Pushing ‘closure’ after trauma can be harmful to people grieving – here’s what you can do instead

Pushing ‘closure’ after trauma can be harmful to people grieving – here’s what you can do instead

People need time and space to grieve at their own pace. John Encarnado/EyeEm/Getty Immages
Nancy Berns, Drake University

From the breakup of a relationship to losing a loved one, people are often told to find “closure” after traumatic things happen.

But what is closure? And should it really be the goal for individuals seeking relief or healing, even in these traumatic times of global pandemic, war in Ukraine and mass shootings in the U.S.?

Closure is an elusive concept. There is no agreed-upon definition for what closure means or how one is supposed to find it. Although there are numerous interpretations of closure, it usually relates to some type of ending to a difficult experience.

As a grief expert and author of “Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us,” I have learned that the language of closure can often create confusion and false hope for those experiencing loss. Individuals who are grieving feel more supported when they are allowed time to learn to live with their loss and not pushed to find closure.

Why did closure become popular?

Closure is entrenched in popular culture not because it is a well-defined, understood concept that people need, but rather because the idea of closure can be used to sell products, services and even political agendas.

The funeral industry started using closure as an important selling point after it was criticized harshly in the 1960s for charging too much for funerals. To justify their high prices, funeral homes began claiming that their services helped with grief too. Closure eventually became a neat package to explain those services.

In the 1990s, death penalty advocates used the concept of closure to reshape their political discourse. Arguing that the death penalty would bring closure for victims’ family members was an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. However, research continues to show that executions do not bring closure.

Still today, journalists, politicians, businesses and other professionals use the rhetoric of closure to appeal to people’s emotions related to trauma and loss.

So what is the problem with closure?

It is not the mere presence of closure as a concept that is a problem. The concern comes when people believe closure must be found in order to move forward.

Closure represents a set of expectations for responding after bad things happen. If people believe they need closure in order to heal but cannot find it, they may feel something is wrong with them. Because so many others may tell those grieving they need closure, they often feel a pressure to either end grief or hide it. This pressure can lead to further isolation.

Privately, many people may resent the idea of closure because they do not want to forget their loved ones or have their grief minimized. I hear this frustration from people I interview.

Closure frequently becomes a one-word description of what individuals are supposed to find at the end of the grieving process. The concept of closure taps into a desire to have things ordered and simple, but experiences with grief and loss are often longer-term and complex.

If not closure, then what?

As a grief researcher and public speaker, I engage with many different groups of people seeking help in their grief journeys or looking for ways to better support others. I’ve listened to hundreds of people who share their experiences with loss. And I learn time and again that people do not need closure to heal.

They can carry grief and joy together. They can carry grief as part of their love for many years. As part of my research, I interviewed a woman I will call Christina.

Just before her 16th birthday, Christina’s mom and four siblings were killed in a car accident. Over 30 years later, Christina said that people continue to expect her to just “be over it” and to find closure. But she does not want to forget her mother and siblings. She is not seeking closure to their deaths. She has a lot of joy in her life, including her children and grandchildren. But her mom and siblings who died are also part of who she is.

Both privately – and as a community – individuals can learn to live with loss. The types of loss and trauma people experience vary greatly. There is not just one way to grieve, and there is no time schedule. Furthermore, the history of any community contains a range of experiences and emotions, which might include collective trauma from events such as mass shootings, natural disasters or war. The complexity of loss reflects the complexity of relationships and experiences in life.

Rather than expecting yourself and others to find closure, I would suggest creating space to grieve and to remember trauma or loss as needed. Here are a few suggestions to get started:

• Know people can carry complicated emotions together. Embrace a full range of emotions. The goal does not need to be “being happy” all the time for you or others.

• Improve listening skills and know you can help others without trying to fix them. Be present and acknowledge loss through listening.

• Realize that people vary greatly in their experiences with loss and the way they grieve. Don’t compare people’s grief and loss.

• Bear witness to pain and trauma of others in order to acknowledge their loss.

• Provide individual and community-level opportunities for remembering. Give yourself and others freedom to carry memories.

Healing does not mean rushing to forget and silencing those who hurt. I believe that by providing space and time to grieve, communities and families can honor lives lost, acknowledge trauma and learn what pain people continue to carry.The Conversation

Nancy Berns, Professor of Sociology, Drake University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Devotion: Life has a louder voice

Devotion: Life has a louder voice

Scripture Reference

Matthew 28:1-10 NLT

1 Early on Sunday morning,[a] as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb.

Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.

Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.”

The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message. And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.”

Death has a sting, a pain that can linger and never leave the soul. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was not a glamorous thing to behold. It was painful, tormenting, heartbreaking and shattering of any form of hope for those who were present. As we read the journey He took, the imagery that plays in our minds reveals how difficult this moment of destiny was for Jesus and His disciples.

