The myth of closure – The Boston Globe

Sociologist, Nancy Berns, has written sociological analysis of the concept of  “closure.” She was interviewed in the Boston Globe regarding her work (“The myth of closure – The Boston Globe.) where she discusses how “closure” as a form of accounting for grief or catastrophe can come to impact people’s lives in ways that are not always positive.

Berns argues that grief is a concept, used in talk, so that people can tell stories and make narrative sense of grief. But the current use of closure, she argues, has little to do with the way Gestalt psychologists originally used the term.  Berns writes “Although there are numerous definitions and interpretations of closure that i will attempt to untangle in this book, closure usually relates to some type of ending. Closure typically implies that something is finished, ended, closed. Finally you can move on.” This is not what Max Wertheimer, an early Gestalt psychologist in the 1920s meant. For early Gestaltists, studying perception, “closure” referred to how discrete elements are  as wholes. For example, the term was used to discuss how “gaps” in perception and sensory stimuli were “filled in” by the brain (e.g. the optic nerve creates a blind spot in the eyes field of vision. Yet the brain works so that we still experience the visual field as intact and continuous).

Sociologically and psychologically speaking, the kinds of things that “closure” is supposed to remedy or as an end state to be achieved by grievers, has little reality. Grief or trauma has no clear ends, nor is, for example, grief a bad thing or something that can’t be integrated, in a healthy way, into one’s life. In part that is why, she explains, that those who study bereavement don’t use the concept in the way that popular culture has appropriated it —as the correct response to grief and trauma that people should strive for. In other words, “closure” has become a “need” to be met, often by a variety of emotional peddlers selling the wares of grief counseling, self help, funeral home services, psychics, private investigators, and attorneys. It is also a powerful rhetorical political tool, according to Burns, that politicians use to organize and mobilize voters, e.g. in the war on terror.

This notion of closure, and its concomitant emotional services industry, become predominant in the 1990s in conjunction with the victims rights movement, court decisions, and a rise in the dominance of therapeutic goals and discourses as part of popular culture.

The danger of how “closure” is most frequently used is that it sets normative standards on how people “ought” to feel. As a “feeling rule,” to quote Arlie Hochschild, it tells people what kinds of emotions are important, sets normative expectations on how long sadness or grief should be experienced,   and how to regulate the expression of public grief, traumas, etc. in public settings. In this sense, “closure” is one more way to rationalize and sanitize what are often quite reasonable emotions are re-packaged as “tidy, feel-good endings.”

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One Comment on “The myth of closure – The Boston Globe

  1. Brian, thank you for this. The gestalt reference is interesting and clear but even more vital to me is your voice describing well this misconception about some achieve state of closure in grief. the idea that there is some place to be reached and be “done” is such a burden for those who are in the process of grieving. Your word “integrating” is much more the feeling over time – finding a place for the reality to live, bit by bit, within the context of an ongoing life. Thanks.

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