Monday, January 9, 2012

Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us by Nancy Berns

This book had me at hello, lol.

You may recall I first learned about it in a newspaper article that I saw & posted about a few weeks ago. Being a topic near & dear to my heart, I rushed to order the book and took it home for holiday reading.

By coincidence, Beef Princess had also just bought & read the book, and left me a comment to that effect. I agree with her assessment: "academic in nature but fascinating." The book is extremely well researched -- full of examples, data and footnotes -- but that does not mean it's a dry or difficult read.

The author, Nancy Berns, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, who teaches and researches in the areas of grief, death, violence, justice and social constructionism. She is also (are you surprised?) the bereaved mother of a stillborn son -- something she addresses on the first page of the book -- and her loss has obviously informed her work.

While it addressed the topic of closure in ways that I would expect as a bereaved parent (the pressure we feel from others to "move on" with our lives, for example), the book was also a huge eye opener for me with regard to how many different ways the concept of closure is being applied in our world today -- and how many different parties are seeking to profit from it (financially, politically and otherwise). I consider myself fairly well read & knowledgeable when it comes to grief issues, but I had many "aha!" moments as I read this book. It made me think, and consider familiar topics and issues in entirely new ways.

I particularly liked Berns's introduction of the concept of "feeling rules" -- which, she explains on page 4,
"...are informal guidelines that tell us how we should react to certain situations. Societies and institutions have different feeling rules, and these rules change, with consequences for the people who are expected to meet them. Furthermore, when one set of feeling rules becomes dominant in a culture, it makes it difficult for us to imagine other ways of handling a situation. Closure represents a new set of feeling rules and expectations for people.

"...the way we name and describe experiences has consequences. "Closure" is not some naturally occurring emotion that we can simply "find" with the right advice. Rather, closure is a made-up concept: a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss." [emphasis mine]
Chapter 1, Seeking Closure, introduces the concept of closure and sets out the concepts and structure for the pages that follow. Berns shows that "closure" is a relatively new term that rose to prominence in the 1990s (think about it -- did our grandparents talk about seeking closure after Pearl Harbour?). But while it's become ubiquitous in our society to seek "closure" after a traumatic event (which could include not only the death of a loved one but the loss of a pet, a divorce, adoption, natural disaster, murder, etc.) there is no specific, agreed-upon definition of what exactly closure is or how it can be achieved -- and the impact that this new concept is having on our society is not yet well understood.

Chapter 2, Closure and its Tangled Meanings, uses the recent example of the Caylee Anthony murder trial as a springboard for a discussion about the many different ways "closure" can be interpreted. Berns identifies six: closing a chapter, remembering, forgetting, getting even, knowing, and confessing or forgiving. All six definitions imply that closure exists, and that closure is possible, good, desired and necessary. This statement (from pages 28 & 29) really resonated with me:
"Closure encourages the idea that grief is bad and therefore something that needs to end. These assumptions, and the larger narratives that carry them, build feeling rules for how we are supposed to respond when bad things happen... When the feeling rules fail, or do not produce the emotions promised, individuals may experience... a disconnect between what they feel and what they think they should feel."

Chapter 3 explores research on grief and bereavement, including whether there is a roadmap or standard process and timetable for grief, the medicalization of grief, what's considered "normal" and what's not, and ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief (concepts that will be familiar to the ALI community). It also introduces the Walking Wounded (people who want closure, but say they can't find it) and the Myth Slayers(those who don't believe closure exists). (Guess which camp I fall in.)

Chapter 4, From Embalming to Teddy Bear Urns, examines the death care industry and how it uses closure to promote "proper" and "dignified" ways to care for and remember our loved ones. (Bury or cremate? Embalm & view or not? Scatter ashes, keep them, or make them into jewellery? The choices are dizzying, and each has an advocate.)

Similarly, Chapter 5, The Assurance Business, discusses how lawyers, private investigators, psychics, medical consultants, DNA testing facilities and forensic pathologists are using the idea of closure to generate more business. Berns argues that it's understandable to want answers, but points out that the search for answers often just leads to more questions -- and not necessarily closure.

"We can survive a loss even when there are some questions that remains," she writes on page 100.
"We can find peace (even if not complete) and healing (even if pain lingers, which it does) , without having all the answers. And even the answers we receive may carry lingering doubt. The trick may not be finding all the answers, but learning to live with some questions."

(I love that passage.)

Chapter 6, Bury the Jerk [!], discusses how businesses have sprung up to offer mock vengeance and symbolic death as routes to achieve closure after the end of a bad relationship (think divorce parties & all the trappings, including cakes, games, and ring smashing ceremonies).

Chapter 7, Should You Watch an Execution or Forgive a Murderer? explores how the concept of closure has come to play a major role in death penalty politics, and whether vengeance or forgiveness is the best route to closure in these cases. Berns illustrates her points through the moving story of Brooks Douglass, who witnessed the murder of his parents in 1979 and spent almost 20 years fighting to bring the killers to justice, and for the right to witness their execution. It's a story with many unexpected twists and turns, and I found it absolutely fascinating.

Chapter 8, Forgetting versus Remembering, explores the politics of mourning, "sacred space" and public memory, including public memorials, such as roadside crosses and Ground Zero in New York City. It also includes a discussion about abortion. It poses the question, "whose life is worthy of memory and how."

The final chapter, Framing Grief beyond Closure, suggests other ways we can think about grief beyond the frame of closure.
"The concept of closure taps into a desire to have things ordered and simple, but experiences with loss and grief are typically messy, complicated, and not easily resolved. Still, we long for peace, order, and resolution. The appeal of closure rests in large part on the hope that pain will lessen and healing will come. Yes, of course we long for healing, and we should seek it. But healing can come without closure. Even if you do not want to give up the subject of closure, at least know that it is subjective and and may take a long time to "find" and that no one particular ritual, product, service, or politician's promise can guarantee closure." (page 162)

I really can't say enough good things about this book. Berns has done all of us a huge favour in shedding a bright light on this subject, and making us THINK about a term that is broadly used but not very well understood. Grief touches us all, eventually, in some way, and while this book's messages are highly relevant to the ALI community, it's safe to predict that many others around us will eventually be faced with pressure to apply the concept of closure in their own lives -- and may well think differently about it then. We'll see...!

Berns has a website, which includes links to the first chapter of her book and a blog, as well as a blog on Psychology Today with similar content. She recently wrote a thoughtful piece, published on both blogs and highly relevant to the ALI community, about the Santorum and Duggar families -- how they chose to mourn the loss of their children, public reaction, and what it says about our society. If, like me, you were appalled by the way these families (&, by extension, my own and possibly yours as well) were treated because of how they chose to mourn their babies -- regardless of how you feel about their political &/or religious beliefs -- you may want to check it out!

If you read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts about it!


  1. I remember when you posted about this book the first time. Esperanza and I are both going to try to tackle this one. I am very eager to read it.

  2. You've sold me on this book. A couple of chapters sound like they might be hard for me to read this point (I'm thinking in particular about teddy bear urns), but I am definitely going to check it out.

  3. It does seem a little more academic in tone than I would have expected, but that probably won't stop me from reading it. : )

  4. Thanks, Lori, for the detailed overview and highlights. You've shared many useful points that are worth bookmarking. A few years ago I realized that there is no tidy thing such as closure. Instead we find a way to come to terms...each in our own way.

  5. Thank you!

    (and my verification word is rests so that is what I'll do)