The idea of getting “closure” for some kind of psychological pain is a fairly recent concept in the popular culture. When I was a young woman in the late 60s and 70s, it was a word you never heard (unless, perhaps, you worked in the mental health field), and a concept the average person had never heard of, let alone internalized.
The first time I ever heard the word “closure” used in this context was during a television interview. A crowd of people were gathered outside a California prison to demonstrate their support for the death penalty in general and for the execution scheduled for that evening in particular. A family member of the victim of the about-to-be-executed felon was asked by a member of the news crew if he thought this execution would bring him closure and the angry, grief-stricken interviewee said it would. He felt that the death of the person who killed his family member would bring him peace and acceptance of her death through justice being done, his loved-one being avenged.
But does it? PBS Newshour cites Marilyn Armour, director of Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin, who has researched homicide survivors for two decades: “They’ll tell you over and over and over again that there’s no such thing as closure.”1 Why? Because they expected the act of executing the killer would take away their pain and bring them peace—and it didn’t. They continued to mourn and to grieve and to feel angry and short-changed by life because they expected that carrying out the sentence would end their pain, and it did not. The killer was dead and they were still in just as much pain as they were the day before the execution—it didn’t bring them the closure they expected to find at the end of that needle.
Back in the day, before anybody really knew what closure was or even that they could look for it, we coped. We didn’t expect the pain of the loss of a loved one, whether through death or divorce or other circumstance, to go away and never hurt us again. The painful end of a romance was not something we sought “closure” from, it was something we coped with until we “got over it.” The death of a loved one we learned to live with—painfully at first, but with the pain diminishing over time until we could remember the joys of having known that person without continuing to experience the excruciating pain of new loss.
Today the idea of closure is on everyone’s lips and I am not so sure that is emotionally good for us. For one thing, looking for closure is to look outside ourselves for surcease from emotional pain—it is depending on others, whether it is the state or a family member or even the agent of our pain—rather than ourselves, and those others cannot always be relied upon to work in our best interests.
There are some things for which closure is simply not possible—it just isn’t there. The disappearance of a loved one who is never found, for example. The suicide or overdose death of a loved one. The senseless destruction of that which we hold dear through anonymous acts of violence and malice. There is no closure from those things: there is no clear perpetrator, there is no one to blame and to punish and from whom to exact retribution. There is only grief and, ultimately, making the choice between acceptance or intractable, unending grief, pain, and resentment.
This is where I find the concept of closure to be a problem: we have come, as a people, to think of closure as an entitlement and when we don’t get it, we get stuck. And for those like us, closure with respect to the predations by the narcissistic members of our Family of Origin pretty much is not going to happen. No narcissist worth his or her salt is going to give you closure if it means admitting any kind of wrongdoing on their part or doing something they don’t want to do—it just isn’t going to happen. And how do you get closure any other way?
Many of us have a subconscious expectation—a sense of entitlement, if you will—to get closure when we begin healing from the abuses of our Ns. We have been acculturated to the idea that if we do the work, we are entitled to the reward. In dealing with our Ns, in doing the hard work of repudiating denial and facing the painful truths and realizations of our NParents and other family members, after we go through the hard and painful work of facing those ugly, hurtful truths, we expect our reward—and in today’s world, the reward we expect is closure: the Ns are banished, we are whole, and we turn the page and enter a new chapter in our lives in which we are no longer plagued by them or their dreadful legacy.
But the fulfilment of this expectation depends on the cooperation of your Ns and their flying monkeys and sycophants. And while you may be done with them, that in no way guarantees that they are done with you. How you find a sense of closure when you have closed and locked the door and they keep prying it open? How can you feel the satisfaction of a problem being solved and over with when they pop out of the woodwork at the most unexpected and inopportune moments? How do you get closure when the other side of the equation simply will not leave it alone?
You don’t. And that is where we get stuck. We are going after something that is unachievable and we are so fixed and focussed on it that we never even look for another goal, another reward. The world around us chants “Closure! We want closure!” and we join right in.
One of the people in the PBS article indicated the whole idea of closure was a source of pain and frustration for her because she couldn’t have it. The murderer of her brother was never prosecuted due to insufficient evidence. She felt that the justice system’s bid for providing closure to some victims of crime—those whose perpetrator had been caught and convicted, but not to others, people like herself who lose a loved one to murder but no prosecution or conviction issued forth—indicated that the justice system considered some lives to be more valuable than others, because people in her situation are not offered an opportunity for closure. She felt she was suffering a double blow, one from the killer of her brother, the other from the state.
