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Closure is a Myth, and Grief is a Necessity

August 4, 2019

Viewing closure as a myth is difficult. Closure implies that we will somehow understand and make sense of something that we weren’t ready for.

The truth is that we will all have more losses than we can count, and we will be unable to make sense of many of them. We think we’ve met our person and out of the blue they stop returning our phone calls, never to be heard from again. We make a financial decision that results in losing the home in which we’ve raised our family. We discover after ten years that we hate the job that we thought would carry us through to retirement. We lose an arm or a leg in a freak accident, and our life changes in an unpredictable, horrifying nanosecond.

We’ve learned that most of the things we worry about will never come to pass. Often, the losses we experience, the things that knock us on our butts, are unpredictable and random, never crossing our minds before they occur.

So if we are not to seek understanding and closure when our world falls apart and we lose yet another thing we love, what are we to do? How do we move forward when life, in this moment, looks and feels meaningless, gray, and hopeless? We grieve.

But grieving isn’t something we have learned to embrace. There are barriers. One of our human tendencies is to detour around grief, away from the mess, to get back to happy as quickly as possible. We want to avoid the experience of discomfort for ourselves, nor do we want to create it for anyone else. We numb ourselves with chemicals, shopping, sex, work, or the latest games on our phone. We become obsessed with the idea of closure. The idea that if we dig furiously enough, we will come upon a reason for our loss that makes sense and somehow reassures us that the world isn’t as unpredictable and scary as it seems in this moment.

When none of our frantic efforts produces a sense of closure, we may stay stuck in a no man’s land of what ifs and shoulds, waiting for logical answers that will never arrive to soothe us and make sense of our losses. When that happens, when we get caught up in a desperate search for closure, we may bottle up our grief until our life force explodes out in irrational and unworkable ways.

Avoiding the full untidiness of life at any cost almost guarantees that we will miss out on the fullness of our own aliveness. I ran across a new word recently: hyper-positivity. It captures a tendency I’m seeing, both inside and outside of my private practice. Avoidance of normal human emotion. We see someone crying and we want them to stop as soon as possible so that we can feel comfortable again. The truth is that crying and expressing deep emotion are steps in moving forward productively in our lives. When those energies are frowned upon, resulting in repression or suppression, people can stay in grief forever.

We need to have our feelings heard and acknowledged so that we can let them go. We’re not prolonging anything by providing a caring, listening ear, minus advice-giving, to someone else’s deep emotions. In fact, we are allowing feelings to have their organic life, passing through and leaving, as they are meant to do.

I’m sure you’ve been in the presence of a child who’s upset, and her parent angrily or with embarrassment, says loudly, “Stop crying right now! You’re fine!” Instead of stopping, the child ratchets up the emoting until they are completely inconsolable. If that parent had known to kneel down, gently hold the child, and whisper, “It’s okay to cry, and to breathe, and to feel bad,” allowing the child to tell their story without trying to interrupt or fix the child or the situation, they might have seen a magic recovery. When allowed, children feel the feelings, let them go, and run back to play. That parent and child can be our models for how we can hear each other, share our stories, and grieve.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist who originated a theory of the five stages of grief, had good intentions. But I don’t think she meant for us to take her ideas and turn them into immutable facts or a rigid timeline. The five stages of grief she offered may or may not be something you have or will experience. The important thing is to experience the grief of your loss and to be able to share the story of your experience. However, there is no right time frame in which to do this.

Every few years I am washed with grief over an experience that happened twenty-five years ago. I haven’t been able to justify the decisions I made back then, nor completely lose the sense of blame that I carry. I’ve experienced no closure. The feelings occasionally show up out of the blue, often when I’m meditating, and now I’m familiar enough with them that they no longer startle me. I have learned to allow the tidal wave of sadness to wash over me, and then because I’m not afraid of it, or attached to keeping it, I allow it to have its natural, organic life, and then dissolve into the universe. Each time it happens, I’m reminded of the importance of honoring my losses.

The experience of grief can be as quick as a butterfly passing in front of our eyes, or like the experience I just described of periodically being washed with momentary sadness over a twenty-five-year-old loss. Please know that the length of your grieving doesn’t imply quality, nor does it determine how important the object of your loss was to you. Grief is personal and unique to each of us, and to each experience of loss.

Consider a situation for which you still seek, or are waiting for, closure. Ask yourself if you’re willing, just for this moment, to grieve the loss, even without the closure you’ve been hoping for. Honor your losses by allowing yourself to grieve and move forward, in your own time, into the next phase of your life.

Much Love,