Let’s talk about “closure,” that thing we search for but never fully find after someone dies. We really hope to find it, and the need for it is deeply felt. We go to the funeral and put up the grave marker to find it. We clean out the room, give away some of the clothes, perhaps even take off the ring for a while. Reporters ask grieving people about whether or not they’ve found it, and if not, what needs to be done to allow it to be found.
How did we learn that “closure” was the goal? It seems such a questionable term. Closure suggests a certain finality, a once-and-done quality. Closing the door, never to open it again. Closing the book because the story is finished. Leaving the source of loss and pain in the past because that’s where it belongs and where it shall stay. When we get closure, we are free to live into the future unburdened and liberated, never again to feel haunted, sad or distressed. Closure locks all that away and throws away the key. Closure is great. Closure is the bomb.
Closure is one big lie.
Life just doesn’t work that way, and grief, being an integral part of life, doesn’t work that way either. We don’t close the door forever, the story doesn’t end, and as much as we might desire it, the loss and all that came with it will not stay locked in the past. When death comes, we are marked by the loss, branded by pain, and impacted by a life to which we will ever be tethered.
The term “closure” misleads more than helps, but it’s tempting to use because it suggests something that is real. In a sense, we do find bits and pieces of closure, “closure-light.” We are able to close the door for a while, or at least partway. We don’t close the book, but we can turn the page and begin a new chapter. We can put memories away for a time, but the lock is broken and the memories will visit us again.
The metaphor of a book for our grieving is particularly compelling, but not because we can close it and end the story. We find ways to turn a page or begin a new chapter, and when we do, new things happen and the story changes. We know that in any story worth its salt—and our lives are certainly that—whatever happens earlier in the story continues to shape the story as it develops and evolves.
Even if an event happens in the first pages of the book, it will still be around to influence the later chapters. The elements in the stories of our lives are interconnected and can’t be deleted, bound together from prologue to epilogue. And yet there is an openness that happens when we are able to turn pages and begin new chapters. The story is impacted but not trapped by what came before. Finding ways to turn pages and start new chapters is a real and good thing, but we know that it’s not really closure, at least as it’s been sold to us.
Like so many other good ideas in life, the idea of closure has value but the marketing is deceptive. Closure as finality and end-of-story is a false promise, a fantasy which distorts and disappoints. Won’t happen because it can’t happen.
But if we peel back the layers of the hype and over-promising, there is something worthwhile in the concept of closure. There are things we do which bring greater acceptance, which allow us to put down at least a little of the burden we’ve been carrying and which open up future possibilities.
Closure is not the right word for this, but it does suggest a true and important thing: There are things we can do that take us, or at least allow us, to go toward a more healing and healed place. Just don’t call it “closure,” a word that deserves to be lost, mourned and left behind.
Center for Good Mourning
Arkansas Children’s Hospital