When He died, I can imagine a pain of finality that may have been felt by those who loved and cared for Him. Losing someone dear, someone you love and care for is not easy. Losing them to a painful death can be heartbreaking and it can create a traumatic scar that never leaves.

It was important for Jesus to rise up again because the only voice that is capable of shutting down the loud voice of death is life. When He rose on the third day, the powerful testimony of His resurrection was a reminder for believers all over the world to believe, and hope again.

Have you dealt with situations that seem final to you? Are you plagued with thoughts of feeling that life is not worth living? Do you sense or feel that you are at the end of your road? If your answer is yes to any of those questions, you need to fight to live. If you need help, you can get it.

Living and moving conscious of daily decisions that push you to choose better, act wiser, and try for the best takes courage and sometimes can be a battle of the will. However, life has a louder voice than death. The dead cannot breathe air or experience moments.

Do not allow the finality of circumstances, trials, or tribulations make you feel as though life is not fair or worth it. You matter, and your presence in this life, living and learning and growing allows you to make a greater impact than being dead and in the grave. Fight for your dreams, push yourself to achieve the best that you can in this lifetime and believe God to make your life worth living for, because it is.

Prayer

Dear Father,

Thank you for what you did for me through love, by sending Jesus Christ to die for me. I acknowledge the power of the cross and the reminder that you desire for me to live. Help me today to push myself to live life with joy as Jesus died for me to be filled with peace and joy. Teach me how to maximize my days, weeks and months with what matters, and show me how to use my time here on earth wisely. I desire to live a fulfilled life, and I trust you that you will show me how to.

 

In Jesus Name,

Amen

Holy Saturday-A Reflection

Yesterday, churches around the nation gathered in person and virtually to commemorate the death and murder of Jesus. What a way to die, executed with his boys nowhere around, with the exception of John who he left in the care of his mother. He died in front of his mother. All of these people who loved Jesus, whether at the cross or not, had to live with the fact that they are now living in the world with a dead Jesus. We know now, because of history, that this part is an ongoing story, but even this part has a finality to it. Death is like that. Death is part of the process of living this life, and grief is its own beast of a complicated companion that comes with doing life with someone. These people had to grieve Jesus. God, the Father, had to watch his Son die. God lost His Son. Can you imagine it?

Who were your ones? Who are the people you love and loved so deeply, that your history is now split between before this person and after this person? Did you cry? Do you still cry? How did the gift that is grief show up for you? I believe in our liturgical imaginations, we have created services for almost every other day of Holy Week to commemorate, except for Saturday, because we just don’t know how to sit in grief. Grief can be an all consuming force to deal with, but grief is the price we pay for love, and they were loved. Sunday will get here in its own time, but we should take a page out of the Jesus story in this way too. There’s a reason that grief makes the story.

Theologians will debate about what He’s doing during this time, and the possibility of Him snatching the keys of hell and the people that will rise with him. What we know is that the people left on this side of the river Jordan had to grieve. And that alone is the gift here. The gift is frankly permission to grieve, and to feel feelings. It’s an invitation to learn how to sit in our Satur….sadder-days. It’s an invitation to not run and rush through the grief, but to trust God to get in the grief with you, since God knows what it’s like to live with the loss too. May we all learn how to be still on sadder-days, and hold in tension that this ongoing story, just with the added character of grief.

‘Put The Fire Under Us’: Church Spurs Parishioners To Plan For Illness And Death

‘Put The Fire Under Us’: Church Spurs Parishioners To Plan For Illness And Death

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond prays with parishioners during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church in Boston. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)

“It would feel like murder to pull her life support,” a young woman tells the doctor.

The woman sits by a hospital bed where her mother, Selena, lies unresponsive, hooked up to a breathing tube. The daughter has already made one attempt to save her mother’s life; she pulled Selena out of the car and performed CPR when her heart stopped en route to the hospital — an experience she calls “beyond terrifying.”

Now the doctor tells the family Selena will never wake up in a meaningful way. But the daughter says she can’t let her mother go: “I’m always looking for another miracle.”

The scene, captured in the documentary “Extremis,” took place in a hospital’s intensive care unit in Oakland, Calif.

Three thousand miles away, at Boston’s Bethel AME Church one recent fall evening, the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond watched the film with a group of women from her predominantly black congregation. As they gathered around a long table in the church’s youth center at 7 p.m., White-Hammond offered oranges and chocolate chip cookies — and a warning that the film might be very hard to watch.

White-Hammond, an energetic 67-year-old activist and minister who also teaches at Harvard Divinity School, is accustomed to broaching difficult subjects. She often speaks out about being sexually abused by her father during childhood — an experience that motivated her to work with survivors of sexual violence in Sudan. Now, she’s using her unusual credentials as a pastor — and a pediatrician — to take on a new subject: death.

