(Thirtieth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
When I finished writing Chapter 27, Grief Part 3: Accepting the Mystery, I didn’t realize what I had actually done. It was four years after our son had died, the pain from the first few years had diminished, I had gone through four of the Five Stages of Grief, and was moving forward in what I thought was the final stage, Acceptance. I was not dealing with denial, anger, bargaining, or depression any longer.
One day I was on a call with a friend. She was telling me her thoughts about the book and asked: “Do you realize what you have done?” No, I guess not. What? “You have gone through the sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. Your book was your way to find, and then share, meaning in the loss of JL’s life.”
She was right. But it wasn’t a goal I set out to accomplish. I think it was intuitive for me, something I had to do. Even after we finally accept the reality of a tragic loss in our lives, many of us want to find meaning. While we can’t find reason in the death, we can choose how we ascribe meaning to the life. I did not want JL’s life to seem meaningless.
But in finding meaning we do not achieve “Closure” – that happy ending in novels and movies that releases feel-good neurochemicals in our brains, like drugs. Yet we all know the happy ending is mostly a myth. To aim for and think that one can find closure after a death is also a myth. Why would anyone want us to “close the door” on thoughts and feelings about our departed loved one?
When people suggest we should pursue closure they are asking us to get back to how we felt and acted before our loved one’s death, leaving it behind, moving on. They may want this for their sake because they are uncomfortable in dealing with death and public grief makes them feel awkward. Closure or resolution is good when we are dealing with a conflict or problem. But grief is not – and should not be – a problem to be solved.
Amy Florian helps people learn how to support and interact with a person who is grieving a life-changing loss. On the subject of closure, she says:
“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.
I read somewhere that the door to memories after a loss should always be open. So let’s not close the door. Rather, let’s look for meaning. Florian’s life and career took a new trajectory when at 25 her husband died in a car accident. Her book, A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve, was one of her steps in finding meaning.
David Kessler, who worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in writing On Grief and Grieving, has similarly found meaning after his 21-year-old son died of a drug overdose in 2016. In Love & Grief: Finding Meaning in Loss, Kessler says:
“…although for most of us grief will lessen in intensity over time, it will never end. But if we allow ourselves to move fully into this crucial and profound sixth stage—meaning—it will allow us to transform grief into something else, something rich and fulfilling…Loss can wound and paralyze. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward. Meaning helps us make sense of grief.”
Kessler goes on to discuss what “meaning” looked like for him:
“I found gratitude for my son having come into my life and for all the years I got to spend with him. That was the beginning of my being able to see something meaningful in my grief.”
For John and me, our first attempt at finding meaning after JL’s death was to make sure we spoke openly and honestly about how he died – we knew that to be ashamed of that would be to shame him as a person. At the 1st anniversary of his death, we had a celebration of his life with his friends and gave them most of his “collections” of beer glasses, t-shirts, toys – things that had meaning from their relationship that would elicit memories of him.
Writing Opiate Nation was my attempt at telling how meaningful JL’s life was to all who knew him. In the process, I found meaning in the loss by remembering his life. And while most people won’t write a book or speak publicly about their loss and grief, we can all search for the special ways our loved one enriched our lives and, in that, find meaning.
Is there closure after a loved one’s death? By Amy Florian
Love & Grief: Finding Meaning in Loss by David Kessler