Excerpted from The Real Rules of Life (Hay House, May 15, 2013)
Real Rule #9
Closure is a Myth: Healing is a Life-Long Process
Closure. Anyone who’s ever experienced loss has heard about it, prayed for it, wanted it desperately. Whether someone close to you has died or you’ve suffered devastating financial losses, you’ve invariably heard that closure is what you’re supposed to be seeking, and what, at some point, you’re sure to attain.
In theory, it’s a great concept. Who wouldn’t want to be “finished” and done with the pain of loss? It’s human nature to want to tie everything up in a neat little bow—to get “over” the parts of life that hurt. Some of us even approach loss with a checklist in hand. “Anger? Check! Sorrow? Check! Okay, now can I get on with my life?”
If only life (and getting over a loss) were that easy.
Imagine if I said to my friend whose daughter had been murdered, “Just do A, B, and C, and you’ll get over it.” So he sees a grief counselor, goes to a support group, starts taking an antidepressant, and goes for daily coffee with a buddy (in that order). He’s going down the checklist.
A year later, his daughter’s murderer is convicted. The man comes back to me and says, “I did everything you said—I checked all the boxes off. And now the guy’s been put away. But all that stuff is coming up again. I thought when the trial ended, that would be it. Everyone said, ‘At least you have closure now.’ But there’s no relief. In fact, I feel worse. So what is wrong with me? I told myself a lie about what would happen when this trial ended . . . and you let me do it.”
I never give people an “ABC” checklist because grief doesn’t work that way. There’s no rhyme or reason to the healing process after a loss. Many years ago, my friend and mentor, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a true pioneer of the hospice movement, wrote about what has come to be widely accepted as the “stages” of grief. And yet, near the end of her life, when we would meet at her home, Elizabeth would tell me her stages were meant to be guideposts, not a cookie-cutter prescription for getting closure. Trying to sanitize our feelings, tie them up in a neat little package, and expect we’re all going to go through a series of orderly stages is only setting ourselves up for more pain.
Grief has a life and a timetable all its own. Each of us comes to terms with loss in our own time and our own way. In my experience, there is no such thing as real closure. Yes, certain events can be finished. Maybe the trial or the funeral are over, or you finally got the court papers finalizing your divorce. A painful chapter comes to a welcome end. But that doesn’t mean all the feelings associated with these events are suddenly going to cease and desist. Why do we feel that it’s necessary to put a period at the end of a sentence when we don’t know what the future holds?
It’s natural that we want to make things final—to be done with painful and unpleasant parts of our lives and move on. These losses are such a source of pain, humiliation, frustration, distress, and disturbance in our lives. But we can’t always block our hearts or minds, nor should we try. Some things just hurt for a long time, not because of any fault or failure on our part—despite what we’re often led to believe. Some feelings are just going to be there for the rest of our lives. As baseball legend/cult philosopher Yogi Berra so wisely said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
If you’re beating yourself up for not finding closure, take it easy and back off. There’s nothing wrong with you. You can’t find something that doesn’t exist.
Some Things Occur Outside of Time
In my line of work, there’s a lot of speculation about the length and stages of the healing process. Some want to know, “How long is this going to take?” In alcohol recovery people ask, “How long before I can start drinking again?” In the initial stages of grief, it is not uncommon for a newly bereaved Mom or Dad to ask, “How long is this going to go on? I’m not sure how much longer I can take it. What are the steps I need to follow?”
Often there’s a made-up recovery period or deadline attached to a crisis or transition we’re going through. “Divorce? Oh, should take about a year.” “Lost job? Should be okay in six months.” A bereaved wife recently told me, “My new psychologist told me it should take one year to get over the death of my husband. It’s been over a year. What am I doing wrong?” she asked.
It’s a complaint I hear often, “What’s wrong with me?” Or, “I did everything everybody told me and I’m still missing my Dad.” Years after a loss, people are still missing their loved ones. How could they not? Those who lost loved ones with violent suddenness struggle with the painful memories, intrusive thoughts, and unwelcome flashbacks so common to traumatic loss. They’re convinced they must be doing something wrong or these things wouldn’t be happening.
