The Myth of Closure

A friend alerted me to a new book, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. Its author, Dr. Pauline Boss, is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, a family therapist and researcher best known for her work on “ambiguous loss,” i.e., unresolved physical or emotional losses. The 87-year-old Boss, who has lived through many upheavals including World War II, says “When the pandemic subsides, things will not go back to ‘normal’.”

Let me be upfront. I haven’t read the entire book only a few summaries of it. Given that caveat, here are a few of her ideas that I gleaned from my reading.

When confronting loss, adversity, or stress the key is resilience which allows us to adapt and maintain one’s equilibrium. For example, during a pandemic, you might cope well by baking bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, listening to music, or reading books. However, if you can’t or don’t adapt you might claim the virus and pandemic are hoaxes. (For most people, the pandemic hasn’t created a great loss such as losing a spouse or family member. Still, we lost other things—activities, events, face-to-face contact, etc.)

To begin to explain how to increase your resilience and overcome adversity she quotes        Viktor Frankl,  who wrote “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are      challenged to change ourselves.” How do we do that? In response, Boss recommends a few guidelines.

Find meaning. Try to find meaning in loss and if that fails, act. For instance, when Dr. Boss’s brother died from polio, she and her family collected for the March of Dimes which raised money to fund research for a vaccine. (How the world has benefitted from vaccines.)

Adjust your sense of mastery. We can’t completely control the pain of loss, or even the virus itself. Instead, focus on what you can influence and change yourself.

Rebuild identity. Adopt a new identity consistent with your circumstances. If you can’t go out, become an inside music or literature lover. If your spouse becomes ill, adopt the
identity of a caregiver.

Normalize ambivalence. Unclear about your loss, accept ambivalence. Don’t wait for
perfect clarity before you act.

Revise attachment. Don’t sever your connections with those you can no longer see, keep them present in your heart. But build a new life with new friends and projects too.

Discover new hope. “What we need to hope for is not to go back to what we had, but to see what we can create now and in the future.” “Hope for something new and purposeful that will sustain you and give you joy for the rest of your life.”1

Now I’d like to turn her salient idea—the myth of closure. I think she’s right about this. In fact, I find it to be a truism, although evidently, it’s not so obvious to others. People want closure. Here’s my “off the top of my head take” on this. We seem almost wired to want a beginning and end, like in books, movies, or on tv. There’s some problem—a murder
mystery, will boy meet girl, etc.— and we want it resolved.

But we are deceiving ourselves. Crimes often go unresolved or, if supposedly resolved, the wrong person is convicted. Most criminal defendants never go trial as 95%  of cases are plea-bargained contrary to the courtroom dramas we watch. Or, once boy meets girl,
everything is fine, happily ever after as they say. But in reality, the hard part isn’t finding a partner but living with them afterward! Life isn’t like the movies as they say. In real life, things don’t tidily line up with a beginning, middle, and end. Lives may have terrible
beginnings, no middle, or come to a sudden end.  Or the end may come on gradually over a period of many years due to illness or dementia; resulting in an ambiguous loss. Real-life is an ever-changing challenge of your adaptation skills.

Perhaps I can relate this to my long career as a philosophy professor. I was often
approached by students who wanted closure in order to deal with cognitive ambiguity. They would be frustrated by my “here are the arguments for abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, etc., and here are the argument against” approach. They wanted an answer.  A  few even thought that if the answer wasn’t in the back of the book then all the talk was pointless. They just couldn’t tolerate ambiguity. They wanted closure.

Now if you don’t like ambiguity and want intellectual closure then you probably won’t like philosophy. Now I’m wired differently. I’m obsessive-compulsive about nuances and shades of grey regarding philosophical issues. I accepted long ago that I’d have to live not being sure of many things, and that the challenge of life is to live and die in a world that we do not fully understand. But then again we’re all different and I don’t expect others to be like me.

To reiterate, these are just my “at first glance” thoughts. But as I think about it I wonder if the desire for closure isn’t almost identical to the desire for meaning. If I close the
discussion with “Jesus is the answer” or “The Koran is the truth” then I can hold on to the meaning this gives me. I can put an end to all the ambiguity. I do understand the appeal of this, and that others don’t want to live with all the philosophical uncertainty.

But I can’t deny who I am. I try to be open to new ideas and adjust my thoughts
accordingly. Emerson best expressed my thoughts about all this in a passage that I first read as a teenager,

[Life] offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please,—you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets,—most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.2


1 Material above this footnote relies heavily on “How to Build Resilience in Hard Times.”
2Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays: First Series (Originally published 1841.)

I would like to thank my friend and Dr. Boss for introducing me to this material.

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4 thoughts on “The Myth of Closure

  1. Being TV-free, I didn’t know I was supposed to feel godawful about the pandemic, so I managed ok. How did people cope with WWII? the British royal family moved to London to stay with the people being bombed. I always remember that, whenever I feel like whining about anything.
    Many cases of pandemic distress may have been what used to be called mass hysteria; for them, perhaps there can be some relief via same way they became distressed, i.e., the news media sending out a new prophesy about mental health, an upbeat one this time–if said news media can bear to broadcast positive news that will sell less food, drink, drugs, and other mind-anesthetizing products which in themselves can cause or exacerbate mental distress, and whose effects may indeed linger–the buttons of that jacket won’t get full closure until one loses the extra 10 lbs one acquired.
    (But of course some people did have a much more trying pandemic experience than others.)
    I don’t envy the job of politicians who, by donors’ and public’s demand, must act as if there can be closure on complicated policy matters, and as if yes/no answers can fall neatly along party lines.

  2. Truth is what ‘you’ think is true, if you thought that your Father was infallible well that is where you look for certainty. We have gone from being a society that, relatively, believed ‘every’ official voice, including the local newspaper, to being a Society of budding skeptics where we have very little faith in the pronouncements of Officialdom, Not healthy perhaps but is is simply part of the natural progression. Being able to elicit behavior from people by simply telling them something creates a space in the minds of those who control the discourse where arrogance and contempt for the manipulated can grow, eventually the manipulated become aware of the manipulation, because of their position in Society as being the consumers of manipulation, their only response is to ‘reluctantly’ develop skepticism, I say reluctantly because the Masses implicitly want to believe their leaders ( And Columnists for leading Newspapers and such) have their best interests at heart, when they begin to doubt that they become ‘unconsciously’ unsettled and afraid, not a good thing for society or the Rulers.

    Mr. Ahaha, who writes above says he doesn’t watch TV, so he was spared the ‘thought’ of rotting corpses on the streets of New York and the other atrocities we had to ‘Mentally’ endure!
    The Pandemic may be winding down, perhaps to be replaced by something else with far greater ability to transform our lives, in any case, when the Pandemic vanishes from the media it will vanish from our lives, what seems to be taking its place may not be so easy to vanquish!

  3. We can see why neo-confederates pine for a simpler time, when Jesus was The Answer, He offering the ultimate closure.
    The antebellum eras were peaceful times:
    peacefully sipping mint juleps on verandas—and peacefully picking cotton in the fields. And if we hadn’t left the Garden of Eden, life would’ve been even more peaceful!

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