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond speaks with parishioners after a Sunday service at Boston’s Bethel AME Church. White-Hammond wants to get all 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life wishes and discuss them with their families. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)

As the film ended, White-Hammond and her congregants sat quietly as letters on the screen revealed Selena’s fate: The family had Selena surgically attached to a breathing machine. She lived that way, drifting in and out of consciousness, for nearly six months.

White-Hammond broke the silence with a prayer.

“We know Selena,” she said, speaking metaphorically. “Her brothers are our brothers.”

Like Selena, most of the people in the room were black women. They are grappling with the question: If they end up like Selena, what would they want their families to do?

“God, guide us and direct us,” said White-Hammond as heads bowed. After they die, she said, her parishioners may see the face of Jesus, and “sit at his feet and be blessed.”

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, stand during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)

But first, they have work to do.

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, stand during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church on Dec. 3, 2017, in Boston. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)

White-Hammond is determined to get all of her 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life medical wishes and discuss them with their doctors and families.

White-Hammond treated patients until about seven years ago, and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, is a doctor, too. But when an organization called The Conversation Project approached her a few years ago about leading death-and-dying workshops with her congregation, she discovered she hadn’t planned for her own death or serious illness.

“I didn’t have my own documents” outlining medical wishes, she said. “I was kind of embarrassed.”

Nationwide, only a third of Americans have documented their end-of-life wishes, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. For black adults 65 or older, rates are much lower: Only 19 percent have documented their end-of-life wishes, compared with 65 percent of whites. Older black adults are half as likely as whites to have named someone to make medical decisions on their behalf if they became incapacitated, the poll found. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Another KFF poll found that blacks are more likely than whites to say that living as long as possible is “extremely important,” and that the U.S. medical system places too little emphasis on extending life.

As part of the discussion at Bethel AME, White-Hammond asked attendees to look through the “Five Wishes” end-of-life planning document. At monthly workshops, White-Hammond has introduced over 100 parishioners to the document over the past two years. She said people often get stuck when filling out the second wish, which asks whether they want life support in certain grim scenarios that they may not be familiar with, such as permanent brain damage.

White-Hammond screened “Extremis” to illustrate what ventilators and feeding tubes are really like — and what it’s like for families to make decisions without explicit instructions. The documentary, which lasts an intense 24 minutes, provoked a strong response.

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond speaks with parishioners after a Sunday service at Boston’s Bethel AME Church. White-Hammond wants to get all 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life wishes and discuss them with their families. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)

Janine Hackshaw, a 35-year-old black immigrant from Trinidad who works in microfinance, told the group she felt anger toward one ICU doctor in the film. She felt the doctor was rushing a family to make a life-or-death decision about whether to put their loved one on a ventilator.

“Why is she rushing?” Hackshaw asked. “Do you need the machine for something else?”

Mistrust of the medical establishment is one major reason black Americans are less likely to write down their end-of-life wishes, and more reluctant to end life support, White-Hammond later said. That mistrust stems partly from historical racism, including segregated hospitals, forced sterilization of black women and the infamous, government-led Tuskegee syphilis experiment that denied effective treatment to black men.

The mistrust persists today as “race becomes more tense” across the country, and as people continue to experience disparities, White-Hammond said. Like some other black church leaders across the country who are trying to change perceptions around hospice, White-Hammond believes cultural change can start at church.

“We’re capitalizing on our credibility as an institution of faith” to drive conversations around end-of-life care, she said. The goal, she said, is to make these discussions “part of the culture.”

Another obstacle, White-Hammond said, is that people don’t want to talk about death.

Rhona Julien, another parishioner who hails from Trinidad, said she regrets avoiding the discussion with her mother before she died three years ago. When her mother started to talk about dying, Julien would change the subject.

“I never wanted to deal with it,” she said.

But she said she learned a lot from her mother’s death, including the pressure families could create to keep a person alive. Julien, a 58-year-old environmental scientist, was the sole caretaker for her mother, who had pulmonary fibrosis. At the very end, Julien said, her siblings wanted to put their mother on a ventilator, to keep her alive long enough so that they could fly from Trinidad to say goodbye. Julien refused.

“She’s not going to be connected to a machine to keep her alive for other people’s benefit,” Julien recalled thinking.

“Nobody should be hooked up to this and that, like Frankenstein,” she said.

A 23-year-old Haitian-American woman in the group said she has not been comfortable speaking up to her family about her grandmother’s care. (She declined to give her name, for fear of upsetting her family.)

She described her grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from Haiti, as an independent, strong-minded woman who would regularly walk an hour to church instead of taking a bus. She raised three kids on her own and made a life in the U.S., even though she didn’t speak English, couldn’t read and had no formal education.

