After struggling through a hard time – a traumatic breakup, the loss of a loved one – it’s comforting to think that with a little closure our lives can go back to normal. Closure has become, in our minds anyway, a magic cure-all that will end the pain and instantly help us move on. When we continue to struggle with loss for prolonged periods of time, we easily chalk it up to the fact that we didn’t get this all-powerful closure. But how do we get closure? What does closure even look like? And does it even actually exist?
Unfortunately, no amount of closure is going to erase the bad memories that pop up unsolicited from time to time. In fact, according to some experts, closure as we know it doesn’t exist at all. According to them, seeking closure – as we understand it in popular culture – actually causes us to close ourselves off to better, and healthier ways of processing painful experiences.
Dave Roos from How Stuff Works writes that our entire contemporary concept of closure comes from Gestalt psychology. This school of psychology from the 20th century provided the basis for the modern study of perception – that is, understanding how our minds perceive and processes images. One of its main principles is that the mind always seeks closure. Roos uses the example that “even if an image of a circle is incomplete, the mind still perceives it as a circle”. Our minds, it seems, don’t like to leave things unfinished.
In the same way, Gestalt taught us that after suffering a traumatic experience we are unable to move on with our lives until the experience had been, in a way, “closed”. The notion became a popular one in Western pop psychology. But popular the ideas advocated by opinion aren’t necessarily correct, or healthy.
Roos quotes psychotherapist Ashley Davis Bush, who believes that the mythical closure peddled by pop psychology isn’t actually achievable. Instead of trying to find the one thing that will instantly transform us and allow us to overcome out grief, Bush emphasises focusing on growth and healing. Yes, you’ve gone through something that has changed you – no matter how much it hurts you don’t need to run away from it.
“Americans like happy endings,” she says. “We’re a feel-good society. We like clean-cut things. We want to believe there’s an end to pain. In reality, it’s not that the pain ends, but it changes over time.”
(Yes, she’s talking about Americans, but she may as well be talking about humanity as a species. I can’t think of one person who enjoys experiencing emotional suffering and trauma, can you?)
Dr Stefani A. Sarkis writing for Psychology Today says that, despite its good reputation in society, closure is overrated.
“Closure—the idea that you can come to terms with something, be at peace with it for good—just doesn’t happen sometimes,” she writes. “Especially when the loss is so profound, so devastating, that it leaves you with a hole. A hole that you can’t fill by ‘wrapping things up’.”
She argues that oftentimes, making an effort to get closure can make the situation a whole lot worse. It can leave those struggling to overcome grief questioning why they haven’t gotten over it yet. It can cause us to feel weak and guilty for not being able to fight the grief in the way society prescribes.
“Grief doesn’t mind its own business,” she writes. “It doesn’t care that you’re trying to resolve things. It will pop up its head and remind you it’s still there, no matter how hard you try to make it go away.”
When it comes to bad break-ups, it’s easy to imagine that there must be something we can do in order to quell the pain. But Bush believes that it’s equally important to honour even our traumatic experiences (and traumatic relationships) and learn from them. We’ll always carry the weight of those experiences with us, but ultimately how heavy that baggage is is up to us. One way to make that baggage a little lighter, writes Roos, is to write about it.
Studies have found that writing about a break-up can be a great way to process the pain and honour the relationship – for its good bits and bad bits. This is especially true when writing about the positive parts of the relationship. According to one study, “those who focused their writing on the positive aspects of their break-up (factors leading up to the break-up, the actual break-up, and the time right after the break-up) reported experiencing more positive emotions regarding their relationship’s end and did not experience an increase in negative emotions. The increased positive emotions included feelings of such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom”.
But this process is itself a healing journey. It takes a long time and a lot of work. It’s not magic closure bullet that will instantly heal us of the heartbreak. You can journal for the rest of your life, and it will never heal you entirely from the pain of losing someone important. It is, however, a way to turn a painful experience into a healthy life lesson – but we shouldn’t try to force it to be more than that.
“Some things are not meant to ‘move on’ from,” writes Sarkis. “Could lack of closure mean that you are depressed? Possibly. It could also mean that it’s going to take a long time, probably the rest of your life, to process your feelings of grief. And that is okay”.
Sarkis recommends that we let go of the idea of getting closure altogether. “There are some things that just don’t ‘close’. The more we accept that some things just don’t heal, the more we can be open to sharing our grief and loss with each other”. The more we allow those to really feel their pain, and learn and grow from it, rather than expect them to get closure and go back to normal according to some arbitrarily designated timeline, the more compassionate and understanding we become.