But if she had no expectation of closure, wouldn’t she feel differently? She was depending on the state to give her closure, to take actions to close the door on her pain. She imagines that those who saw the killers of their loved ones die got something she didn’t—their pain eased and a door opened to a life in which the pain of her brother’s death and absence would stay behind. And she doesn’t realize that they have no more been relieved of their suffering than she has.
Why? Two reasons: 1) she is looking for the wrong thing and 2) she is looking to the wrong source for her surcease.
The way to most effectively deal with emotional pain is to not look outside ourselves for others to do something (or to stop doing something) but to look to ourselves. As infants and children we had to look outside ourselves to get our needs met because we were incapable of meeting them on our own. But we are not children any longer, and the means to handling with our emotional pain is within us—each of us.
If we go looking for closure, we are bound to find disappointment because until they die, our Ns are not going to give us what we want unless it happens to align with what they want. If our needs don’t align with their wishes, we are disregarded: what the N wants is what is paramount and the only goal the N will pursue. This, of course, is diametrically opposed to what we need for that closure.
The problem with relying on others to provide us with what we need for closure is that every one of those others have their own agenda, even if they aren’t narcissists themselves. The woman from PBS who was so bitter about her brother’s killer not being tried: in her case the prosecutor’s focus was on having a winnable case—not only is his track record at stake (his professional reputation) but he also has to answer to the bean counters who don’t want him to “waste” limited resources on unproductive cases. People meet their own agenda, not ours, whether it is financial, legal, social, or personal. You cannot hang your hope of resolution of an emotional issue on someone else because their own issues will inevitably take precedence.
So, if closure is not available, what do you do? Suffer forever?
No, you do what we did back in the olden days before “closure” became the holy grail of emotional pain resolution. You go inward and you learn to cope. You learn to work through that pain not by waiting for someone to do something to somebody else, but by processing it, by feeling it, by dealing with it. You cry, you grieve your loss, you mourn the permanence of it. And you do that until you are purged of it to whatever degree you can achieve.
Does that make the pain go away forever, so that you can go forward never hurting from it again? No—but the brutal truth is, nothing will do that, not even this elusive “closure.” Unless you have the memories of the events that caused your pain wiped from your mind, there will always be something that can trigger the pain. And when that happens, you just go back to whatever helped you to cope in the first place: tears and feeling the pain until it stops again. It will stop but it will never go away. IF closure is available to you, this is the only way to truly get it.
My mother stole my children 45 years ago. I got them back 37 years ago. My mother has been dead almost 20 years. I have all of the closure I will ever get. I don’t hate her—I don’t love her—she was my mother in a biological sense, but she never mothered me. She had power over me, control, for too many years, both directly and indirectly, but that has been over for a very long time and I control my own life to the extent that it is humanly possible.
It really doesn’t matter anymore how I feel about her or the things she did—it is what it is and the past is written in indelible ink. What matters is how I feel today because I live in today. I cannot change what was done to me and even if she was still alive and magically un-narced, she would not be able to change it either.
What gives you closure, if that is what you want to call it, is acceptance of reality. It is not the attainment of some fantasy you have built up in your mind—“I’ll be happy when…”—it is the acceptance of what has happened in your life, good or bad, just or unjust, right or wrong, and the decision to not let those past events dictate your future. It is accepting that people will do bad things, they will do what we do not want them to do. It is knowing that we must do what we must do in order to to deal with them. It is the acceptance that our lives may never be what we want or hope they will be but that is still ok, because we are still breathing and functioning and we can find ways to accept that which we did not ask for and integrate it into the fabric of our lives.
Back in the olden days, when birth control was unreliable and The Pill was not yet in the marketplace, most babies were unplanned. Today I see people tying themselves in emotional knots because they were not a planned baby and they therefore believe they were unwanted. They put themselves through ten kinds of unnecessary hell based upon on the irrational belief that unplanned=unwanted. But nobody of my generation would have made that presumption because we did not expect every baby to be planned: we knew that unplanned but desperately wanted and joyfully celebrated babies happened all of the time. Our expectation, our assumption, was that we were wanted and loved until and unless something happened to give us reason to doubt it.
And so it is with closure: the expectation drives the experience. If you stop expecting the magical cessation of your pain through closure and seek, instead, the acceptance of your own reality, acceptance of the truth, mourning your losses, and learning how to cope when your world is not what you wanted it to be, you ultimately find the path to your own peace.