With 4500 of our fellow Americans now dying of COVID-19 every day, the idea of “getting closure” is elusive for those who have lost a loved one. In this chapter from my book, The Real Rules of Life, I show how healing our life losses, or living losses (i.e. divorce, debilitating illnesses or accidents, radical changes in our work, family life, daily routine, lifestyle, and social life), is a process with a timetable all of its own.
Real Rule #9: Closure Is A Myth. Healing Is a Lifelong 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.
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.
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.
Getting Real—“Lifelong Healing”
Healing may be a lifelong process, but we do have some say in the way the process unfolds. If we block off our emotions and refuse to acknowledge the way we are feeling over time, it stymies our natural ability to grow, heal, learn, move past the tragedy, and write new chapters of life. While it’s true that closure is a myth, healing isn’t. There’s much relief to be found in that simple acknowledgement.
Here are some ways you might be able to help the healing process unfold:
• Change your “message to yourself” from 90 percent self-criticism to 90 percent self-compassion.
• Stop telling yourself (and allowing others to tell you) to “Get over it!” and instead, face the real feelings that are there.
• List five ways you have made forward movement in your life after a setback.
• List several events or experiences from the past that you still beat yourself up for. Next to each one complete the sentence that begins “I could stop beating myself up for this if I only . . . .”
• With a confidante, explore the terms and conditions under which you would be willing to forgive yourself. If you’re the kind of person that really has it in for yourself, consider getting professional help to reverse this self-destructive pattern.
In the end, we do not need closure to heal. Nor do we need it to “get better.” It is courage, patience, and small steps forward, one breath at a time, that carve the path for vibrant new chapters to be written.