The Myth of Closure & Grief
Closure is one of my least favorite words – and I’ll tell you why. I think the way we use that word when we’re talking about grief is so different than the way we use the word “close” in everyday language, that it can really set us up for problems with our grief process. I’m a firm believer that grief is something that is supposed to remain unfinished. To be more specific, grief is the process of transitioning to a world where our loved one is no longer physically around us. Now, I don’t mean that we should grieve intensely for the rest of our lives and that our we are filled with the pain of grief forever. That’s definitely not what I mean. What I mean is that after the loss of a close loved one, our lives are forever changed – and the process of dealing with the changes is something that happens through our entire lifetime.
I often use the example that we never ask parents of a newborn, “Has life gotten back to normal?” We’d never say that. After the birth of a child, life is completely different – forever. But sometimes we ask ourselves (or other people will imply this), we ask ourselves “when will I be done grieving the loss of my loved one.” If you’re expecting life to go back to exactly the way it was before, then that is unattainable. That’s just not realistic. And I worry that the term or concept of closure makes it seem like we can close the door on grief and just get back to the way it was.
Let’s start with a few examples of when we hear that word. Perhaps a friend would say to someone, “Once you have the funeral, you can have closure.” Or we hear it after a loss that includes a court case – like in a horrific situation like a homicide. After the trial a reporter on the news says something like, “Now the family can have closure.”
But in everyday language, we use the root word: “close” to almost always mean “to stop” “to deny access to” or “to cut off” or “to end” something. Funerals or court cases or other events where we commonly hear the word “closure” do NOT end a person’s grief. I’ve seen countless examples of families who say a court case or even a guilty verdict or a favorable settlement do little to help with their grief. To be fair, it can feel different to have an event over with. We do feel something after a funeral is over or after a trial is over. And it can certainly be somewhat helpful, as in the situation with a court case, to have an outside person like a judge confirm that someone else was negligible or at fault regarding our loved one’s death. But this doesn’t mean anything about our GRIEF being over.
If I were king for a day and I could replace the word closure, in most cases I would replace it with the word “acceptance” or the phrase “process of acceptance.” So in a funeral situation and we’re having a private viewing where it is the first time we’ve seen our deceased loved one – I wish we would say “That really helped me begin the process of acceptance” instead of saying “that helped me get closure”. Or after a trial related to the death of our loved one, I wish we would say, “Now I can finally continue my grief process without worrying about the trial.”
There isn’t anything that can help us close the door on grief. And to be honest, we probably wouldn’t want to – because often when people try to close the door on grief, they are really closing the door on their entire relationship with their loved one – including all of the happy memories with them. I realize it can seem a little picky to focus on a specific word, but it’s only because I think that word – and the false goals of grief that it represents – are so harmful to the bereaved.
If you’re grieving, I hope you’ve been able to begin your own process of acceptance and have been able to transition from the pain of loss to being able to continue with life and the living while also holding your loved one close in your heart.
In comments below, I hope you’ll share what you think about the concept of closure and whether or not it has helped or not helped your own grief journey. And please share this with someone if you think it would help them.