Closure On Grief: Is it Possible?

When it comes to the process of grief, dealing with uncertainty is hard; many long for closure instead.

In 2009 social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, posted an article about how we deal with uncertainty (“What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous“). He explained that not knowing is anxiety-provoking because it tends to make you project your feelings into the future—feelings that may never happen.

What about closure, the often-sought alternative? First, what actually is closure? Sociologist Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us (2011), finds that the definition of this widely used term varies depending on who’s using it—and, in short, that closure is a made-up concept.

From her website:

Closure has been described—in contradictory ways—as justice, peace, healing, acceptance, forgetting, remembering, forgiveness, moving on, answered questions, or revenge….

But closure is not some naturally occurring emotion that we can simply find with the right advice. Healing? Yes, healing is possible, but that is different from closure.

Myth Slayers is her term for those who mostly agree with her; the Walking Wounded is for those who don’t. In short, “Myth Slayers want the freedom to grieve” (Psychology Today); the Walking Wounded “are stuck in a holding pattern internalizing the belief that without closure they cannot move on with life” (Psychology Today).

In sum, she says “…(T)here is no point of ‘final closure,’ no point at which we can say, ‘Ah, now I have finally completed my grief.’ Or, ‘Yes, now I have healed.’ There is no point at which we will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common.”

Another expert who doesn’t believe in closure is Pauline Boss, who coined the term ambiguous loss to represent, broadly speaking, loss without closure.

Some quotes from Pauline Boss’s The Myth of Closure (2021):

My point is this: Continuing to use the term “closure” perpetuates the myth that losses and grief have a prescribed time for ending—or never starting—and that it’s emotionally healthier to close the door on suffering than to face it and learn to live with it.

Ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent. It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place. But if we learn to cope with uncertainty, we must realize that there are differing views of the world, even when that world is less challenged by ambiguity . . . If we are to turn the corner and cope with uncertain losses, we must first temper our hunger for mastery. This is the paradox.

The secret to coping with the pain of an uncertain loss, regardless of culture or personal beliefs, is to avoid feeling helpless. This is accomplished by working to change what we can and accepting what we cannot.

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