Contemplating the need for–and meaning of–“closure”

In this blog entry, Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, unpacks the meaning of “closure” and how this concept influences our society.

Twenty years ago a drunk driver killed Julie’s husband, but she tells the story as if it just happened. You can still hear the pain and love in her voice as she thoughtfully passes around a picture of her husband and shares her grief. Julie talks to groups, such as high school students and prisoners, to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving. She wants to prevent someone else from experiencing the grief she intimately knows, but she also simply wants to tell her story.

In Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, I explain why people would be quick to say that Julie needs closure so that she can “move on” with her life and stop dwelling on her loss. But there are many, like Julie, who hate the word closure. She unequivocally tells people, “Closure does not exist.” Julie has plenty of company in criticizing this concept. Still, advice for finding closure thrives. Journalists, politicians, salespeople, and other professionals use closure as a significant theme in writing, politics, and sales.

 From romantic break-ups to terrorist attacks people are expected to find closure after bad things happen—“a satisfying ending” to a traumatic event. Closure has become central for explaining what we need after trauma and loss. It is a new emotional state, one that people supposedly need to find in order to heal after a loss. Yet there is no agreed upon answer for what closure means or how you are supposed to find it. Closure has been described–in contradictory ways—as justice, peace, healing, acceptance, forgetting, remembering, forgiveness, moving on, answered questions, or revenge.

 In spite of the popular use of the term, closure is not some naturally occurring emotion that we can simply find with the right advice. However, we continue to hear from media, family, co-workers, politicians, and salespeople that we need closure. Constructed as a need that we must fill, closure has become a great marketing tool. It is a central part of sales talks in the funeral, grief, relationship advice, and memorialization industries. Closure has also emerged as a powerful political tool for talking about social problems, including grief, victimization, the criminal justice system, capital punishment, DNA collection, terrorism, and public memorials.

It is important to pay attention to closure talk because it shapes our expectations for how we are supposed to grieve. Many people now assume you need closure to grief in order to heal properly. And we are not giving people much time to “move on.” Further complicating our cultural understanding of grief, psychological definitions of “normal grieving” have sped up the expectations for how long it should take to “get over” a loss. The current proposal for the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), scheduled for release in 2013, recommends changes that would further alienate us from the concept of normal grief and sadness after a loss.

Individuals like Julie who continue to talk about a loss months or years later are increasingly more likely to be labeled as having “complicated grief,” which is considered a disorder.  In Closure, I explain why using the concept of 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.

As for Julie, she would tell you that her life is rich, meaningful, and joyful. But she does not use the word closure to describe the healing in her life, nor does she think she has to “get over” her grief. We need to expand our understandings of how people grieve without so quickly trying to end their grief or labeling them as having a psychological disorder. My hope is that readers can use this book to understand the tangled web of closure talk and help navigate the emotional and social experiences resulting from grief and loss.

To learn more about Closure, visit the author’s website at http://www.nancyberns.com/

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