The word 'closure' bears a simple notion: that a loss, a painful event, can somehow be put to rest. But survivors of trauma know better. Life may go on -- but it is always irrevocably changed.

COMING TO TERMS

December 14, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Closure? Yeah, right. Folks sitting in the family section at the TWA Flight 800 hearings in Baltimore hear the word all the time. On television, in newspapers, from reporters and sometimes friends and colleagues. One fellow said his doctor even asked him: Had he found this elusive thing, this thing we Americans call "closure"? The word comes up often when relatives of the 230 people killed in the crash meet. The word "closure" lands on their ears like fingernails scraping a blackboard.

"As far as I'm concerned, let's eliminate that from the American vocabulary," says Judy Teller, whose 39-year-old twin brother, Joseph Lychner, lost his wife and two daughters when the Boeing 747 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996. "It's something that can never happen. You think of closing a door and leaving a room. . . . Whoever came up with that term never experienced a traumatic loss."

Somebody came up with it. Somebody applied this simple notion to the complex ordeal of grief and turned it loose in America, which on a somewhat regular basis transforms by means of the media into ClosureWorld. ClosureWorld is a place of tidy endings and neat departures, a parallel universe where emotional ordeals conclude at the rap of a judge's gavel, the flick of an executioner's switch or, in the most recent example, a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Weeks before the five-day hearing opened at the Baltimore Convention Center, Joseph Lychner was shown in a Sun photograph walking through an airplane hangar on Long Island looking at the assembled wreckage of the airliner in which his 37-year-old wife, Pamela, and daughters, Shannon, 10, and Katie, 8, perished. The photograph caption said "Looking for closure."

Perhaps you recall visiting ClosureWorld last summer. In rapid succession, Timothy McVeigh was convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing, Flint Gregory Hunt was executed for killing a Baltimore City police officer, suspected serial killer Andrew Cunanan committed suicide in Miami. In each case, "closure" was declared with certainty in the papers or the evening news.

Say the word and hear a door snapping shut, sealing off a world of grief. It's a reassuring thought, especially if you imagine it can happen in a moment, in one event that can be recorded on television news with a person stepping before a microphone and saying a magic word. It might be a lawyer or a cop or a guy on the street or even the grieving person. The beauty of it is the splendid simplicity.

The TWA-800 families meet often, and quite often they talk about "closure." They talk about the burden of what one might call "closure expectations." It seems the world assumes their quick recovery. Anything short of that, it may appear to the bereaved, is a failure.

Teller, of Springfield, Ill., says "We've been able to talk about it and alleviate the guilt people feel for not achieving this, this word . . . "

Her voice trails off. She'd rather not say it.

Like heaven or some other transcendent state of being, "closure" is desired but not easily defined, its meaning obscured in an Oprah-fied haze of emotional/psychological connotation. For all its complexity, grieving has become a public event conveyed through media hungry for facile conclusions. Advice from radio and TV shrinks is cheap, their lingo flowing through the national chat stream like antacid slogans. How do you spell relief? C-L-O-S . . .

An ending, a departure. Say the word and hear surcease of agony, bitterness, rage. Some people say it happens. Others ask: When? How?

In a forum last summer on the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Robert J. Lifton, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the City University of New York, said, "Closure is very misleading because it implies that there's a moment when the whole thing is solved and you just move on. Anyone who's had an experience like that, or who has observed it, knows that it reverberates throughout one's life as a survivor."

Lifton wondered about the burden placed on survivors when a public event such as a court conviction, sentencing or even an execution is interpreted as a signal that the trauma of loss is over. People who have grieved in the public spotlight say such turning points may ease their anguish, but nothing more. One might be able to get "closure," but not hold it for long. One might find it as solid as an angel's silhouette seen in the clouds.

Donna Dillon can tell you about that. She felt she had "closure" after a night of waiting at her rowhouse in Canton in May 1994. She was waiting for her daughter's killer to die. At that time, relatives of murder victims were not allowed to witness executions in Maryland. So she waited by the phone. Not that she would have wanted to go. She's the sort who turns her head away during the bloody parts of a movie.

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