Tough Pill to Swallow: Why Closure Doesn't Exist

When something ends, it's common for us to say, "I need to get closure from this." Our culture tends to depict the search for closure as some grand adventure that takes us to some huge revelation. Then, when this closure is obtained, we wipe our hands clean and think that's the end of the healing process. As you're reading this, you might hear the sarcastic tone. If you do, you're hearing it right. Because there's no such thing as closure...but there is such a thing as healing.

If you read our previous blog about grief, you'll know that there are many ways that a person can heal and that it isn't linear. Well, one thing that people often bring up is this concept of closure. When does that part happen? And if you read our first paragraph, this question may have come up: should I even expect closure to happen? But we need to dish out what closure is before we can answer these questions.

What is closure?

Closure is the sense of finality we get when we are experiencing the end or change of an event, relationship, or thing. When a family member dies, we might think about how we can end the grieving process and get closure from something that we don't understand. When we experience a breakup, we might think about ways that we can find peace with no longer having that person in our life anymore. And when a job ends, we might want to know what went wrong so that we can get an understanding of the situation.

The thing is, grief doesn't work like that. And seeking closure often does more harm than good. This is especially the case with something called ambiguous loss or when something feels gone but is technically still in existence. If a family member disappears, a loved one cuts you out of their life (or vice versa), or a grandparent's mind is changing from dementia, a hurtful partner refuses to change, these are all examples of ambiguous loss. Here, closure simply isn't possible. Searching for something that doesn't exist will bring distress rather than a sense of finality. Even though many signs and research point to the reality that closure isn't something we can get, we often still search for it. Why is that?

Why we desire closure

In an article written by Boss and Carnes (2012), they state it very well. We as a culture do not like the messiness of ambiguity. We like to know what to expect. We design these stages of grief and arbitrary timelines of when someone should "get over" something because it helps us tie a neat little bow on pain. The harder it is for someone to accept ambiguity, the harder it is for them to let go of the idea that closure is something we can get.

If not closure, then what?

We aren't left without options when we're healing, though remember that the traditional concept of closure isn't one of them. The key here is that we need to shift away from getting closure to end the grief and getting used to living with the grief.

We know, we know. This sounds very uncomfortable. We want the pretty bow on top of the pain so that we don't have to feel it anymore. We want to start looking back immediately at the little pedestal we put our loss on and think, "You never have to leave this museum of hurt again." However, we are human, and this is simply not how it works. We carry the things that impact us with us. This isn't a bad thing. It hurts less over time, and perhaps it feels less heavy. But it doesn't mean that we drop it off to forget about it.

Searching for meaning and sitting in the in-between

In addition to carrying the grief with us and learning to live with it, we also might be on the search to find meaning from it. What caused this loss? What have I learned about myself from this loss? What have I learned about others around me from this loss? What does carrying the grief in my life look like? How will I change from it, or how have I changed from it? These are all questions that we can ask ourselves.

Boss and Carnes (2012) also suggested another tool that readers can try: make both-and statements that help you carry two seemingly contrasting things at once. Some similar examples they gave are things like, "My mother is both here and not here because of her dementia." Maybe even things like, "I am both in love with my ex, but cannot live with them anymore." When you sit with your own both-and statement, things start to feel a little easier to carry and understandable.

It's not easy to accept that closure doesn't exist, especially when grief is so painful. But by accepting the ambiguity of our loss, we can start to move away from the pain and focus on making meaning instead. At Cultured Space, our therapists can help you work through your loss, whatever that may be. We understand the unique context of your life will impact how you experience grief and healing. Schedule an appointment with one of our therapists today and get started on your healing journey.

When you're ready, we're here for you.


- Boss, P., & Carnes, D. (2012). Myth of Closure. Family Process, 51(4), 256-271.