Is There 'Closure' After A Loved One’s Death?

07/21/2017 03:38 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2017

There is no point at which you will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common.

When someone we love dies, we talk about getting “closure.” Yet no one really defines what closure means, whether it is possible, or how to get there. By understanding a few things about the grief process, you can help yourself -- or others -- find peace.

For many in our society, closure means leaving grief behind, a milestone they usually expect to reach within a matter of weeks or months. Closure means being “normal”, getting back to your old self, no longer crying or being affected by the death. It means “moving on with life” and leaving the past behind, even to the extent of forgetting it or ignoring it. Yet when we experience the death of a loved one, this kind of closure is not only impossible but indeed undesirable.

Closure, if one even chooses to use the term, is more of a process than a defined moment. The initial part of closure is accepting the reality. At first, you keep hoping or wishing that it weren’t true. You expect your loved one to walk through the door. You wait for someone to tell us it was all a huge mistake. You just can’t accept that this person has died, that you will never physically see your loved one again or hear the voice, feel the hug, or get that valued input on a tough decision. Usually it takes weeks or even months for the reality to finally sink in. In time, you come to know, in both your head and your heart that your loved one has died and is not coming back. You still don’t like it, but you accept it as true.

As you accept this reality, you can more actively make forward-looking choices that help you heal. You slowly begin to envision a life different from what you had planned before, a life in which you no longer expect your loved one to be there. You still feel the pain and loss, but except for short periods of time, you are not crippled by it.

Especially if it was a significant person who died, this healing phase is long and slow, and it involves a lot of back-and-forthing. You may alternate between tears and joy, fears and confidence, despair and hope. Sometimes you feel like you are taking three steps forward and two steps back.

It is important to give yourself permission for whatever you are experiencing. While others may be telling you to put it behind you and get on with life, I encourage you to build memories that you will never “put behind you”. Healing does not mean forgetting; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with you.

Eventually you are able to let go of what can no longer be. Yet at the same time you realize you are taking the past, with all its pain and pleasure, into a new tomorrow. You accommodate to the loss, and assimilate it into your life. It becomes a treasured part of your story that helps you grow into a different and hopefully better, more compassionate, more appreciative, more tolerant person. Enriched by your past, you fully embrace life again, connecting, laughing, and loving with a full heart.

Yet still, there is no point of “final closure.” There is no point at which you stop missing your loved one or wondering what life would be like if they were still alive. There is no point at which you will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common. Because you never forget, you carry your loved ones with you forever.

“Closure”? No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance – yes. Peace – yes. Moving forward – for sure. A future bright with love, joy, and hope – absolutely. But putting a period behind the final sentence, closing the door and locking it behind you? No. Love lives on and memories sing through the symphony that forms our lives.

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