I asked my councilor about the most recent crazy advice a friend had given me on how to “achieve closure.” My councilor asked me what I thought closure was. I told her I had no idea, and honestly didn’t think it exists. She replied that she didn’t think it exists either. Mind blown!!! I thought counseling was for the pursuit of closure, or some other such nonsense…..
As you can probably guess, I’m brand new to this counseling thing. The idea of closure is an odd concept that I thought had merit, but when you break it down it means nothing. Does closure mean that you’ve moved on? Nope, it’s apparently something you have to do to move on. It’s assumed that there is some action that you have to take to complete the situation requiring closure (like placing a cherry on a sundae) before a painful situation can be over. Another glaringly untrue assumption is that the pain from these situations can ever be over. It’s oddly implied that you can somehow pass life’s Grief/Pain 101 with an A, as long as you complete all the ambiguous assignments and ace the Closure Project. You can then graduate and never think about that damn class again, right?
In the past year, I dealt with the death of my mother, abandonment by my husband, betrayal by my best friend and a myriad of other smaller trials and tribulations. It was overwhelming and fairly traumatizing, thus the counseling.
If this past year has taught me one thing, it’s that everyone handles pain differently. Watching my family process my mother’s sudden illness, decline, death, and funeral, and survive the subsequent months of pain, has lead me to understand that how we process pain and the support we require during those times are incredibly individual. There are definitely destructive ways to grieve, but there are also infinitely many healthy ways to make it through the worst parts. With unlimited ways to find your way through grief, if you manage to come out the other side a happy healthy person, then you did it right. I doubt there’s a perfect way to handle painful things, as we are people and nothing is ever perfect.
To people supporting:
I’m going to have a quick soap box moment here folks. If you ever find yourself saying or thinking, “This person needs (or doesn’t need) to do _(BLANK)_ to find closure.” Stop yourself right there! Unless you’ve had professional training, please just accept that you have no idea what you’re talking about. A part of the damage I sustained in the last year was caused by well meaning people telling me I needed to do things that I couldn’t handle or deal with at the time, and then becoming angry with me for not handling my pain the way they felt was best. I lost the person I thought was my best friend to the fact that she didn’t think anger was an acceptable emotion in the weeks after my husband left, and the fact that she had not wanted to be near someone in pain.
If the person experiencing the pain feels like they want to do something because they think it might help, then they should do it (within healthy and sane reason). Being supportive doesn’t mean that you have or come up with answers, it means that you listen and encourage your loved one to talk about the pain, when they feel like it, no matter how repetitive the words are. Half of grief and pain is dealing with the shock that this is your new reality. In the beginning it’s so easy to forget that the world you knew so well is gone. I dealt with it by trying to go over the individual situations over, and over, and over, on loop for a few months. What we could have done differently with Mom’s care, what I didn’t catch happening with my husband, thousands of memories bombarding my brain on repeat. It wasn’t something I chose to do, it wasn’t a plan for how to handle it, it was just how my brain did it. After enough repetition, it sunk in and I accepted.
Most people have no idea how to approach people who are grieving and either shy away awkwardly from the situation, or boldly dive in head first with something like “I heard your Mom died” and then just stare at you expectantly. If you are an acquaintance of the person, but not a close friend or family, you’re pretty much off the hook for assisting in the grieving process. An “I’m sorry to hear….” or saying nothing at all, or giving a quick side hug or shoulder pat and smile will do. But, if you’re in the inner circle, you’ve got your work cut out for you. If you care about this person, it’s time to buckle down because you’re in it for the long haul.
Just like they won’t be perfect at grieving, you wont be perfect at supporting. You’ll say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and get frustrated with their grief at times. It’s reality. All you can do is try to be patient, talk when they want to talk and distract when they need distraction. It’s a balancing act, and you’re not expected to be an expert. Something that helped me the most was just quick texts a few times a week from friends and family saying they love me and reminding me that I wasn’t alone. Not feeling alone is half the battle.
