend, I’d paused only to catch my breath. “It’s really been more than 4 months, because that night of the 3rd week of the month was earlier this week and because the date of the week was a couple of days ago. It’s actually been 17 weeks and 5 days. But it’s  been 124 days, so that makes it more like 4 months and 4 days, counting 30 days per month.”

As much as I needed and appreciated hearing the question, the same person seldom asked “How long has it been?” twice. (Can’t imagine why …)

From this side of a little over 3 years later (Aren’t you relieved I left it vague this time?), it sounds a little nutty.  Okay, I admit it sounds nuttier than a jumbo bag of mixed varieties, most with slightly cracked shells.

It was obsessive, yes, but here’s the part you need to understand for the sake of your grieving friend:

My compulsive calendar counting  was as normal as  it was essential.

It wasn’t until I connected with a network of thousands of young widows and widowers that I realized it wasn’t morbid for me to know — and yet be confused by — the exact number of days, weeks, and months that had passed. I wasn’t alone in my obsession over “how long” it had been! I. Wasn’t. Alone.

It took time — more than 17 months (or more than 68 weeks, or  476 days …) — before I understood why this was so important and automatic for me (and perhaps for the others).

Think of traveling before September 11, 2001. Now think of the trauma of that day (or any other “big” date that impacted your life). Think of traveling immediately after that day as compared to today.

Everything changed.

The loss of my husband did that. It destroyed my internal packing and security checklists. It rummaged through my heart’s luggage and tossed it onto the Tarmac. It permanently rewrote my itinerary.  Everything shifted into the Departure column. Grief reset my life schedule.

No wonder my brain couldn’t let it go.

4 thoughts on “Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

  1. This is very interesting. I’ve never done that after my loss, but it shows that people grieve differently. What I sense from reading your posts is how much you loved your husband.


    • Thank you, Yumi. Yes, we all respond in our own ways–grief has even varied within me as I have mourned different losses. I wasn’t aware of the same date and calendar “counting” after my mother or my grandparents died, though each of their deaths changed me in other ways. I say counting, but it wasn’t something I tried to keep track of after my husband died. My grieving mind did the intellectual “work” of keeping track of days while my heart tried to muddle its way through each one.

      It was odd. I could recite the passage of days and weeks without effort, but I had difficulty keeping track of time from one hour to the next. (I should write about those distracted “lost hours” in another post!)


  2. This is interesting. I also think the counting must be normal — in Japan, when a funeral is done the Buddhist way, we have special rituals on the seventh and 49th day (it’s thought that it takes 49 days for the deceased to reach the “other world” of the dead), so we all count. I think the custom began in the first place because it came naturally.
    Anyway, I stumbled upon your blog while reading an article on Yumi’s. As a med student preparing to face many families who may have to suffer the death of their loved ones, I find your blog very informative. Thank you for sharing!


    • Thank you for your comment on the normalcy of counting, Broccoli. I admire that the Buddhist way acknowledges this human need in ritual form. In my culture families are often expected to be back to work and school within a week (or less). Grieving survivors are taken aback when those around them express surprise that they “still” feel sadness. It would have been helpful to have such a 49th-day reminder during that raw time.

      I’m glad you are finding the blog informative, too. I commend you for looking ahead to your interactions with grieving families. (I realize that isn’t the part of medicine you or any doctors wish to emphasize, no matter how inevitable it may be in some cases.) I’ve encountered physicians whose kindness delivered the worst possible news in a revered, compassionate manner, as my mother’s oncologist did. (Eighteen years later, I still remember the concern in his voice and expression more than the words he spoke.) That was not the case with the doctor who called my husband’s death, and I’ve heard others’ experiences that also fell short. Again, I applaud your preparation for when you’ll face that sad duty.


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