I have done the “Time Line” activity many times and I have led many groups in the activity, but I am still amazed at what new discoveries are unearthed each time through it.  The activity is simple.

1.  Draw a line on a piece of paper, from one side of the paper to the other.  Write “Birth” (or your birth year) at the left end of the line and write “Today” (or today’s year) at the right end of the line.  In my case:

1949 __________________________________________________________ 2011

2.  Next, simply put a mark on the time line that corresponds with significant events or changes in your life.  On each mark, put the year or your age when each event took place.  With each mark and date, put a simple word or phrase that describes the event.  “Family moved.”  “Car accident.”  “Ashley born.”  “Mom died.”  Keep adding marks, dates, and descriptions until you have some descriptors for each phase of you life.

3.  Select a few of the more significant events and, beginning with the earliest ones, ask yourself the question, “How did I change from this event?” Depending on the group I am with or the group I am leading, the question may vary.  When leading a men’s therapy group, I had the members respond to the question, “How did each event shape my views about what it meant to be a male?”  With the church group, the question was, “How did each event shape my views about God?”  Regardless of the question, the reality remains the same.  We are shaped by significant events in our lives, and many of those events involve loss and grief.

Each of my most significant shaping events has included loss and grief.  The death of several friends during my childhood and teen years were clearly painful, confusing, and formative.  Each time my family moved to another town during my childhood, uprooting me from friendships and familiar settings, my life and my views changed.

Interestingly, though, even those events that were joyful included elements of loss and grief.  My marriage and the birth of my two children stand out as significant and joyful events that certainly changed me, and continue to do so.  Yet, each of those also included some losses.  With each event, which I gladly chose, I stepped into a life that was new, sometimes frightening, and generally more complicated than life had been before.  Each choice meant giving up something that was familiar in exchange for something that had many unknowns.  I gave up some degrees of freedom in order to take on the joyful complications of a new relationship.

Our grief shapes us.

One final note.  I never learn my lessons immediately after my losses.  Grief is always painful and confusing because during grief, we are not yet ready for those lessons.  Our learning always lags behind our experience.  The benefit of looking at my time line is that I can now recognize some things I learned from those past events.  I cannot do that while I am in the midst of the grief.  I cannot do that when the loss is still fresh, the pain is raw, and the next step is not at all evident.  In those moments, the compassionate presence of another person is far more valuable than any information or advice.  More on that later.