Why ‘Closure’ Doesn’t Exist

“I think what I need is closure,” I said as I looked up at my friend who sat across from me on my bed. She nodded slowly and looked past me, confusion clouding her expression.

“What do you think that means?”

We just looked at each other in silence.

Eventually, I just shrugged.

“I don’t actually even know,” I said.

I’m not sure at what point our culture became so obsessed with the idea of closure, but I do understand the desire for resolution. Maybe it’s the sheer volume of entertainment dedicated to happy endings and solved mysteries that gives us the idea that all pain has a conclusion if you just fight hard enough to earn it. The dark side of this ostensibly hopeful outlook is the resulting guilt when despite our best efforts, we just can’t seem to “get over it”. Years after the fact, we still choke a little when we talk about the parent we lost or the love story that ended too soon if we can manage to talk about it at all. As it turns out, closure is a suitable term for a real estate sale or a romantic comedy but fails us miserably when applied to human relationships.

Almost 50 years ago, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross first outlined the five stages of grief in her book, “On Death and Dying.” She describes these five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as she witnessed them unfold in her terminally ill patients. Though Kübler-Ross intended for these stages to help the dying transition into death, her materials were widely interpreted as a way to comfort those left behind. Her research model soon evolved into seminars, training workshops, and inspiration for a myriad of “self-help” books for the grieving. The five stages became a standard gauge by which to measure grief.

Despite the proliferation of material that followed Kübler-Ross’ research, the five stages have since been criticized (including by the author herself) as overly linear, categorical, and specific to Western culture. What she intended as a helpful tool had become misleading to those trying to navigate the foggy, indeterminable landscape of grief. What contemporary psychiatrists now know – and what Kübler-Ross later admitted – is that grief cannot be reduced to a linear process where we move through stages until one day when we’re finally whole again.

More recent research affirms that carelessly affixing an ill-defined denouement to the grieving process can have serious consequences for healing. In her book “Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us,” sociologist Nancy Berns argues that the idea of closure is exploited by commercial interests, such as funeral directors and criminal justice lawyers who entice their clients by offering a final emotional conclusion. From Berns’ perspective, offering closure promises a resolution where there often isn’t one, and the added pressure to arrive at a nonexistent destination can actually intensify and prolong the grieving process.

Pauline Boss, a leading family therapist, created the incredibly poignant term “Ambiguous Loss” to refer to complicated losses. That could include a disappearing passenger airplane, the incremental fade of dementia, or an immigrant’s longing for their homeland. She introduced this phenomenon in the title of her 1999 book of the same term, wherein she considers grief in terms of oscillations that get farther apart over time, but never fully disappear. She has worked with families who lost loved ones to the attacks on September 11, 2001, as well as survivors of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Her research on the treatment of dementia patients provides family members with guidance on how to live with the loss of a loved one’s cognition.

Boss’ way of reframing grief has implications across all different types of loss. Whether you just broke up with your girlfriend or are facing the unspeakable grief of losing a child, you need to decide how you carry your grief in a way that allows you to keep living. No matter how much we want our pain to be linear and measurable, we are far more likely to extend our hurt by doggedly seeking closure than by facing our loss as it shows up anew each day. We don’t get over our deepest hurts; we use them to build lives we can stand to live in afterward.

When I hear people say they’re looking for closure after a breakup, they usually mean one of three things. They may want an apology from the person who wronged them, or in some cases, revenge. I’ve even heard closure used as an attempt to retain emotional control of an ex. All three approaches have a very low chance of a satisfactory outcome. Even if you feel avenged, you still have to contend with moving on. Forgiveness, something you can extend regardless of the other person’s willingness to accept it, is the exception. It asks nothing and can only free you.

If you love someone, that love never goes away. It shifts and changes, taking new forms, but love doesn’t evaporate when it becomes inconvenient. Humans have an unprecedented ability to live with tension. We can remember without obsessing. We can wonder without descending into mania. We can, as it turns out, learn to live alongside the mysteries we can’t solve.

If you allow for it, this tension can be your release. You can walk away from the guilt that comes with wondering how in the world you’re still trying to make peace with your trauma. You are free from mindlessly searching for a place on Earth where you no longer miss that certain someone. You are free to lean into this pain and all of the obscurity that comes with it. If grief is love with nowhere to go, the best thing you can do is give that grief a home within you. Grief shouldn’t rule your life, and that’s exactly what it will do if you try to ignore it. Choose instead to remain emotionally alive, open to both pain and healing. The closest thing you can get to closure isn’t the absence of your grief, but rather a renewed understanding of what it means to live alongside it.

This doesn’t mean you should text your ex, wallow in depressive thoughts, or completely close yourself off to love, but you can be patient with yourself until you no longer want to.

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Photo courtesy Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

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