I encourage these people to forget about all the old wives’ tales and clichés, to let themselves off the hook and allow themselves to be human. Not that they should allow grief and loss to take control of their lives. They just need to be honest with themselves and others about how they’re really doing, so they can get the support they need. In the ruthless quest for closure and approval, we end up dehumanizing and hurting ourselves. We’re expecting something that is unreasonable if not impossible, which is to know in advance when we’ll be over our loss. Yes, a chapter may be closed. And progress should be noted, even celebrated. But there are often new chapters yet to be written, and there’s no way to determine when or what they will be.
Take the example of my client whose daughter was murdered. At the time, he had been married to the same woman for 24 years. Within three years of his daughter’s death, they were divorced. That happened more than a decade ago. At the time, all he could deal with was his daughter’s death. But only in the last couple of years did he actually start grieving the death of his marriage. Only recently did he realize how angry he had been with his ex-wife. How betrayed he felt by her leaving. His grief over the loss of his daughter had eclipsed everything else for so long, and only after ten years was he able to truly deal with issues arising from the end of his marriage. He had no way of knowing this “chapter” would resurface so many years down the line. How could he? So much for closure!
Should people who have prematurely declared “closure” push away these kinds of feelings when they come up? Should they fake it to appear normal again, while inwardly feeling like they are doing something wrong? That they are failures?
Absolutely not! The second part of Real Rule #9 is that healing is a life-long process. Old pain often recycles when triggered. Unfinished business comes up again, bubbling to the surface long after we think it “should” be gone. And it arises for reasons that are not always clear. Maybe we’re finally ready for it. Maybe it was too emotionally overwhelming at the time it happened for us to deal with it all at once, and now we have the strength to process even more. Like a shard of shrapnel that’s been stuck beneath our skin—sitting there for years and never surfacing—until finally, one day, our bodies expel them. Perhaps it’s the same with our minds and hearts. Old wounds surface when it’s time! As part of the natural healing process, when we are ready.
In my Grief Literacy and Healing After Loss workshops, I like to point out that we have a choice. We get to express how we feel—or we get to stuff it. “Processed” grief has been allowed to work its way through our system and express itself in some constructive way. “Unprocessed” grief is stuff that we’re not dealing with, which will express itself too—it’s just likely to come out “sideways.” Unprocessed grief has a tendency to turn into numbness, aggression, and indifference to the pain of others.
Look at all the incarcerated kids in the California Youth Authority (CYA)—hundreds of thousands of kids under twenty-one who are in jail. One study showed that most of these kids first started getting into trouble after they’d incurred a significant life loss. Might it be possible that the adults in their lives glossed over the fact that they lost someone or something very important to them, and that these kids were hurting terribly?
Too many of our disenfranchised children, rich and poor, get the message to, “suck it up” and “get over it and move on.” They feel that nobody really cares about their pain. So what do they do? They spread that pain around. Their anger or indifference to the pain of others shows up glaringly in juvenile crime (drug, homicide, and suicide) statistics.
If they were given time to process their loss—with a significant adult who cares and supports them process the pain—I guarantee we’d see a lot fewer gang members and violent offenders at the CYA. Not to mention less violence on the streets, a lot fewer suicides, and fewer kids strung out on drugs.
Closure as Comfort Food
If closure is a myth, then why do people always ask—after every breakup, death, and loss—if we feel we’ve “gotten closure” and can finally move on with our lives?
Because closure is comfort food. It gives us temporary relief from the pain. The idea of closure—the belief that there is a light at the end of the tunnel—makes us comfortable. It theoretically gives us a way to fill the emptiness we feel with hope. Hope that the pain will soon be over. We want to paint a pretty face on the loss. And when someone close to us suffers a loss is it any surprise that we don’t really know how to be there for them? Witnessing someone else’s loss activates all of our worst fears—the “what if” scenarios that we spend a lot of energy, time, and resources running away from because they leave us feeling so weak and powerless.
Because it’s an unfeasible ideal, our insistence that people get closure can turn into something hurtful. It’s like we’re sapping the natural emotions out of an individual who’s suffered a loss and pumping some artificial chemical back into his or her system. In other words: we’re embalming the living with false hope.
Messages like “Get back out there!” don’t help. Sometimes even close friends and family members jump on the bandwagon, suggesting we “Get back on the horse!” before we’re ready. The underlying message is: “You are making all of us feel very uncomfortable. Can’t you just move on?”
The presence of pain and anguish, and the anxiety of not knowing how to help, often cause well-meaning people to gloss over and put a spin on the distress of others. When confronted with the helplessness of someone who’s in pain, we defer to our knee-jerk reaction: the “figure out and fix” two step.
