A few weeks ago, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was interviewing a psychologist in Kuala Lumpur who was grief counseling some of the families of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished. Despite the fact that there was still no confirmation that lives were lost — because the plane had still not been found — the worst was feared. As each day passed with no word on the whereabouts of the fated jet, hopes were dashed.
During the interview, when Mr. Cooper sensitively asked the psychologist the almost obligatory question — how do you help people achieve closure after an event like this? — he humbly prefaced it by saying that for him the word “closure” was the worst word to use. Mr. Cooper went on to surmise that after a tragic event of this magnitude, there is no such thing as closure. One will always suffer the devastating pain of such a catastrophic loss.
AC is right. Attempting to achieve closure in the traditional sense or “moving on” or “letting it go,” or better yet, “getting over it” is like trying to sever the ties we have with our newly-departed ones. Human attachment as we know is very powerful and is not easily dissolved. The bonds we develop with loved ones are immeasurable.
When someone near and dear to us dies, looking for closure is an inappropriate expectation. It infers that we must somehow abruptly abandon that attachment and move on, as if suddenly the person we have just lost does not matter to us, or that their life never affected us.
The mythology of “closure” is that to survive after a loss, we must rapidly attain a state of “healing.” We have to pick ourselves up, let go of the past and focus on the living. But the over-simplification of “closure” as a mandatory action to take when tragedy strikes can impair our ability to learn to live with it. Closure suggests that it’s quite possible to forget something that you cannot ever forget. Furthermore, closure implies a single event or a destination to arrive at, which is how many people see it.
In contrast, “bereavement” or “grieving” is more of a process involving the mind, the heart and the soul as it learns to coexist with deep wounds that never heal. Like a scar that leaves a mark and remains visible for life. Over time, the scar fades but never disappears entirely.
When both my parents died in 2004 –13 days apart, to be exact — the heaviness of my grief crashed into me like a freight train. Almost 10 years later, I manage to comfort myself by surrounding my home with photos of my mother and father in happier times when they were healthy and unburdened by their illnesses, but the sorrowful ache is still there. Remembering them and the pain they went through is like running my fingers along the scar every day. Sometimes the nerve endings are so sensitive that it hurts to look back. But I know I have to.
In truth, after a loved one dies, a personal journey begins of emotionally evolving and growing into a different kind of self-awareness. This new self-awareness helps us make the unspoken, yet necessary agreement with ourselves to submit and live by life’s terms (which typically means that over the course of our lives people we love will die). But, how we respond to it is up to us. No one is allowed to tell us when we are done grieving because it’s not quantifiable.
With the one-year anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings approaching, victims of the attacks, surviving family members and close friends are probably still deep in the process of their own individual grieving. I doubt anyone has come close to moving on or anyone has come to terms with the pain.
The traumatic memories of that momentous day have undoubtedly carved deep grooves in their psyches that may stay with them for a long time. Whenever our sense of safety and security is shattered by these types of events, restoring that emotional stability is not a simple undertaking. The central nervous system needs time to reset and process the loss of that very same safety and security that was taken away.
Another point to consider about the minimizing notion of closure is that according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), although bereavement is considered a legitimate condition influenced by an identifiable stressor, it must only have duration of two months. Like a transient infection, it must resolve itself within a limited course of time. After that, if you are still feeling mournful and overwhelmed by the death of a loved one, you are considered having depression. The message implies that you should be ready to move on and get over it in about 62 days, give or take a few.
So, for me, I am nine years and three months late on my bereavement process about my parents. I should have come to terms with it around January 2006.
However, the renowned Five Stages of Grieving conceived by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross allows for a very humanistic, non-linear experience of grieving. The stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Although the theory sprung from her many years of working with the terminally ill, the emotional stages have been widely used to blueprint and track an individual’s delicate process through any experience of loss. Even in regards to surviving a loved one’s death, everyone will experience the stages but in their own individualistic way and in no particular order. Kubler-Ross also emphasized that the stages she introduced are not intended to be a complete list of all possible emotions that could be felt. Her five stages are just a sampling.
But, what is most interesting about her theory is that to her, the stages of grieving are intended to help the sufferer work through each stage at their own pace. There is no restriction of a timeline. Sometimes individuals take three steps forward in their grieving and then the following week, two steps back. The resolution of each stage in a well-timed and systematic fashion is not required. The stages are merely pivotal points in time of the bereavement process that are experienced from a phenomenological standpoint, not a mandatory one.
A New Beginning
It’s important to remember that traversing through the grief and loss continuum at any level is a life-long course. We don’t try and accelerate it. The human heart is not a car engine that can be greased, oiled and subsequently tuned up to perform better. It’s not a bad idea to look under the hood every now and then, but you may not always find the answers in there.
So we try to look at grieving (or closure) as a beginning — albeit an involuntary one — to a new life of learning to cope with the inevitable and the catastrophic. In this case, the death of a loved one and/or an obliterated sense of safety and security.
The new beginning asks the opposite to what closure expects of us. It asks us to learn to live with NOT forgetting and NOT getting over it because we can’t. We learn to coexist with the liability of owning a human heart and the constant reminder that we will always be scarred.
Why? Because the treasured perspective gained from referring back to that scar periodically reminds us that we dared to love others and they loved us back. The depth of each mark we are left with conceivably indicates the quality of our love — a memento of the meaningful human connections we all seek no matter who you are.
In other words, we yield to the finite nature of all mortal relationships. We are born, we get attached, we love and then inevitably, we die.
My thoughts are with anyone and everyone affected by the Boston bombings one year ago and most recently, with the surviving families of the 239 lives that are reportedly still missing in the Malaysia Airlines tragedy.