Her grandmother was so prepared for death that she had a drawer in her room with clothes that she planned to wear at her funeral — an elegant white suit and white, wide-brimmed hat. She would check the drawer every couple of weeks.

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond distributes Holy Communion during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)

But when the grandmother had a stroke a couple of years ago in Randolph, Mass., doctors asked if she should be kept on feeding tubes or offered only comfort care. The family chose feeding tubes. The grandmother, who is 85 and cannot walk or talk, has been living in a bed ever since.

The young woman said she feels frustrated that her family didn’t prioritize what her grandmother would want.

“We were hoping for a miracle,” she said. But she knew her grandmother “wouldn’t have decided to live a life where she would be bound to a bed.”

Dr. Alice Coombs, one of three black female doctors participating in the evening’s discussion, turned to the young woman and gently suggested that she speak up on her grandmother’s behalf.

“I took it as a challenge,” the young woman later said, “to talk about this topic.”

Julien said she was initially reluctant to talk to her own kids about her end-of-life wishes — “Are you jinxing yourself?” she wondered — but she successfully broached the subject as part of homework for the workshop.

After watching the film “Extremis,” she said, she felt motivated to take the next step: “I’m going to fill out these forms!”

As the discussion ended, White-Hammond prayed to God for help filling out those end-of-life forms. “Put the fire under us,” she asked, so the task doesn’t languish “on the to-do list.”

Pastor Gloria White-Hammond officiates a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church in Boston. Pastor White-Hammond conducts workshops with her parishioners around end-of-life issues to help them talk about death, name a health care proxy and fill out their end-of-life wishes. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

Whitney’s Final ‘Sparkle’

SHINING STARS: Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks star as a mother and daughter in ‘Sparkle,’ the remake of the 1976 classic about the highs and lows of a family singing group during the Motown era.

Sparkle hits movie theaters this weekend with a star-studded cast of black actors and entertainers. Based on the 1976 classic, this remake is a cautionary tale that chronicles the story of three sisters in their rise to fame as they navigate the twists and turns of the music industry.

American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks, in her film debut, plays the lead role of Sparkle, while pop star Cee Lo Green, actors Derrick Luke and Carmen Ejogo, and comedian Mike Epps appear in supporting roles. But there’s no doubt that throughout the film, all eyes will be on the late Whitney Houston, who plays the mother of the aspiring girl group.

In the film, the three sisters (Sparks, Ejogo, and Teka Sumpter) move up the record charts as they sing and dance in high fashion. In their search for fame, the girls are swept away by mesmerizing men, challenged by the demands of life, and overcome by the dreams that almost tear their family apart.

It’s quite ironic, then, that this is the last project Whitney Houston completed before her untimely death on February 11, the night before the Grammy Awards. At 48 years old, Whitney accidentally drowned in her hotel bathtub. The coroner’s report later revealed that cocaine was a contributing factor in her death.

After her tragic passing, the world reflected on Whitney’s life and how we watched her grow up to fulfill her dreams. Much like the girls in the movie, she was beautiful, rich, and famous. She had it all, and yet there was immense sorrow which ultimately led to her demise. Until her final days, she continued to smile, pursue her dreams, and to profess her love for Christ. And she continued to sing!

Singing, of course, will be a highlight in Sparkle, which features songs from the original film written by the great Curtis Mayfield as well as new compositions by R. Kelly. The movie was preceded by a soundtrack release which includes Whitney’s final musical recordings. In what is sure to be a highlight of the film, she sweetly sings “His Eye is on a Sparrow,” a song that encourages us to sing even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. And even in her absence, Whitney’s performance emanates with hope.

Yet I wonder, what is a proper response when singing and dream chasing is the catalyst for sadness? The painful reality is there are almost too many parallels between Whitney’s life and the lives of the girls in the movie. I wonder what kind of responses that will elicit in the theaters this weekend. As we sit and watch, I wonder if we will “Celebrate” as she and Jordin encourage us to do in their recently released single from the soundtrack. I wonder if we will shed a tear at the new images of Whitney, her gentle grace, or the sound of her voice as she lifts her hands to worship God during the church scene. Will we pause and reflect?

You see Sparkle causes us to consider important questions. What happens when we get exactly what we want? Will we hold on to our family, faith, and friendships? Will we hold fast to our dreams at all costs? And what happens to us — our identity — when those dreams are lost or deferred? How will we respond when our dreams are fulfilled? Will we sparkle? Will we shine like a light, or will our lights flicker and go out like an ember in the darkness?

Whatever the case may be, Sparkle opens tomorrow, August 17, in theaters everywhere. So grab your girlfriends, get a date, and head to a cineplex near you. And then let us know what you think.