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Grief expert Nancy Berns explains why we don't need closure to heal from loss. Rather, we can find freedom by carrying our joy and our grief together.
[0:02-0:17]: Let me tell you about Tim. 15 years ago Tim’s wife died, they were in their 40s. Recently I sat down and asked him about his grief he told me this.
[0:18-0:48]: He said “there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Our lives would be different now. What would she look like? What would she be doing? What would she think of about this? What would she think about that?” I asked him “does this surprise you? That 15 years later you think of her every day?” He said “no. No, we were just too close for me not to.”
[0:50-1:32]: If you were listening to Tim, what would you say to him? What would you be thinking? Many people in our culture might think that Tim is stuck in his grief, that he needs closure so that he can move forward. But Tim would tell you he’s doing just fine, he’s happily remarried, he has a fulfilling challenging career, he loves his kids and grandkids. Yeah, he misses his first wife, but that makes sense to him. She was his first love, the mother of his children, he still loves her.
[1:34-1:49]: So why would so many other people judge Tim and others like him who choose to carry their grief and their loss forward? It’s closure. It’s a popular idea we have in our society. There’s no one definition for it.
[1:50-2:23] : A loved one dies and we’re told we need to find closure. School shootings happen and a community looks for closure. Death penalty advocates tell us we need executions so that the victims families can have closure. When Osama bin Laden was killed, headlines across the nation said ‘now we can have closure to 9/11’. Of course other headlines told us that the victims families reported they never have closure, there wasn’t going to be an end to their grief and their loss.
[2:26-2:52]: And people use closure to mean different things. Some people talked about peace and forgiveness, but others use closure to talk about getting revenge and vengeance. Some say it’s about forgetting, others say remembering. And even though there’s not one definition for closure, there’s a common interpretation of it―and that there’s an end to our grief, there’s a finality to something bad that happened.
[2:54-3:30]: Do we need closure? My answer is no, but I’m going to take it further: closure doesn’t even exist. It’s a made-up concept that we use to talk about loss and grief, but seeking it can do more harm than good. Now some of you about now are thinking ‘well that’s just great, she’s here to tell us there’s no closure, there’s no end to our pain and our grief.’ This is not inspiring, this is not an idea worth spreading, right?
[3:33-4:02]: But that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is you don’t need closure to heal. And to help us understand that, we’re going to have some space up here―and you’re going to help me with this so here―we’re going to have our space of joy. So I want you to take a moment, close your eyes if it helps, and think about what brings joy into your life, what’s brought joy in the past, so this will be our space of joy.
[4:04-4:37]: I’m gonna walk over here, and here we’re going to have our space of grief and loss: what have you grieved in the past, what might you grieve in the future, and some of you are grieving today. It’s not just the death of loved ones that we grieve, our life is full of losses, and when we enter that space of grief and loss one of the questions that comes up is how do we get back over there to the joy? And that’s where closure comes in.
[4:38-5:12]: It’s this idea that if I can wrap up that pain and that grief, it’s going to be easier for me to get back over there. It’s appealing, but sometimes that grief can be so overwhelming you can’t even see over there. I get that. 11 years ago our first baby was stillborn. Shattered my life I was so deep in the space of grief I couldn’t see over there. One of the hardest things that someone said to me (I actually wrote in a card) was that ‘someday this will just be a memory.’
[5:13-5:38]: That made me angry because I didn’t want a memory, I wanted my child. Now she meant well because what she was trying to say was someday I won’t be here, I’ll be back over there with the joy. But for me at that time, and still to a large part, my love, and my child, and those memories of that was in this space, I wasn’t going to go over there without it.
[5:39-6:14]: But it can be so overwhelming to be in this grief. That idea of closure is appealing, it’s appealing to think: how do I get back over there? So closure seduces us―we want that so businesses use closure to sell products―closure’s the sizzle. The funeral industry promises closure, the grief in memorialization industries promised closure, those selling autopsy services, private DNA profile kits, wrongful death attorneys―the promising closure if we buy their products and services.
[6:15-6:45]: Politicians promise closure executions, a larger DNA database, harsher criminal laws but the problem is the concept of closure distorts what’s actually going on with our grieving. And to help understand why that distorts, I’m going to use this box― this box is a lot like closure, it’s appealing, it’s pretty, comes in different shapes and colors.
[6:48-7:16]: When bad things happen we often hand people a box―a metaphorical box―and we say to them: put all your pain, and your anger, and your hurt, and your tears, and your memories, put them in that box. Put the lid on it and set it on a shelf, leave it there and then you can walk back over here to the joy, don’t bring it with you.
[7:19-7:44]: Now sometimes, or maybe I should say most of the time, we’re trying to close other people’s pain, other people’s grief because when we’re deep in grief it’s interesting―we sort of understand that there’s not going to be simple closure to this. But for other people, and again we mean well you know, because we don’t want to see them in pain, but we want to help them get closure.
[7:45-8:16]: And so I might be over here in my space of joy, and I see someone enter that space of grief― could be a friend, a family member, co-worker, might be a stranger―and from here I can see them enter and I don’t want to get too close because it’s more comfortable over here. So I might say ‘hey, see that box? Go ahead and put all your pain in there, and your tears, put all the icky stuff in there, leave it there and then come back over here and join us, you know. Don’t bring the box.’
[8:19-8:54]: Closure, it doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple, the reason it doesn’t work that way, because this idea joy over here and grief over here is an illusion. And I set it up that way because our culture gives us these messages that our emotions are split―that there are these positive emotions, like joy and love, and then there is negative bad ones, like grief and anger and pain, and we want to try and have the positive, but you know we don’t want so much the other and try and prevent it and to get rid of it.
