Clouds and sun pushing through for blog by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley Hale
Things That Suck

Widow Time: Chronos and Kairos

I was talking to Chris the other day, recounting what it was like to be without a partner and have three young kids. “It was so hard,” I said, in the understatement of the year. “It was endless, too. I mean, I was just always alone, always a single parent and a single person.”

Chris paused, and seemed to be thinking. He does this when he wants to disagree with me, just a little, but hopes to do it in a thoughtful way.

He noted that, actually, I’d only been totally alone for less than three years. He’d moved in about 2 1/2 years after Shawn died. Sure, some of the parenting heavy lifting fell to me in those early days. But he had a point.

I hadn’t actually been alone forever. I wasn’t actually a single parent forever.

But that’s how that time period seemed to me, and not just with single parenting. It also seemed that way for my grief, for dating, for experiencing the world alone. It was a seemingly never-ending slog.

It made me think about time, and how it works – both in the real world, and in our minds.

Really, there are two kinds of time.

I’m not the first person to talk about these two kinds of time – I first read about it from Glennon Melton, and recently I heard someone discuss it on a podcast about happiness and grief. But I’ll summarize their ideas – which actually come from ancient Greek ideas – as best I can here. The ancient Greeks believed in two kinds of time, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos time is probably the one you know best. It is the actual time that exists in the world, the “clock-time” that we use to run our days. If it takes an hour and a half to get your grief-stricken and screaming 3-year-old to go to sleep, well, then it took an hour and a half.

Kairos time, on the other hand, is what we might call “felt time”. I’ve read a lot about Kairos time, but mostly when people write about it, they talk about special moments when time seems to stop and the world has deep meaning. And yet, when I think back to that example of getting a screaming 3-year-old to go to sleep, I think there’s Kairos time there, too. It’s just not exactly the kind of Kairos time that I often read about in Mommy blogs, for example. (“Time stopped as I gazed at the curve of her perfect little nose….”) Usually, writers are talking about joyful moments when they refer to Kairos time – watching a sleeping child or smelling an infant’s hair – and how time can seem to slow down. In those moments, it really feels as though there is such deep meaning, and chronological time is not relevant.

My viewpoint is a little bit different, and not nearly so rosy. Kairos time, you see, happened a lot to me in those early days (and years) of widowhood.

I’ll go back to my example of the screaming 3-year-old at bedtime. It’s not a hypothetical one for me, unfortunately. Tommy is such an easy and happy kid now, but when he was 3 and had just lost his dad and didn’t understand what was going on? Well, he was not easy. Bedtime was just one of the many hard times, times when I was so filled with exhaustion and grief that I really did lose track of the actual clock time. And when it took an hour and a half for Tommy to go to sleep it did not feel like an hour and a half.

It felt like a YEAR.

Sure, I still had moments of the good Kairos time, especially because the kids were so little. I still had times when I smelled their baby shampooed heads and thought, “thank God they are here.” I still had joy, even in that first year. But those good Kairos times were pretty brief for me.

Instead, I mostly experienced Kairos time in another way, especially in the first years of widowhood. Back then, I had many moments when I stopped experiencing Chronos time and instead was feeling Kairos time. Every party I went to that first year felt like time stopped, but not in a good way. Every morning after my run I’d feel a bit of hope – something I could really hold onto – and the world would stop and I’d think about Shawn and all the ways that I was missing him, and then I’d find myself crying. And every night, the endless bedtimes with the kids continued, the ones where a relentless feeling of dread and grief would fill my body.

I think widowhood has a whole lot more Kairos time than Chronos time.

I’m not a Greek scholar, so I’m sure someone would tell me that Kairos time is supposed to be a moment when time stops because you’re inspired or feel the incredible possibility in the world. But I think it can also be those times when grief is so deep and so raw and so real that you cannot really feel time anymore.

And wow, I’ve had a lot of those times. I know my widow friends have too.

Here’s one: Every time I went to Shawn’s grave in the first year, I remember getting in the car afterwards and being shocked at how long I’d been there – sometimes much more and sometimes much less than I imagined. The world had just paused around me as I cried and cried, sometimes laying flat on his grave. (That was a hard thing for me to write about back then, but I did it often when I went alone.) Those times were awful.

And those moments were Kairos moments.

The world stood still, while I cried or I felt deep sorrow or I moved through the moments of the day without actually experiencing them. I was stuck in what I’d call “Kairos grief.”

I guess it’s why when I look back on early widowhood, I often have a strange perception of how things once were. I know the actual (Chronos) amount of time has that transpired since Shawn’s death.

But the felt time, the Kairos time, that was real, too. Maybe not on a clock. But it’s what’s real in my memory and in the way I’ve experienced this world as a widow.


  • Nikki G

    Well said Marjorie. This is pure insight and truth.
    I believe this although painful, is one of the greatest gift of grief. Significant loss provides context for life. I feel like I only knew and lived in chronological time before my husband died. Now that I am grieving, I have a new appreciation for time. I cherish every little moment that I can remember of him. They’re like little gems. They may be “over” in Chronos time but I get to have them forever in Kairos time.

  • Kimberly Shelledy

    I wonder how that works for my kids. They were 12 & 14. They seemed to mature faster with the felt time but also regress in some social ways and had to play catch up.

    • M Brimley

      Honestly, I don’t know. I wonder about this for my kids as well. Time is so strange in grief but it’s also strange in adolescence, so I’m sure there are so many factors at play.

  • Jen B

    Yes! I am one year into widowhood with a 5 and 3 year old and the slog is real. This was a timely article for me because the process has been exhausting, and certainly feels endless. We got used to taking things a day at a time after my late husband’s diagnosis (which came 6 years before his passing) and I am trying to continue that approach now. I really like this concept though as it validates the mountain we face as widows learning to rediscover ourselves while also keeping our family afloat.

    • M Brimley

      Oh, that’s so hard – 3 and 5 are tough ages. And early widowhood is such a loooooong time period too. But for both parts, I can say this: it gets easier. But the mountain is certainly there right now. Hang in there. I’m pulling for you.