Grief Hours

On a particular day, the very hungry caterpillar stops eating. Do Monarch caterpillars grieve when they lose milkweed picnics and curl their many toes into chrysalis-stage? According to research, moths can remember what they learned when they were caterpillars! Could this suggest that these critters have hours of grief for the past?

When it is time to evolve, mature Monarch caterpillars immigrate for protection from predators like birds and spiders. They relocate as far as 30 feet away from milkweed homes.

Hanging upside down on a twig, the caterpillar releases enzymes to digest itself inside its chrysalis (insect pupa). Organized sets of cells (or imaginal discs) somehow survive digestive processing to take the shape of adult body parts as wings, antennae, eyes and genitals.

Becoming any kind of adult is challenging. Anything that touches a soft chrysalis may damage the interior butterfly. Less than 10% of Monarchs survive in the wild because of predation and natural causes of death. For the land of the free and home out-of-doors brave ones, meditating in cocooning lasts 8-15 days before a Monarch chrysalis becomes transparent, disconnects from its gossamer raincoat, and has its spectacular Reveal Party.

Have you noticed that time pauses for both exquisite beauty as well as for intense grieving? We might say about butterfly transformations, borrowing from writer John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, “It is the hour of pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”

In grieving, one examines their life that suddenly feels upside-down and precarious. Grieving hours are not “over” in 6 months or even a few years after a loved one has died. In fact, grief hours are not possible to record in regular timeframes. Moments of normal sadness involve emotional weight-lifting. Germanic origins for “sad” (satt) include “weighty or dense” meanings. The Old English origins (sæd or sated) suggest being “overfilled.” Actually, we hold onto brain connections in grieving.    

One of the best descriptions I’ve read about grieving is by psychologist/grief researcher Mary-Frances O’Connor (The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss). “Grieving people often describe having lost a part of themselves, as if they have a phantom limb…once believed to be an entirely psychological phenomenon, studies have proven that…[phantom] sensations are actually nerve activity…the brain map has not yet rewired itself…so the sensations persist and are often painful…we might think it is simply a metaphor to say that we have lost a part of ourselves when a loved one dies, but…representations of our loved ones are coded in our neurons.”

Whether missing a particular time in your life and/or a loved one, grieving is both a disconnection from regular time and a brain connection. Grief hours will change in intensity, but poignant memories remain. Perhaps Monarch butterflies still have a taste for milkweed.

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

109. How do you honor special memories from a particular time?

110. What evolving might you consider in your current life stage? (See “Grief Pearls,” 6-6-22.)  

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. Having witnessed the transformation of a chrysalis to butterfly this week your blog was especially meaningful. Thanks.


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