Pushing for ‘closure’ after trauma can be harmful to those who are grieving
It is not the mere concept of closure that is a problem. The language of closure can often create confusion and false hope for those experiencing loss.
From the breakup of a relationship to losing a loved one, people are often told to find “closure” after traumatic things happen.
Closure is an elusive concept. There is no agreed-upon definition for what closure means or how someone finds it. Although there are numerous interpretations of closure, it usually relates to an ending to a difficult experience.
As a grief expert and author of “Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us,” I have learned that the language of closure can often create confusion and false hope for those experiencing loss.
Why did closure become popular?
Closure is entrenched in popular culture not because it is an understood concept that people need, but rather because the idea can be used to sell products, services and even political agendas.
The funeral industrystarted using closure as an important selling point after it was criticized harshly in the 1960s for charging too much for funerals. Funeral homes began claiming that their services helped with grief too. Closure eventually became a neat package to explain those services.
In the 1990s, death penalty advocates used the concept of closure to reshape their political discourse. Arguing that the death penalty would bring closure for victims’ family members was an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
Still today, other professionals use the rhetoric of closure to appeal to people’s emotions related to trauma and loss.
So what is the problem with closure?
It is not the mere concept of closure that is a problem. The concern comes when people believe closure is necessary to move forward.
Closure represents a set of expectations for responding after bad things happen. If people believe they need closure to heal but cannot find it, they may feel something is wrong with them. They can feel pressure to either end grief or hide it, and this can lead to further isolation.
Privately, many people may resent the idea of closure because they do not want to forget their loved ones or have their grief minimized.
The concept of closure taps into a desire to have things ordered and simple, but experiences with loss are often longer-term and complex.
If not closure, then what?
As a grief researcher, I engage with many different groups of people seeking help in their grief journeys. I’ve listened to hundreds of people who share their experiences with loss. And I learn time and again that people do not need closure to heal.
They can carry grief and joy together. They can carry grief as part of their love.
As part of my research, I interviewed a woman I will call Christina.
Just before her 16th birthday, Christina’s mom and four siblings were killed in a car accident. Over 30 years later, Christina said that people continue to expect her to just “be over it” and to find closure. But she does not want to forget her mother and siblings. She is not seeking closure to their deaths. She has a lot of joy in her life, but her mom and siblings who died are also part of who she is.
Both privately — and as a community — individuals can learn to live with loss. The types of loss and trauma people experience vary greatly. There is not just one way to grieve, and there is no time schedule. The complexity of loss reflects the complexity of experiences in life.
Rather than expecting yourself and others to find closure, I suggest creating space to grieve and to remember trauma or loss as needed. Some tips to get started:
• Know people can carry complicated emotions together. The goal does not need to be “being happy” all the time, for you or others.
• Improve listening skills and know you can help others without trying to fix them. Be present and acknowledge loss through listening.
• Realize that people vary greatly in their experiences with loss and the way they grieve.
• Bear witness to the pain and trauma of others in order to acknowledge their loss.
• Provide individual and community-level opportunities for remembering. Give yourself and others freedom to carry memories.
Healing does not mean rushing to forget and silencing those who hurt. By providing space and time to grieve, communities and families can honor lives lost, acknowledge trauma and learn what pain people continue to carry.
Nancy Berns is a professor of sociology at Drake University.
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