The Closure Delusion

When terrible things happen, we like to believe that our suffering has an endpoint. But within the psychiatric profession, a faction—including Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life—believe "closure" is a myth, and maybe a harmful one.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

||Still image from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, based on the book by Russell Banks

A famous yard of bricks marks both the start and the finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Before the starter pistol went off for the Indy 500 two weeks ago, 39 runners stampeded across the bricks. They had been competing in the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off, and Indy 500 organizers had invited them to the Speedway to symbolically finish the race. “Surreal. Unbelievable. The love,” a runner from Mason City, Illinois told a reporter for about the feeling of crossing that threshold in front of a roaring crowd. “Being a runner, there’s been a gaping hole in my soul. I needed closure. This brought closure.”

The idea of a finish line, an end to grief or trauma, is a metaphor that has become so real in our culture that we plan televised events to help ourselves reach it. A year after 9/11, The Onion ran a satirical article about the anniversary television specials Americans could expect to see: “On Sept. 11, 2002, Americans will sort through emotions ranging from anger to grief, pain, and a profound sense of remains unclear which television network will rise to the occasion, with its sensitive, cathartic anniversary coverage helping us decide what to feel while bringing a sense of closure to our national period of mourning.”

Closure dominates media representations of sorrow. But within the psychiatric profession, there is a faction that believes closure doesn’t exist. Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, has the grave, understanding voice of a somber child’s imaginary friend, and he has treated countless patients dealing with loss. “For the person who’s mourning, there isn’t an end,” he told me. “As long as you’re alive you can feel grief.” What’s more, he says, our cultural discourse of closure may be hurting these people. Grosz felt that his patients “were suffering more from a tyranny of ‘shoulds’—you should be through this by now, you should have finished with this, set this aside. That really...”—he laughs, which, as he notes elsewhere in his book, people do when they are angry—”that really bugs me.”

Closure is a multivalent concept, with distinctly different meanings in psychology, mathematics, philosophy, computer science, and the study of clouds. Philosopher Hilary Lawson’s book Closure: The Story of Everything, published in 2001, emphasizes just how fundamentally closure shapes our view of the world—closure is what allows us to make up a world full of things that are separate from each other. “It is through closure that openness is divided into things. Without closure we would be lost in a sea of openness: a sea without character and without form.” Closure is about defining limits, and while some of those limits are negative and constricting, they are also the basis for our reality: “Closure is responsible...for our being able to experience a sunrise over a field of corn; or hear the sound of a log fire and the warmth that it brings; it is closure that makes possible the kiss of a lover or the pain of injury.”

If closure is what our sense of the world is built on, we’re apt to see it when it isn’t there. A slightly different idea of closure first surfaced in Gestalt psychology in the 1920s. Initially, it was a theory of perception stating that humans are built to see wholeness, so if we’re presented with a picture in which something is missing, we fill in the gap to “close” the image. Gestalt psychologists applied this thinking to our mental images of past events, assessing how a sense of finality might affect how we remembered them. In the 1960s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the now classic On Death and Dying, which, though she didn’t use the word “closure,” argued that families needed to understand and, if possible, participate in the sense of acceptance that a dying patient eventually comes to feel. These two conceptions show the push-pull of our relationship with finality; we love completion but fear endings.

In her 2011 book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, sociologist Nancy Berns notes that while grief is old, “closure” is new—”our grandparents did not seek closure after the death of a loved one.” Berns relates her own experience of losing a child, and how infuriating it was to be told that she would or should achieve an end to her grieving process. She writes that other people’s ability to conceptualize grief is “mostly constrained by limited patience and expectations that the person will solve the problem within a brief amount of time, without much discussion of the actual pain.” The idea that grief is a problem to be “solved” is, Grosz remarks, a consequence of our goal-oriented society. We want to cheer people on as they race for the finish line, not watch them wander blindly in circles or lie down on the tarmac to sob.

Arguments about victims’ need for closure have even begun to inform legal decisions. In the 1980s, Berns reports, the term “therapeutic jurisprudence” came into use. Therapeutic jurisprudence aims to use legal proceedings to help victims and victims’ families heal; judges often see this as synonymous with achieving closure. The problem is, no one is entirely sure what, if anything, gives victims that sense of closure. Death penalty advocates are sure that putting murderers to death will do the trick, and, in some cases, that families of the victims can only truly move on if they watch the execution. Berns writes that in 2001, a Hawaiian court ruled that people who commit suicide must be convicted of a crime in order to give family and friends closure, and that in 2006, an Illinois court said that the goal of DNA collection was to provide closure for victims.

While it is arguably important to recognize the needs of human actors in court cases—both victims and perpetrators—those needs may not be fully knowable, even to the individuals themselves. Berns relates the experience of Brooks Douglass, an Oklahoma state senator who watched his parents murdered and his sister raped by intruders when he was sixteen. He authored a bill asking that victims’ families be allowed to be present at murderers’ executions. He and his sister Leslie were the first to take advantage of the legislation. They both felt ambivalent about what they had really gained from the experience, with Leslie commenting to the Washington Post that the eye-for-an-eye feeling she had expected didn’t come: “There we were, listening to my mom vomit blood, and knowing how much pain [our parents] were in, and the worst pain he ever felt was the needle going into his arm.” Using the law to somehow establish a precedent for dealing with grief seems like wishful thinking; in the case of Humanity vs. Sorrow, the jury has been out for a long time.

If closure is a null concept, and all of our rituals are ultimately doomed to fail in their goal of making us feel better in a lasting, static way, what’s the alternative? The only other option is to accept that after loss, grief, or trauma, we will always live with some degree of pain. It goes away, but it usually comes back, in one form or another. As a society, we have trouble accepting that terrorist attacks, school shootings, and natural disasters will have a permanent effect on our national psyche. But on an individual level, many are ready to live alongside their grief. In the Huffington Post, Joan Sutton recently wrote:

Do. Not. Speak. To. Me. Of. Closure. What a hideous word. Closure. If you have truly loved someone, you do not ever want to close off the memory of that love, the richness of that experience. Let me be strong enough to absorb this death into my life, let it deepen my understanding of the mystery of life, let it make me wiser. Bring me acceptance but, never, closure.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.