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What do we mean by ‘closure’?

Grieving woman thinking alone

‘Closure’ is one of those words that is often used but rarely thought about in depth. It’s usually bounded about in relationship advice columns in magazines. When we’re grieving – whether that be for the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or any other loss in our lives – there’s often an insistence on the need for ‘closure’. But what does that mean, and is it a reasonable goal to strive for after a loved one has died?

Origins in psychology

In psychology, the term ‘need for closure’, or NFC, describes a common human desire to find definite answers to questions. Psychologist Jerome Kagan suggested in 1972 that the desire to rid ourselves of uncertainty and form solid opinions is a key motivation that influences our day-to-day behaviour. In the early 90s Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster undertook important research that shows people’s need for closure is heightened in stressful or traumatic situations.

Kruglanski confirmed these findings in a 2009 study. After the 7/7 bombings in London, in which 52 people lost their lives, Kruglanski was able test people’s need for closure in response to a major national tragedy. He found that people were noticeably more desperate for answers to questions, in a quest to end their emotional uncertainty. They were more eager to form opinions on who was to blame and more supportive of tough counter-terrorism measures. Essentially, people wanted certainty and concrete solutions during a time of deep trauma and worry.

This may seem like common sense, but how does closure feature in the grieving process? If you are grieving the loss of a relationship after a divorce or break-up, friends may talk to you about ‘closure’. You may feel the need ask your ex why the relationship ended. You may become convinced that they were unfaithful, or search for alternatives reasons why they left.

If you manage to find definite answers to these questions, you may experience some sense of relief. For example, if your partner explains exactly what went wrong and you agree with them that there were significant problems, your need for closure may be satisfied. This is arguably quite rare, but it can happen.

However, when you are grieving the passing away of a loved one, closure can be much more difficult to achieve, even impossible. You may ask yourself hundreds of questions: “Why did this happen?”, “How will I ever move on?”, “What went wrong?”, “Is there an afterlife?”, “Were they in pain?”, “Did they know I loved them?”

Most of these questions can never be directly answered, by your loved one or those around you. Sometimes this is the hardest part of grieving.

Closure after bereavement

So is ‘closure’ ever really possible in this situation? Friends who are trying to support you might talk about how to find closure, but this might be an unrealistic expectation to put on yourself.

Perhaps we need to re-define what we mean by the term in the case of someone passing away. Anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you that if achieving closure means ‘getting over it’, it’s not likely to happen. That person you’ve lost will always be a part of who you are. Getting over them probably isn’t even something you want to do.

But while you are in the most intense period of grieving, your need for emotional closure could be heightened. You may feel desperate for answers that you can’t or won’t get, and that can make the grief even harder.

This is partly why it can be important to find stability in other areas of your life as you grieve. Keeping to a routine, such as eating and sleeping regularly, can provide some small sense of certainty. Although you still have unanswered questions, you may find relief in small acts of normality. At its core, need for closure is the desire to know for sure what is happening around you and why it is happening. In a time when so much is confusion, keeping an order to your daily life can prove invaluable, especially after the early days of bereavement.

As always, you must bear in mind that everyone grieves in different ways. While some people may find comfort in doing normal, familiar things, you may have a different experience. As long as you are not causing harm to yourself or others, you should cope with grief in the way that seems right to you.

If there are particular questions that you can’t stop asking yourself, that you find yourself obsessing over day and night, you may need to address this. Sometimes these questions can be answered by family members, for example, if you are thinking, ‘I wish I knew my grandma when she was young. What was she like?’

In other cases, you may need to speak to a bereavement counsellor, if the questions are more personal, such as, ‘Why wasn’t my father there for me?’ or ‘Did she really love me?’ Although you won’t be able to get a direct answer from your loved one, often working through your thoughts and feelings with a professional can help you better understand what you’re really looking for and how to find a way of answering these questions for yourself.

In the end, you’ll never stop loving or missing the special person you have lost, and that’s something you will learn to live with each day. Although it might seem impossible now, you will be able to heal and discover new moments of happiness while always keeping your loved one’s memory with you. That’s the type of closure that we should all be working towards, with the help of our friends, family and plenty of time.

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