Grief and closure

May 21, 2023
Young man comforting and supporting a sad woman who is in serious trouble at home, Consolation and encouragement concept Image: iStock

Grief is not something we ‘get over,’ or we must ‘move on’ from. The truth is we grow into grief; we do not get closure from it.

The recent deaths at Loafers’ Lodge in Wellington, the ongoing tragic loss of life in Ukraine from the Russian invasion, frequent car accidents, and the continued deaths from COVID-19 give pause for thought. As a funeral celebrant, I see the impact of a person’s death upon their loved ones. It is a privilege to share that experience for a short time. However, one aspect of this whole experience, and the common narrative around death has always troubled me – ‘closure.’

The universality and certainty of death

Of course, the only certainty in life is death and taxes. Nonetheless, each person is unique and each person’s death and situation is subtly different. They are irreplaceable to family, friends, and their wider communities. That we all eventually pass away is a universal truth but as John Donne (1572-1631) asserts in his famous poem (adapted here), we share the experience of each death: ‘Every person’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in humankind. Therefore, do not send for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’

Processing the reality of death

How to process the constant presence of death? If a person has lived a long and full life, we celebrate them and their achievements. If they have been an abusive or a difficult person, we are rightly relieved they have gone, and any guilt we might suffer from such relief is unreasonable. If the deceased person has had a long or painful death, then relief about their passing is also reasonable and compassionate.

If they have died young, or in tragic circumstances, our mourning is typically more intense. For the ancient Greeks, the legend was that the gods were jealous of us humans. Precisely because the gods were eternal and human life was short, the gods were envious of how brightly human lives shone before flickering out. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) asserted, ‘And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.’

These are sentiments reflected in Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper (2012): ‘With endless time, nothing is special. With no loss or sacrifice, we cannot appreciate what we have. There is a reason our days are limited – to make each one precious.’

If the deceased have been in harm’s way as first responders, or emergency services rescuers, we rightly honour their generosity and community spirit. As ANZAC Day has once again come and gone, we commemorate the service and courage of military personnel in armed conflicts.

For people of faith, life is changed not ended. For those who do not have the comfort of religion, or belief in an afterlife, it is still helpful to recall again with Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays with Morrie (1997), that while death might end a life, it does not end a relationship. Even though there is a sense of loss and emptiness, the deceased person exists in the legacy, and the memories of those left behind. As we age, most of us know all this. My own mother used to lament her ‘sense of impending doom,’ and hope that she would be remembered …

The falsehood of ‘closure’

In this context, one of the most troubling concepts in the whole narrative of death is in the word ‘closure.’ The assumption seems to be that we must close the book on the deceased, their memory, and what they mean/meant to us. ‘Closing’ implies that we must ‘move on,’ be ‘opening up’ to other things, and ‘forgetting’ about the person who has died.
This is not the case. Nor should it be. Grief is not something to get over. It is not something to be overcome. Grief seems to be the price we pay for love; the more we have loved the deceased, the more we will grieve for them. The truth is to grieve, to allow time and space to grieve, and to grieve well and authentically – for you.

Some cultures do this better than others with their mourning rituals, anniversary commemorations, and even the attire worn for a certain period after a person’s passing. Wearing black, for example, reminds both the wearer and the observer that this person has lost someone and is choosing to honour them in this way.

Grieving well
It seems that what aids the grieving process is mindfulness, gratefulness, and truthfulness.

Being mindful of the people, circumstances, and events around us helps, as does engaging with the family and friends of the deceased as honesty as we can. We might not know what to say or to ask, and that is OK. Often, just being present is enough. Asking people how they are going is important to those who are grieving, and listening to what they say. Using the deceased person’s name helps, rather than assuming the deceased person has vanished forever.

Remembering those who are left behind is valued, especially at Christmas or family occasions when loved ones would be missing the deceased person. In the midst of sadness, there is often humour. I have seen these many times in great eulogies where an audience or congregation is both laughing and in tears as stories are told. After the funeral, telling stories when prompted by photos and a condolence book is particularly useful.

Being grateful for having this person in our lives is helpful, and being grateful ourselves for the wonder of life. Family members can help by saying things like: ‘That’s just like what Nan used to do.’ ‘Do you remember Pop liked that too?’ ‘I wonder what Mum would have thought about all this?’

Being truthful about the whole experience, even though death is universal and comes to us all, we do experience the passing of loved ones differently. Not everyone grieves the passing of a family member, while some do grieve intensely. It helps to know that the more we have loved someone, the more we are likely to grieve their passing. Further, if our sadness and grief become overwhelming, it is helpful to seek professional help from a grief counsellor.

Grief is not something we ‘get over,’ or we must ‘move on’ from. The truth is we grow into grief; we do not get closure from it.

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