Monday, February 13, 2012
Closure by Nancy Berns
The concept of closure taps into a desire to have things ordered and simple, but experiences with loss and grief are typically messy, complicated, and not easily resolved. Still, we long for peace, order, and resolution. The appeal of closure rests in large part on the hope that pain will lesson and healing will come. Yes, of course we long for healing and we should seek it. But healing came come without closure. Even if you don’t want to give up the concept of closure, at least know that it is subjective and may take a long time to “find” and that no one particular ritual, product, service, or politician’s promise can guarantee closure.
Shaped through social interactions in arenas such as politics, law, media, self-help, and the funeral industry, closure has emerged as a dominant narrative in our everyday talk about grief and loss. How people use the word “closure” varies widely; it carries multiple and often contradictory definitions and interpretations. Rhetoric about closure reflects six typologies: closing a chapter, remembering, forgetting, getting even, knowing, and confessing or forgiving. In spite of the differences among these six visions of closure, they all assume closure is possible, good, desired, and necessary. This has led to all sorts of people promising closure as a way to sell products, services and politics. Closure has emerged as a “need” that people are told that they can fulfill through services such as executions, autopsies, funerals, private cremations, ash scatterings, wrongful death lawsuits, and public memorials, to say nothing of psychic readings, private investigations, and divorce parties.
Although the use of the term “closure” may be more recent, vengeance has a rich history. Seeking closure through vengeance after bad relationships is rooted in beliefs about aggression and anger. A cultural belief often referred to as the catharsis theory claims that anger, pain and frustration can be relieved through acting aggressively. The word “catharsis” comes from the Greek word katharsis, which means cleansing or purging. The belief is that view aggression or acting out aggressively will purge you of negative feelings. But is this true?
Not according to those who study it. Social psychologists say that there is no research to support the catharsis theory. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that aggression does not reduce anger but is likely to increase it. Scholars report that people who participate in activities that are aggressive or focused on vengeance are likely to have further thoughts, emotions and behaviors that focus on aggression and anger. Although revenge may be sweet for a brief time, regret, fear of retaliation, and shame are some of the negative emotions that follow acts of revenge long term.
People punish others, in part, to repair their negative mood and to provide psychological closure to the precipitating event, but the act of punishment often yields precisely the opposite outcome. To quote Sir Francis Bacon, “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which would otherwise heal, and do well.”
Prosecutor Kelly Singer is an advocate of the death penalty. Successfully prosecuting high-profile cases in Texas has earned her the reputation as a “giant killer.” She is known for her courtroom theatrics, reenacting murder scenes and referring to potentially forgiving jurors as “screwballs and nuts.” Her record backs up her reputation. She has tried over 150 jury trials, is considered a national expert on capital punishment and an advocate for the victims of crime. Although eighteen of her nineteen capital cases resulted in the death penalty, she is not one to argue that closure exists:
The truth is that there is no closure. Sure, you hear it all the time. You hear that closure is what we should be seeking on behalf of victims everywhere. You hear experts and psychologists and even law enforcement officials all over the country talking about closure as if it is some “state of mind” that we can help mommy and daddy, who have learned they will never see their baby again, obtain. But when you ask those same victims if any of that – the arrest, the conviction, the sentencing, the execution – ever truly helped them gain “closure,” you know what they all say? They all say no. They all say there is no such thing. They all say they are glad that phase of the process of the criminal justice system is complete. They all say thank you, and then go back to having to figure out how to get up again the next morning and live another day in the world that no longer has the same color and light and joy in it that it did “before”.
Not only did Brooks Douglas witness the execution of one of his parents’ killers but he also met face to face with the other offender. In 1994, as a Oklahoma state senator, Brooks took a tour of the prison where both the men who murdered his parents were being held. For reasons he said he did not understand, Brooks “suddenly had a strong urge to meet them.”
For two or three hours, Brooks sat face to face with only a glass partition separating him from the man who critically injured him, raped his sister, and killed his parents:
As I unloaded on him about Leslie, who suffered far more than me, I felt as if my body was full of water and my head full of poison. Then as I got up to put my hand on the door, I turned around and looked back at him and thought, “There is more to this.” I went back to the table, as if pulled by a magnet, and after an eternity of silence, something completely unexpected came out of my mouth. “I forgive you.” It was not at all what I was there to do. I had told Ake, “My father was a minister and he taught me that I was always to forgive. I can’t It’s not in me to do that.” But when the words “I forgive you” were spoken, I just fell back on my chair, suddenly feeling as if the bottoms of my feet opened up and the water and hatred were pouring out over the floor. I can almost see it. At the same time, it felt like a clamp was taken off my chest and I could breathe again for the first time in 15 years. I remember walking out the doors of the prison and feeling like the sky was bluer, the trees greener. All my senses were just extraordinarily heightened. It was a life-changing experience.
The concept of closure resonates with a desire to have things ordered and simple, with easy access to right and wrong. But life is messy and the future unknown. Our hope comes in knowing we can carry complicated combinations of emotions as we journey through grief and loss. We can still grieve the loss of a loved one while learning to once again engage in joyful events. The language of closure does not easily capture this complexity. We can survive a loss even when there are questions or grief that remain. We do not have to find an emotional state of closure to make progress in transcending a loss or in integrating a loss into our lives. By recognizing the tangled web of closure and the reasons behind the rhetoric (be they political or commercial), we can help ourselves and others navigate the emotion and feeling rules that come with grief and loss. Closure is best considered subjective, elusive, and optional. However, progress towards healing is possible, hope remains intact even as we untangle the story of closure.
Nancy Burns is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University. She is also the author of Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media and Social Problems.