If you’re really concerned for the life or sanity of your grieving counterpart, try encouraging counseling. You are not a professional, and if they need one, try to help them find one. I say try, because it didn’t work for me. People told me for months to go to counseling, but I wasn’t ready and didn’t see the point. Honestly, I don’t know if counseling would have helped in the first few months after Mom died, I felt like I was keeping my head above water and dealing with the pain. I was talking to my dad and my husband and working through the guilt and grief.
I probably should have checked myself into the Emergency Room or Outpatient Mental Health center in the first few weeks after my husband left. I didn’t let my friends or family know until I was past it, but I was not in a healthy place and I knew it. I was too exhausted with grief, loss and and depression to add what felt like another obligation to my overloaded plate and too afraid of what people would think if I got help. I can tell you that being angry with a grieving person for not already being in counseling isn’t helpful.
To people experiencing pain:
You will make yourself miserable chasing down what other people think you need for “closure.” As previously discussed, “closure” is an underdeveloped concept that is prevalent in our society and doesn’t actually exist. I propose that the goal is to be happy and healthy on the other side of this. This pain is here to stay and only time will lessen it. Don’t bother convincing yourself that by doing _(BLANK)_, you’re going to achieve the magical state of Nirvana…I mean “closure.” Nothing ends it, nothing makes it stop, you just have to wait it out and deal with what you can handle as it comes.
If someone is telling you that you need to do something, and the thought of doing it panics you and sends you into an anxiety attack, DON’T DO IT!!!!! I had a friend convince me to adopt a dog a few weeks after my husband walked out. It was symbolic because he was allergic to dogs and she thought the company would be good for me. Within a few hours, I knew I’d made a mistake and made plans to return the dog. I didn’t need more responsibility, I could barely take care of myself. Well intended action, but bad outcome, especially when she told me that taking the dog back was animal abuse and that it would feel like it had been abandoned all over again. I had another friend tell me that I wouldn’t be able to have closure unless I did everything humanly possible to try and make things work with my ex. This is the worst possible advice for someone who’s husband decided to go on a mission of self discovery instead of help his wife after the loss of her mother. Your friends and family don’t know what you need to do, and as much as they want to give advice, and support you, they just don’t have the answer to how to make it all better. It doesn’t exist.
You are unfortunately in the position of attempting to steering S.S. Grief, and avoiding the icebergs that could take you down…. without a map. It sucks, especially when you don’t feel like you have the energy to get out of bed and do another day, but you have to trust yourself to know what’s best for you and carve your own path through. What works for someone else, wont necessarily work for you and if it doesn’t feel right it might be best to avoid. Definitely don’t run from the pain, you are going to embrace it one way or another, just handle it in small ways when you’re able instead of penting it up to explode. I journaled out some of the painful things that swirled in my brain and it helped me let them go. I went through pictures of my wedding and made some angsty memes to post on pinterest. I sang sad songs and danced alone to my wedding dance song while sobbing. It really is all up to you to decide how to express and come to terms with whatever has happened. You do you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t let others dictate your recovery. The timeline for feeling okay again isn’t something you have much control over. Talk when you need to talk, be angry when you need to be angry, cry when you need to cry, allow yourself to be distracted when you need a day off. People will get over the awkward, or they wont, you’ll find your true friends and loose the chaff.
My mom died 10 months ago, My ten year relationship ended 5 months ago, My best friend ran 4 months ago. I am by no means through the chaos, but it’s getting more and more manageable with every month that passes. I don’t know if counseling is helping, but I figure that at the very least it can’t hurt. I finally decided to get a professional perspective when I realized I might have some abandonment issues and it was affecting my ability to make new friendships.
In regards to closure, I think it’s far healthier to recognize grief and pain as processes that are unending. I’ve spoken with friends, family, and coworkers who have dealt with loss, abandonment and betrayal. They consistently say that the pain doesn’t go away, just changes with time, lessens and turns into more of a bittersweet (or perhaps just bitter) remembrance. I’m trying to focus on appreciating the people who stayed, instead of mourning the ones that ran. I’m trying to discover the person I’m becoming, instead of grieving the person I no longer am. I’m trying to guide myself into becoming that happy healthy person, instead of forcing closure.