The feeling of arousal that most men experience upon entering a big hardware store is the same feeling I get when I approach the New Non-Fiction shelves at my local library. Recently I found a book with the intriguing title, Closure: The rush to end grief and what it costs us by Nancy Berns (Temple University Press, 2011). It is well worth the read and does a wonderful job unpacking the various meanings of closure in our society. But as a relatively recent widower, I had a very personal interest in the author’s thoughts on closure.  

If I understand Berns correctly, the main thesis of her book is that the term “closure” has gained quite a bit of traction in contemporary society – so much so that the real meaning of the word can be lost in its overuse. Not that Berns tries to stake out her definition; rather she exposes the contradictions and potential misuses of this term. Just one example she offers is the increasing prevalence of “divorce parties” (complete with small representations of one’s ex that can be burned, mutilated, or cast away depending on taste) to provide one with a sense of closure for the end of their bad marriage. Apparently, closure sells.

On a more somber note, Berns attempts to explore what we have come to mean by closure in terms of grief and to what degree this term is helpful. In spite of the contradictions, Berns identifies four characteristics of closure that most who use the term frequently would agree on. However, Berns wonders if any of these four are even true or accurate.  I share her suspicions.

First, most of us believe closure is possible. Simple logic would tell us that if closure is not possible, then the term is of little use. Closure, at its most basic connotation, is the end of something.  What ends at closure? For those of us on a grief journey, it is hard to identify or recognize when closure has occurred. Is it when I stop crying every day? Is it when I “move on” (whatever that means)? Is it when I stop hurting? For many it is remarriage or entering into another relationship. But does that forever shut out the memory of the previous spouse or the pain of their loss? There were many times early in my grief journey when I clung to the idea that one day my pain would end and I would be able to resume some kind of normal life. I wanted to believe something like closure was possible. Now I am not so sure.

Second, whatever closure means it is usually portrayed as something good. Who of us on this grief journey would say closure is bad? Who wants to keep hurting?  Talking to other widowers and widows I tried to find out how they were able to close the previous chapter of their life and begin to write the next chapter. What I found was that there was no one size fits all. I also found that the chapters in one’s life story are not that discrete.

Because closure is good, it is also therefore desirable. We should all look forward to the day when our grief has achieved some kind of closure, shouldn’t we? The first few months after my wife died, I wondered when the pain of her loss would not be my predominate preoccupation. Not only did I believe in closure, I wanted it.

Finally, if all this is true, closure has come to be seen as necessary for grievers to heal. Apparently grief cannot be allowed to just take its course. There has to come a day when closure occurs. Without it, grief can go on indefinitely and no one wants to be around a perpetually sad person. Therefore after a reasonable amount of time, those in grief should start thinking about what closure will look like for them and get busy pursing it (and in my case, worrying if I should have experienced it by now).

As I mentioned, this book has personal interest for me. The author greatly challenged me to think about my own view of closure and where I think it fits on my grief journey. I have done many of the things that count for closure in this culture and yet the loss of my wife continues to be the most dominant and painful event of my life. Maybe Berns is right; maybe closure is just a construct.

However I cannot forget that maybe something close to real closure is indeed promised to those who trust in Jesus. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  I suspect this closure is more than a construct. 

Bryan Maier, Psy. D.  is an Associate Professor of Counseling & Psychology in the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates.


+1 # Philip Monroe 2012-05-22 12:38
Bryan, exceptionally well-written. The construct (maybe fallacy) of closure in this life hurts many who seek it like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It is probably better for us to imagine how we hold grief and joy together in the same hand--until that final closure in Rev. 21.
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0 # Shirley Hill 2012-05-24 03:39
Thanks so much for sharing - I really appreciate it. I am always disturbed by the way the word 'closure'is used so glibly - especially in the media. I think we are very hooked on 'quick fixes'. We want the pain to end as fast as possible - who doesn't? But if we short-cut, and don't allow grief to take its course, are me missing out on the lessons God has for us. After all, God uses all sorts of tools to hone us and shape us into his image. I am too much of a coward to ever want pain, but I do want to learn not to 'waste the pain'- rather let it drive me closer to God and shape me more in his image.
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0 # MaryAnn Johnson 2012-05-26 03:45
The book you wrote about sounds excellent. I have read quite a few books on grief and it's journey. One I found to be the absolute best (and one you may be interested in getting) is called: Companion Through The Darkness: Inner Dialogues on Grief by Stephanie Ericsson
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0 # Kimberly Winters 2012-05-30 06:02
Thank you so much for this excellent review. How sad that we are such a stressed out culture that not only do we microwave our poptarts, we pressure our hurting friends to hurry up and grieve! Thank you for pointing us to this helpful resource, and for your insightful comments about it.
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0 # R. Todd Mangum 2012-06-09 13:07
Thanks, Bryan -- not only helpful and insightful, but also, in that your review comes from one who knows whereof he speaks and has walked through the issue by experience, carries significant weight.
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