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The Myth of Closure: We Can Heal Without It

Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

We are brainwashed by television and movies at a very young age that there is a glorious, happy ending at the end of every story. This phenomenon instructs us that our lives should always include happy endings. We are taught that anything less than total fulfillment and smiles all around amounts to dismal failure. We are taught this concept called closure. It is a term used often in contemporary media and it means to heal a personal loss or trauma such as death of a loved one, being abused by a parent or being a child of an alcoholic parent. After this process, we are supposed to ride off into the sunset with this emotional pain never darkening our door step again.

Well, this is actually impossible to accomplish unless you get total amnesia. If you have the expectation that you will not have any sad or frightening memories about this trauma once you have believed you have fully healed, you will find yourself deeply disappointed and frustrated.

Memories and feelings about the trauma are likely to come up from time to time. Just because the memories continue to arise don’t mean that you haven’t worked through your issues. It only means that as humans; memories and feelings will continue to move in and out of our awareness unless you are deeply repressing them. Repression is not a useful or helpful tactic unless you are in a situation where pushing away memories and feelings is the only way to survive.

For example if you are being abused or tortured; pushing away those memories may be the key to staying alive. This is a process known as disassociation and it serves a purpose when you are in the middle of the trauma, but becomes dysfunctional once the upheaval is no longer present.

The word closure implies that all of the chaotic feelings and frightened memories get placed in a box with a bright color ribbon tied in a bow. This bow somehow prevents the sense of overwhelm from clouding your sense of well being.

Genuine healing of emotional pain does not take work in this manner. Real healing is not that tidy and straight forward a process. Authentic healing is different for each individual. Different stages of grief and loss may be wonderful guides for some, but there is no real evidence that these stages actually occur in an explicit order or at all.

Here are two examples of composite cases of individuals who have healed from emotional pain, but don’t need to include the concept of closure to feel they are safe and happy.

Frank, age 40 never really got to know his dad when he suddenly died. He didn’t get to ask him questions about his values or his vision for his life because he was too young to know how to ask these questions. At the time of the anniversary of his death, he has sad memories of his dad’s funeral and longs for his presence. He is painfully aware that he will always have this void in his life, but through his own work, he no longer feels burdened by his father’s incomplete life and tragic death. Instead he focuses on his achievements and his ability to love others. Although sometimes he wishes his father was still here, Frank is grateful that he is still alive and takes a deep breath each time he walks into the sunshine.

Mary is now thirty-five years old. Mary’s step-father molested her when she was only nine years old. She remembers hoping that her step-father was going to protect her from the beatings that her mother threw down on her. Instead, he perpetrated a much deeper violation of her personal space. She remembers wanting to end her life and screaming in the middle of the night from night mares. She ran away to her aunt’s house which became her permanent residence until she was eighteen and then she went to college to become a social worker.

The molestation affected her intensely. She was fearful of men, sabotaged any relationships where she believed may get close to her, defied authority figures and didn’t trust anyone. She was fortunate to find a therapist who she could connect with. She learned how to appropriately express her anger and have high expectations for herself. She still gets triggered if she sees a man who resembles her step-father, but she is able to quickly move out of that panicked state into one of calmness. She has learned that she has this warm place inside where she can turn to when she feels very anxious. She notices when she has a smile on her face which is no more likely than not and she now loves to connect with others.

To learn more about this topic, I suggest reading “The Myth of the Death, Dying and Grief.

Keep Reading By Author Bob Livingstone, LCSW
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