Closure: The Enduring Myth
Have you ever heard the term “closure” before? Are you among those of us who have believed this common myth about the grief process? Are you wondering when and how you will ever find closure over the loss of your pet?
I used to believe in closure too. That is, until I experienced true grief over the loss of my dog Georgia to cancer in 2006. Nowadays, I find that the term is most often used by people who have never experienced a deep loss. Because if they had, they would know better. You see, closure implies that after a while, a person should be able to let go of their grief entirely. To disconnect from those feelings of sadness and go forward in their life without the burden of lingering emotion over the loss. To be healed.
In some circles, closure is the primary goal of grief support. And, if people can’t live up to this exalted ideal? Well, they have something called “complicated grief” or “unresolved grief” and have not succeeded in coping with their loss.* It’s enough to make a person think they’re a failure, or even a little bit crazy, if they aren’t feeling back to normal within a few weeks of losing a loved one.
But is that reality? Does time really heal all wounds? Can anyone who has ever lost someone they really love say that they have found closure? That their wounds are healed?
I still remember the day when I first understood how much of a myth closure really is. I was talking with my aunt, and somehow our conversation touched on her dog Susie, who had gone to the Rainbow Bridge years before. Susie was a very special dog and truly a member of the family. A fixture at family gatherings from my earliest memories, I considered Susie a furry cousin and can only imagine how difficult it was for my aunt and uncle and their two kids when Susie inevitably died, even though she had lived a long and happy life. After all, here we were, many years later, and just the mere mention of Susie brought tears to my aunt’s eyes. You could sense that her loss was still strongly felt. Not every day. Not even regularly. But it was still a part of her. Still accessible given the right circumstances, and with just the right amount of reminiscing. That didn’t seem to fit the description of closure that I had known. My aunt is one of the most fun-loving, generous, and outgoing people I know. She certainly hadn’t been wallowing in grief all of these years or stuck in some deep depression. If her grief still wasn’t “healed” then what hope did I have?
I knew then that I had a long road ahead of me in terms of my own sense of loss over Georgia, and that the notion of ever really finding closure was ridiculous. And really, would I want to anyway?
Grief and loss transforms us. As painful as it is, it also gives us an even keener sense of the passage of time and how important it is to appreciate those you love and to make the most of each day you are given. And, it often challenges us to find strength that we never knew we had. To survive something that feels un-survivable. We somehow make it through. And we are stronger, better people for that journey. Why would I want to discount all of that by trying to achieve closure?
It’s now been five years, but I still cry sometimes when I think of my Georgia. And if I really try, her loss can feel as fresh as if it happened yesterday. But, I reject the idea that my grief is unnaturally complicated, or unresolved, or anything other than perfectly normal. Each day, I get up and I live my life, and for the most part, I am happy. I am able to find joy in each day and I can remember Georgia with smiles much more often than tears. I am not held back by my grief. Instead, it motivates me. It helps me to be more compassionate when I meet someone going through difficult circumstances, including pet loss. It reminds me to keep my priorities straight and to spend as much time as I can with family and friends. It inspires me to live in a way that honors the special bond that I shared with my sweet friend, now gone. And, it also keeps me humble knowing that I too am vulnerable to such a primal emotion as grief.
None of us are as strong as we wish we were. And once you experience the loss of someone you truly love – a family member or friend – you will always miss that person in your life. And, not having them close to you and not being able to share special moments with them will always hurt to some extent. There is simply no such thing as closure if you have suffered a genuine loss. There is just learning to live with the scars of that grief and getting used to your new ‘self’ – the self that has been transformed by the experience of love and loss. It’s choosing what you want to do with that experience that makes all the difference.
So if you are coping with the loss of a pet and feeling shame or frustration at not being able to live up to the myth of closure – STOP!! Stop the guilt, stop the blame and embrace the fact that you have loved deeply. Stop listening to the well-meaning but misguided wisdom of others who have never walked in your shoes and instead learn to co-exist with your grief and incorporate this loss into who you are and who you want to be. Wear the scars of loss as a badge of honor. You have earned that for having given your heart so completely to another.
And the next time you are trying to comfort someone else dealing with grief, resist the urge to give the easy advice that “time heals all wounds” and simply tell them that you understand, and that the pain will get better over time. That part IS true.
*Complicated or unresolved grief IS a very real thing and can lead to unhealthy behaviors and prolonged mourning that prevents a person from managing their daily activities and moving forward in their life. If you feel that you are suffering from depression or are beginning to have difficulty functioning on a daily basis, or if your grief is beginning to interfere with relationships or work, please seek professional guidance to help you.