When people nowdays talk about dealing with tragedy and loss these days, they find it extremely difficult to avoid the word “closure.” When it comes to dealing the death of someone close to us, when he have to deal with the consequence of some catastrophe or other, or when it comes to a perceived breakdown of a relationship, we are frequently told that what we need is closure. Closure is supposed to the final healer and means by which close some chapter or other of life and are get on with rest of it.
It’s not all that difficult to see why the idea appeals. The idea of bringing suffering or grief to an end or close, and as result begin without sorrow, guilt, or anger has to be appealing. A term that originated in Gestalt psychology has by the end of the last century become so commonplace that it is on the tip of the tongue almost everyone who wants to help in getting someone over a difficult patch.
Very recently there are people who have begun to cast doubt on the usefulness of the idea either as a theory or in practice. For example, the American sociologist Nancy Berns, in her book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, poses the following questions:
When it comes to the end of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or even a national tragedy, we are often told we need “closure.” School children are told to find closure after a shooting. A nation seeks closure after 9/11. Mourners search for closure after a funeral, and family members want it following a homicide. Families of missing persons search for closure, as do Katrina survivors and other victims of natural disasters. People are told to find closure after their pets die. Closure is a new emotional state, one that people supposedly need to find in order to heal after a loss. But do people need closure? Or is it even possible to find closure after bad things happen? Why has talk about closure become so popular?
Closure has become a central part of sales talks in the funeral, grief, relationship advice, and memorialization industries as well as a political argument for issues ranging from the death penalty to roadside memorials. Closure provides an engaging behind-the-scenes look at how and why the concept of closure is used to sell products and politics.
But what is closure? There is no agreed upon answer. Closure has been described as justice, peace, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, moving on, resolution, answered questions, or revenge. And how are you supposed to find this closure? People try to find closure by planting trees, acquiring memorial tattoos, forgiving murderers, watching killers die, talking to offenders, writing letters, burning letters, burning wedding dresses, burying wedding rings, casting spells, taking trips to Hawaii, buying expensive pet urns, committing suicide, talking to dead people, reviewing autopsies, and planning funerals. And this is just a partial list.
Talking about closure limits how we think about grief and fails to capture the experiences of many who grieve over death or other losses. Some people struggle to meet social expectations for closure when privately they resent the idea or, worse, they wonder whether something is wrong with them because they do not have closure.
One of the pithiest remarks I have heard on the subject has been made by Stephen Grosz in his book, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, and it is this:
My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow.
Pithy and true? I wonder.