There Is No Closure

The teary-eyed woman on the news with the microphone thrust in front of her said, “I just want to get closure on my daughter’s murder.” The reporter nodded solemnly, turned to the camera and intoned, “With the funeral tomorrow, the family hopes to move on.”  Being farther down life’s road than the reporter, I ‘d like to paint a signpost: There is no closure. Your life will become different.

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As a culture, Americans are big on closure.
Something awful happens to us, and we look for a ritual that allows us to tie it up neatly, claim we are “just fine,” and go back to work.

We are afraid of the word Death, we want to call it something softer, soft enough to stuff away and hide. We talk about “final reward” and “called home,” “passing on” and “passing over,” or simply “passing,” which, because I live in the land of fast drivers, I always imagine as a soul flashing its headlights and pulling into the left lane and zipping ahead to heaven. None of that has the finality, the simple truth of not being here anymore, as death.

Last year, when Gary’s wife died, he asked me when he should stop wearing his wedding ring.
“When you are ready to take it off,” I replied.
Gary looked at me warily. “I thought you were a life coach. Well, you should know the rules.”

Life doesn’t come with instructions for grief. We have to write our own. And there is no closure, no permission that mourning is over and we can go back to our regular lives. We don’t have regular lives anymore. After death, life changes.
When we lose someone we love, when a medical problem blows up our routine, lives do not get glued back together

Instead, there’s a different life. And we become a different person by coping with it. Over time, we stitch together broken hearts, shattered expectations, overturned plans, and figure out how to proceed. And the change forges for us a new heart and a new spirit that we use to cope with our new life.

As almost anyone who has lost a loved one or gone through a life-changing disease, friends pull away.  In the beginning, we are showered with questions, with suggestions, with directions. And when we don’t respond as expected, our circle of friends backs away, leaving us alone, because death is scary. Because we don’t want to be around it. Because it might be catching.

Disaster brings a new character. We slowly quit crying so hard and so long. We fashion a new life. There is no closure. There is just courage to face another day until we get strong enough to recognize our new life. And then we live it, one day at a time, until we make a new role for ourselves.

Theodore Roethke had it right in The Waking, when he said,

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who is stepping into a new life once again.


37 thoughts on “There Is No Closure

  1. We are taught as a culture that we should not have to live with pain of any kind. Just take a pill and the pain goes away. So when we are exposed to emotional pain of someone living every day with difficulties, fear and inevitable loss, it is much easier just to not “go there”. My mil had Alzheimer’s and the other 4 brothers totally avoided going to see her while she was in the nursing home because they “couldn’t stand to see her that way”. She wasn’t the mom they had always known and they couldn’t make the adjustment in their lives. They all came to the funeral and mourned over her. DH and I had already been through most of that mourning for the previous 7 years.

    • Everything you say is so true. We think “normal” is no pain. We don’t want to think about or deal with death. I’m so sorry about your MIL. Alzheimer’s is cruel at every step.

  2. You are correct Quinn, we always want some type of closure after a loss or a life-changing event, but it really doesn’t work that way. Our lives and our thinking and our hearts all change. And the change is forever. I’ve gone through this, as I know many people have. It is hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t gone through it. Which is probably why there are support groups out there for everything, because it is easier to explain with others who are having similar experiences.

    The pain and anguish from my brother’s death, which was nearly 30 years ago, can jump up and hit me again at a moment’s notice. It does not ever go away, we just learn to live with it.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: There is No Closure « Collidescopes Blog

  4. I was taking part in a workshop on grief facilitated by a counselor and a widow who had something really important to share.
    She drew a circle on the whiteboard to represent her life and then coloured it all in to show how grief had taken over. She then drew a circle, the same size and coloured in a small circle inside it – she said that was what she had expected to happen. She thought the grief would fade, but it didn’t.
    She went back to the original big black circle and drew a series of circles outside it to show how the grief remained but her life grew bigger with time and things became more balanced. She still missed her beloved husband but she now had other things in her life, that for the most part, occupied her mind and heart.
    An elegant analogy which I have used many times – kids can understand the visual representation as well as adults.

