Social Science

Seeking closure

Is it really possible to close a chapter and move on?

July 12, 2016
Is it possible to permanently shut the door on grief, or is closure just an urban myth? [Image credit: Unsplash | CC0 Public Domain]

Grace Nathan, 28, remembers the exact moment she first heard the news that her mother’s plane had disappeared. It was shortly past 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, and she had just returned from a late-night study session at the library of Bristol University, England. Her mind was on her upcoming bar exam when her father rang — uncharacteristic in itself — to ask a seemingly random question. Sensing something was amiss, Nathan’s thoughts flew instantly to her grandmother, who had undergone major surgery the week before. But the real reason for her father’s call was far wilder than she could have imagined.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had not arrived in Beijing as expected on March 8, 2014. Instead, it was missing with 239 people onboard, including Nathan’s 56-year-old mother, Anne Daisy. When her father finally revealed the real reason he called, Nathan remembers dropping her phone in shock and it splitting into many pieces, perhaps symbolic of how her life from that point on would be irreparably fractured into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

The next 24 hours were a blur for Nathan — heading to the airport with her passport and nothing else, crying the entire 14-hour flight home to Malaysia, and being too afraid to look out the window. “What if my mother is in the ocean?” she thought to herself.

Nearly two and a half years have passed since that fateful day and Nathan is still picking up the pieces. Every day, the same questions reverberate within her mind: What happened to the plane? Whose fault was it? Where is my mother now? And every day, she prays for the answers that will close this painful chapter of her life, that will end this purgatory state of not knowing, of ambiguous loss and unresolved grief. Every day, she hopes for answers that will bring some sort of closure.

But what is this elusive thing she seeks, this so-called “closure”? Popular culture will have us believe it’s a vehicle that transports us through the harrowed paths of loss and grief, towards the land of healing. Yet as any traveler knows, there are many ways of arriving at the same destination. Who’s to say that closure will carry us to where we’re trying to go? Or that the journey itself isn’t just an urban myth?

So I set about trying to unravel this mystery. But I stumbled at the first step. Pinning down a definition for “closure” was harder than expected. The notion appears to be a psychological phantom, with no accepted consensus on its meaning. Its name suggests a seemingly straightforward explanation — the act of drawing something to a close, with a sense of finality. But just as a lake’s placid surface belies deep undercurrents, closure appears to have many layers to it. Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, a Malaysian-based counsellor who worked with the MH370 families, alludes to this incongruity. You can have mental closure, she says, but emotional closure is much more difficult, if even possible. “The idea that we can suddenly let go of the people we love is false,” she says.

Closure, it seems, isn’t as easy as seeking it, finding it and moving on. Closure, as Jegathesan says, is much more complex than that, affecting both mind and heart. The emotional aspect I think I get. It isn’t too hard to grasp, with closure talk abound in popular media. We hear it mentioned in crime shows (seeking justice as a form of closure for victims), television talk shows (Dr. Phil and Oprah speak about letting go and moving on as a way of regaining control in life) and even sitcoms (you might remember Rachel in Friends drunk dialing Ross to tell him, “I am over you. And that, my friend, is what they call closure”).

But mental closure? Now that’s something I hear less frequently. It turns out that this mental aspect, what academics refer to as “cognitive closure,” is actually closer to its original meaning. Back in 1923 when the Austro-Hungarian psychologist Max Wertheimer first coined the term, closure was much more clean-cut, without any of the messy emotions we associate it with these days. As a founder of Gestalt psychology (which emphasized that the whole of anything is greater than its parts), Wertheimer used the term “closure” to describe how our minds have a tendency to fill in what is missing.

Our need for cognitive closure is why we feel unsettled when our favorite television series ends on a cliffhanger, or why we get annoyed we have a name or fact at the tip of our tongues but just can’t remember it. Closure is a way of dealing with the one thing we as human beings are highly averse to: ambiguity.

“Cognitive closure is about having an answer to your questions,” says psychologist Arne Roets from the University of Ghent in Belgium. Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty, so “the emphasis is on an answer, not the answer.”

This explains why some MH370 relatives may believe in conspiracy theories surrounding the plane’s disappearance. As far-fetched as alien abduction, time travelling or Russian kidnapping may be, people just want an explanation, any explanation, to help resolve the big unanswered question.

Finding out what happened to MH370 would definitely be a step forward in the healing process, which remains stalled for Nathan. “Usually with grief, it becomes less intense as time passes,” she says. “But I feel worse two years later. It’s all open-ended — there’s no start or end point, there’s nothing to accept. People just told me the plane disappeared and there’s this huge gap.”

But let’s say Nathan gets the answers she’s looking for, the explanations to fill in the gap. What happens then? More often than not, understanding why something bad or traumatic happened is only the first step on the long journey towards acceptance and healing.

“Even when you have firm answers, emotions and grieving can go on,” says Ravi Chandra, a psychiatrist based in San Francisco. “Human beings aren’t robots, we don’t respond to life like it’s a mathematical equation, and once we solve that equation, we can move on.”

This rift that Chandra alludes to, this dissonance between clinical academic theory and messy emotional reality, is probably why closure has evolved into the form we recognize in today’s popular media. Closure acquired a “heart” aspect because the “mind” explanation didn’t sufficiently explain the human experience.

Yet there are others who reject the very notion of closure itself. They claim that moving on from an ending — be it a failed relationship, death or other type of loss — is impossible. “There’s this mythical sense of completion, of closing a chapter, of withdrawing emotional energy and moving on,” says psychology professor Robert Neimeyer from the University of Memphis. “But it’s not that straightforward.”

Nathan captures this essence. “I don’t know what it will take to get closure,” she says, “or if that’s something I will ever get.”

As many of us can attest to from personal experience, the pain of separation can linger long after a loss. So perhaps the assumption that closure is “possible, good, desired or necessary” is wrong, as sociologist Nancy Berns posits in her book on the subject. We do not have to close a path in order to heal, she says. Healing can come without closure.

Frank Ochberg, the acclaimed psychiatrist and pioneer of trauma treatment, elucidates the conundrum perfectly in his simple statement: “Closure is a myth but progress is not.”

Maybe we need to reframe our expectations of grief and loss. Maybe we need to cast away the notion that closure can be sought and found, that its attainment can bring about a sense of finality and completion. Even if we understand the mental and emotional aspects of closure, we know from past experience that the door to grief never permanently shuts. We revisit the room from time to time as we “grieve and re-grieve,” says psychologist Neimeyer. It’s not about saying a person is no longer a part of us, but learning to adapt to a world that is “forever changed by loss.”

About the Author

Sandy Ong

Sandy hails from sunny Singapore where she earned a B.S. in life sciences. She then moved to London for a M.S. in forensic science before deciding testing crime scene samples wasn’t as cool as it sounded. After spending some years as a medical writer, she moved across the pond to further her love for science writing.


1 Comment

Conal Francis-Hume says:

What a very well researched, written and interesting article.

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