Oh, But You’re So Young!
After 9/11, The Jenna Druck Center started a variety of grief support groups in New York. One of them was for young widows of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives at Ground Zero. These women ran the gamut from eighteen- and nineteen-year-old newlyweds to thirty-somethings with kids. When I asked them, “Tell me one thing people say that helps you and one that makes you want to throw them to the ground and choke them,” the answers were pretty universal.
“What’s most helpful is when people simply say how sorry they are,” the young women all agreed. “What drives us most crazy is when they say, ‘Oh, but you’re so young!’”
What does “But you’re so young!” actually mean? The underlying message being delivered to those women was, “Don’t be so sad! You’ll have no problem finding a substitute husband.” It’s similar to the seemingly innocent question bereaved parents get all the time: “Do you have any other children?” There’s this underlying message of, “Look, get over it already. You’ve got another one!”
Let me be the first to tell you, every one of those widows and parents wanted to scream, “It’s not all right! I am sad! And there’s nothing you can say or do to make it better! It just sucks!”
It doesn’t matter if you’ve lost your home, health, pension, life-savings, marriage, or business—or a loved one to cancer or terrorism—messages like these make you feel utterly alone, misunderstood and judged. Suddenly you’re dealing with a second loss: the abandonment of society. These “get over it” messages are blatantly insensitive, as are the many other things people say to help, even the family members who love you. But they don’t help. They hurt. And sometimes, though we don’t even know it, we “join in” and do it to ourselves.
That insidious voice of self-criticism eats away at us from the inside out. “What’s wrong with me?” we want to know. We can all be unrelenting in our judgment of ourselves. The voice of self-condemnation in those who have suffered deep wounds, like rape victims and disabled veterans, can be brutal.
My scars are ugly! they think. Look at me! I’m damaged merchandise! The antidote for such harsh self-judgment is the voice of self-compassion and kindness. Self-compassion starts not from a position of what’s wrong with you, but from a position of what’s right. How could you suffer great loss, trauma, or pain and not feel the way you feel? How could you not be going through what you’re going through? And how could you not feel the effects of such an ordeal? Self-compassion says, “Rest assured: you’re doing the very best you can. And with greater kindness and compassion for yourself, you’ll do even better tomorrow.”
This voice of gentle self-acceptance is one that most of us could use more often, especially when we’re hurting. It takes great effort and determination to break the grip of old insidious habits when it comes to a critical and condemning voice. Learning to speak in a kind and encouraging voice gives us the strength, support, and permission we need to get to the next step in a long healing process. What’s more, once we stop shaming ourselves our physical and emotional wounds and scars can even become badges of honor and reminders of our bravery.
At the Jenna Druck Center, we have a saying about the pain of suffering a loss: “It never gets better. It gets different.”
Most people don’t want to hear that. It’s one of the Real Rules that many people do not want to accept. But accepting the fact that some wounds heal very slowly and unevenly and that some things never get better can be one of the most freeing things you can do for yourself. By putting to rest the idea that it should “get better,” you can stop berating yourself for not feeling better or “getting closure.” Instead, you can open to all there is to be grateful for: the people and blessings that are helping you move forward in your life.
Though in our darkest moments it seems impossible, we do truly make forward movement. Moment by moment, we begin putting one foot in front of the other. This slow and steady movement brings newfound energy and strength to deal with feelings that show up months and years after the initial loss. These feelings don’t resurface to harass, punish, or torment you; they resurface to show you that you still have some processing to do. And that’s not only okay; it’s often just the roadmap you need for continued healing.
Unfinished, unprocessed parts of our lives will float back up the top, often in dreams and memories. One day you’ll be inexplicably angry; another day surprisingly lighthearted; another day a feeling of sorrow will pass over you like a shadow. All of these experiences are totally normal, and provide subtle reminders to go easy on yourself. You are a work in progress and still have healing to do.
It might take ten years for shrapnel to surface through the skin. Or it could be twenty. There are no timelines, no conditions. It will take what it will take. And we can go on with life in the meantime. As healing and reconciliation unfold in each of our lives, we acknowledge and validate the feelings that surface. Honest acknowledgement encourages forward movement.
In the end, we do not need closure to heal. Nor do we need it to “get better.” As the family members with whom I was reunited at the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 reaffirmed, it is courage, patience, and small steps forward, one breath at a time, that carve the path for vibrant new chapters to be written.