  5. Family Circle magazine ran some poems by Lois Wyse and I remember the final lines of her poem, The Widow: “It never gets better, it only gets ordinary.”
    People who have never lost anyone don’t recognize that loss is cumulative: every loss reminds you of every other loss and depression in the elderly can come from this accumulation of loss after loss after loss (of people, abilities and belongings). Kubler-Ross’s writings on grief are still valid but her stages have been shown to be only an information line not a timeline.

  6. Quinn, whatever new life you are stepping into, love and good wishes for peace and happiness go with you.

    Meredith in NC

  7. Quinn – this is wonderfully written, as always. Death of a loved one changes us and our lives will never be the same. How can they be? There is no right way to mourn or any certain length of time to grieve. As you know, my husband and I have had a tough past year with the death of my stepdaughter, Marisa. I keep waiting to put certain moments and dates behind us so that we can move forward, but there is no specific date or time frame that allows us to move forward, we just have to keep getting through each day and doing whatever we can to honor Marisa and her sister, Wellesley. Some days it’s easier than others but life does move on and like you said, “There is no closure. Your life will become different.”

    We don’t have regular lives anymore but we will learn how to recognize and live our new lives fully.

  8. Thank you for this post. On March 15, 1994 my life as I knew it ended, I experienced “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Eighteen years later, at the age of 72, I am still trying to find a way of being that gives me a sense of purpose and meaning. Each day is a new day to explore the possibilities. No closure just finding a new way of being.

  9. Quinn – how true – while i have had many trials and tribulations over the years – one of the biggest was the loss of my mother 14 yrs ago – at 59 it was way to early for her to no longer be here to enjoy her grandchildren and the great grandchildren they were bringing forth. today when i attend the services of others who have passed over and speak with their families, my words are always the same – the hole this has created in your life will never go away – don’t expect it to – you just learn to live with it – and in that way i guess we are creating a new life for ourselves. Many times – the family left behind just look at me like i’m crazy and make some comment about closure . Ask my father of the positive outcome of mom’s passing, and he has an answer for you – it change his life in one special way bringing him closer to my sister and i – even though in many other ways not so positively. he has also learned to live with the hole in his old life.

    • It’s true, Pam, we change. Frankly, I don’t want closure, forgetting or moving on. I want to be changed by love, by death, by joy, by sorrow. I don’t want to be the same three years ago as I am today. It’s a growth that has its own scars and marks. It makes us real.

  10. Thanks, Quinn. Your post really spoke to me today. Thank you for not trying to “normalize” grief or telling people what they “should” do.

  11. One of the hardest things has been grief over deeply cherished pets. So many people do not understand that it’s far easier to love a pet than an abusive family member, and therefore do not understand the depth of the grief. It took us a year to stop crying over our Irish Setter.

  12. No one has explained illness, death and grief like you did this morning on your blog. The points you made clarified questions that I have had for years. Thank you for your healing blog.


  13. Ah, Quinn. It’s so hard to re-fashion a life after the death of a loved one, but to have others pull away because you are still grieving, you are changed, that is so sad. I guess life goes on, always changing, but some changes have more wiggle room than death. Roethke wrote so many wise things — that is one of my favoirtes.

    • Roethke is a favorite of mine, too, Bo. It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s experienced death. We don’t plan for it, we don’t discuss it, so we don’t know what to say.

  14. You nailed this post. I have lost friends and family because I am disabled, doctors continue to diagnose me with more disorders, I cannot work the jobs I did for over 25 years, I cannot lose the weight I should or want to lose that I have gained because I am unable to be physically active due to the disabilities. I am unable to have gastric bypass surgery because the surgeons said I couldn’t, family members don’t accept that.

    Family and friends don’t understand that getting out of bed is a victory for me, trying to do daily chores are victories. They don’t understand that making art and exhibiting it across the country are victories. My life has completely changed and I’m sorry I can’t meet Their expectations.

    I have endured many traumatic events in my life and yet I’m not supposed to be affected, I’m a miracle because I endured all of it and didn’t kill myself years ago.

    I was talking with a friend last night who has brain tumors. Both of us have family members who live within 3 miles of us who have not seen us in 2 years. THEY don’t want to deal with OUR health because they don’t want to be affected by the reality of who we are now and they want to be emotionally unaffected by losing us.


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