THE MYTH of CLOSURE by Sandra Howlett, Ed.D

“Closure” is a term frequently used following a death. Some of the events that are often said to provide closure range from final conversations, funerals or memorials, distributing the belongings of our deceased loved one, moving to a different home, and learning the official cause of death. In less traditional or criminal circumstances, the term is often applied when a body is found, an arrest is made or a trial completed.

So, what does closure mean?  According to Webster, closure is from the word close which means “having no openings, to bar passage through, shut, end, terminate, narrowly restricted.” The media often uses this word as a means of offering superficial comfort to the bereaved or an endorsement to heal….or more likely, a cue to “get over it”.

Sometimes we know the precise moment when grief begins.   It may be a diagnosis, a phone call in the night or a knock on the door.   It would be logical that if something has a definitive beginning, then it must have a definitive ending.

We live in a culture that craves neat, happy endings and fast resolution. Grief does not fit this model or idea. Grief is messy, slow, painful and exhausting   Healing is measured by a series of mile-markers with no definite end to the journey, but rather a gradual arrival at a place of more — more peace than pain, more good days than bad and more able to participate in the fullness of life. It is not the total elimination of sad feelings.   It is a softening of the sharpest pain.   Healing is more of a series of stops and starts, sometimes feeling like you are taking two steps forward and one (or two) steps back. Over time and with the willingness to feel the full range of feelings, we advance on the healing journey.

The concept of closure poses the idea that ‘IT’ is over; that loss and grief have ended; that the pain we feel is gone and that we can return to life as it was before.   This is woefully inaccurate at best and potentially hurtful as it becomes our expectation and is not even close to reality for most people.   Many desperately WANT to believe in closure as they cannot fathom the pain they feel lasting over time. Grief changes who we are, some even suggest it can modify our DNA.

What some would call closure/the end is more accurately the beginning when it comes to describing grief. When someone dies, friends and family usually have an immediate response of coming together for support and sharing. There are cards, notes, flowers, food, gatherings and most all attentiveness and remembrance of the loved one who died.   As time goes on, the attention and responses trickle down to near nothing.   It is in this void, this loneliness, that the reality and depth of the situation begins to register – the fact that our loved one is really physically gone and not returning. The depths of these feelings cannot be measured and are different for everyone. The loneliness that often accompanies this awareness can feel overwhelming, frightening and devastating. A fear that these extreme feelings may never end is painful and depressing. There is no absolute timetable for normal as this grief experience is an individual journey with some predictable moments.

I sometimes get calls from people whose loved one died many years ago, maybe even a decade.   They call when they feel they have slipped back into the dark abyss they thought they had healed (or escaped).   Grief healing is more akin to a spiral than a straight line or stages…we continue to cycle through the years of birthdays and anniversaries, holidays and special occasions…yet we experience them differently as the years pass.   And sometimes, we do have temporary sets backs.

In a recent situation, a woman whose only daughter died ten years earlier at the age of 11 found herself slipping back in the grasp of grief after attending three weddings of family members in another part of the country. Without realizing it at the time and having not thought of how to prepare herself, she was surprised at her inner reaction to these events and her sadness that followed. She was witness to the happy occasions of her family members that would be denied her…her daughter would never grow into a young woman, would never marry, there would be no grandchild. Her dream had been shattered over a decade ago.   The family weddings were one more reminder of a lost future. She grieved what was lost as well as what would never be…the spiral   This mother understands that closure is not on her menu.   She also has learned that living well and enjoying the life she has, albeit different, can be good. Healing is not about shutting grief out.   It is about integrating loss into our life.   Like a tapestry that has dark as well as light and bright and muted colors in the design, such is life.

Rather than thinking of grief as a moment of closure, consider it a journey…with twists and turns, ups and downs, sunny days and rain and things to remember and learn all along the way.   Stop searching for the ultimate finish line with flags flying.   Grief is a chapter, a thread in a larger book called LIFE.   Even when we enter the next chapter of our book, experiences from earlier chapters accompany us….reframed with the gift of time, space, wisdom, compassion and a willingness to feel our big feelings.

Some of the things that help us heal are the support of loved ones and friends gathering to remember, share stories and be present to one another.   This often includes ceremony, rituals and comfort food. Having a final placement for our loved one also helps us along this journey of healing.   That is often a cemetery or niche with permanent memorialization for us and those who follow, a place we can visit and make reference to the generations that behind us.

So, the next time someone suggests that “you need to have/get closure”…you can share with them that you are on a healing journey.   Trust yourself.   You know more than many who would advise you. You will miss your loved one for as long as you remember and love them.   Down the road, that which has brought has brought tears to you, will one day bring back your smiles. That is healing…

Dr. Sandi is the Bereavement Specialist for Hansen Mortuary in Scottsdale and Phoenix Arizona,   She may be reached at [email protected]

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