[8:55-9:34]: But that’s not the way emotions work either. Emotions don’t come with a particular value judgment on them, and we can also carry more than one emotion at a time. So rather than joy being way over here, and grief and that space between them, they’re actually together. They’re intertwined, and as humans we have the capacity to carry joy and grief at the same time. So what would happen if rather than telling people to put a lid on their pain, we open the box and listen to people’s stories?
[9:38-10:17]: This one’s Gloria, Gloria is a mother whose son died in his early 20s. Five years after his death, I sat down and talked with Gloria. She said one of the hardest things was when people would ask her how many children she had. You know you don’t know somebody, and you’re getting to know them, and she said that if she didn’t talk about Jake, her son who died, then she felt bad because she still hurt her child; but if she did tell them about him, then people get uncomfortable, and they wouldn’t know what to say, and it kind of stopped the conversation, so that was awkward too.
[10:18-10:42]: So I asked her, I said, “Gloria, what would you want people to say? How would you want them to respond after you told them about Jake?” and I’ll use her words, she says “I know nobody would do this, but I guess what I’d really like is for somebody to say oh, I’m sorry but tell me about him, tell me what kind of person he was.”
[10:45-11:03]: Her son was funny, he made her laugh, she has all these funny stories that she wants to share. Yeah they make her cry too, because she misses him, but that joy and grief they can go together; and if we ask Gloria to keep all those stories in a box she doesn’t get to have that joy.
[11:07-11:18]: This one’s about Dan. His wife Carrie died 12 years ago, they were in their early 30s, had several small children together, and I’ll use his words to describe what grieving is like for him.
[11:19-12:00]: “When I grieve it helps bring joy back into my life. Because you ask yourself why you grieve, and I grieve because something precious, something of great worth has been taken from me. And that grieving hurts, it’s so painful, and your heart just aches, but then you remind yourself that a joy that took place of knowing that person. I wouldn’t grieve for Carrie if she didn’t give me joy, if we didn’t have that love, and I’m so thankful I’m so thankful that I knew Carrie. And as much as it hurt to lose her, and the grief that it caused it was worth every tear. Joy and grief are intertwined, we grieve because we love.”
[12:03-12:14]: This one’s from Angela, it’s not after a death, it’s during a time of crisis. Her child was in the hospital for over a month, a serious condition dialysis was part of his care and she shared this moment.
[12:15-12:39]: She said “one day the nurses were telling me that I needed to go rest. So I walked out into the hall and there was this machine, with this dome on it and I had never seen a dialysis machine so I didn’t know what it was, but I was just sick seeing it, and I went back in and asked ‘is that a dialysis machine out it the hallway?’ And the nurses went out and they looked, and they laughed, and they said ‘you need to go get some rest, that is the floor cleaning machine.’”
[12:47-13:27]: And Angela laughed. Even during a time of crisis, during a funeral, during times of loss, joy and laughter is important. That’s what helps us catch our breath so that we can move forward through that hard time. Remember Tim? 15 years later he’s still thinking about his wife before she died. He thought people got over grief quickly, that it was pretty easy. And I asked him ‘why he thought that?’ and he kind of laughed, he said “I don’t know,” and he said “I just assumed that you know’ you grieve, you’re really down, and then you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and walk away from it. Isn’t that what they do in the movies?”
[13:28-14:00]: “I like to watch westerns. And they shoot the guy, and his wife comes over, and goes ‘oh crap, he’s dead,’” that’s what he thought, “you know they cry for a minute, and then get up, to walk away and start building their life again.” He found out that wasn’t how it worked, but his own loss, in his own grief and gave him a deep understanding and compassion, and now he can be with people and support them, and talk to them, who are going through that kind of loss.
[14:03-14:32]: We live in a culture that tells us we can be happy all the time, and that if you’re not happy you’re doing something wrong. But that’s not the way it works. And if I might use some academic technical jargon for just a moment: sometimes life sucks, bad things, happen. Knowing that joy and grief can be carried together, is so important because it’s a long journey without the possibility of joy.
[14:38-15:04]: So the next time that you see someone who’s entering that space of grief—might be a family member, might be a friend, a co-worker, just someone you recently met—don’t hand them a box, don’t tell them to find closure, meet them where they’re at. And they might be broken, and down, and beaten up...
[15:09-15:39]: Meet them where they’re at, and while you’re there take a moment and look around because you might be surprised at the view you have when you’re on your knees. And if you’re the one broken, you might be surprised at how comforting it can be to have someone just meet you where you’re at, not to try and get you to stand before you ready—not to try and take away your pain or explain it away, just to be with you.
[15:41-16:06]: And when you’re ready, to give you a hand up, to take those steps. You see it’s not about closure—healing, yes but that’s different—it’s about learning how to live with our loss, it’s about learning how to carry our grief in a way that leaves room for the joy and love.
[16:07-16:31]: The joy and the love from our past, and the joy and the love that lies ahead. Yet we live in a world that’s desperate for more compassion, we live in a world that needs to be in better touch with our humanity. What would happen if rather than telling people put a lid on their pain, we opened our boxes and we helped each other carry our joy and grief together?
[16:33-16:59]: And there’s beauty there. In art and photography, it’s the shadows that give a piece depth. It’s the shadows in our lives, it’s the shadows and the light together. It’s the grief and the joy that bring beauty, and depth, and character. So joy and grief, that space between is not so far apart.
[17:02-17:20]: It’s actually intertwined. And I know that can be scary, I get that. But it can also give you freedom. It’s freedom and knowing you can carry joy and grief together. There’s freedom and knowing you don’t need closure to heal. Thank you.
This guide provides specific ways to help a grieving friend based on insights from members of The Dinner Party, a community focused on life after loss.
A psychology professor has made it his goal to understand how people respond to illness and death. He shares ways that we can help ourselves, our friends, and our families grieve.