No cry for closure

January 06, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I don't remember when the words first began to echo in the hollow aftermath of loss. But now it seems that every public or private death, every moment of mourning is followed by a call for ''healing,'' a cry for ''closure.''

In November, driving home in my car just 24 hours after three Kentucky students were shot to death in a school prayer meeting, I heard a Paducah minister talk about ''healing.'' The three teen-agers had yet to be buried, and he said it was time to begin the healing process, as if there were an antibiotic to be applied at the first sign of pain among the survivors.

An underachiever

Weeks later, at a Christmas party, a man offered up a worried sigh about a widowed mutual friend. ''It's been two years,'' he said, ''and she still hasn't achieved closure.'' The words pegged her as an underachiever who failed the required course in Mourning 201.

This vocabulary of ''healing'' and ''closure'' has spread across the postmortem landscape like a nail across my blackboard. It comes with an intonation of sympathy but an accent of impatience. It suggests after all, that death is something to be dealt with, that loss is something to get over -- according to a prescribed emotional timetable.

It happened again when the Terry Nichols verdict came down. No sooner had the mixed counts of guilty and innocent been announced than the usually jargon-free Peter Jennings asked how it would help the ''healing'' for Oklahoma City. Assorted commentators and reporters asked the families whether they felt a sense of ''closure.''

The implicit expectation, even demand, was that the survivors of 168 deaths would traverse a similar emotional terrain and come to the finish line at the same designated time. Was two and a half years too long to mourn a child blown up in a building?

It was the families themselves that set us straight with responses as personal and diverse as one young mother who said, ''It's time to move on,'' and another who described her heart this way: ''Sometimes I feel like it's bleeding.''

In the sentencing phase of the Nichols trial, we got another rare sampling of raw grief. Laura Kennedy testified that in the wake of her son's death in 1995, ''I have an emptiness inside of me that's there all the time.'' Diane Leonard said that since her husband's death her life ''has a huge hole that can't be mended.''

By the second day, however, the cameras had turned away, the microphones had turned a deaf ear, as if they had heard enough keening. Again, observers asked what affect a life-or-death sentence would have on, of course, ''healing'' and ''closure.''

I do not mean to suggest that the people who testified were ''typical'' mourners or the Oklahoma bombing a ''typical'' way of death. I mean to suggest that grief is always atypical -- as individual as the death and the mourner.

However, the American way of dealing with it has turned grieving into a set process with rules, stages and deadlines. We have, in essence, tried to make a science of grief.

Sometimes, we confuse sadness with depression, replace comfort with Prozac. We expect, maybe insist upon an end to grief. Trauma, pain, detachment, acceptance in a year; then, time's up.

But in real lives, grief is a train that doesn't run on anyone else's schedule. Jimmie Holland, at New York's Sloan-Kettering Hospital, who has studied the subject knows that ''normal grief may often be an ongoing lifelong process.'' Indeed, she says, ''The expectation of healing becomes an added burden. We create a sense of failure. We hear people say, 'I can't seem to reach closure, I'm not doing it fast enough.' ''

Surely it is our own anxiety in the presence of pain, our own fear of loss and death, that makes us wish away another's grief or hide our own. But in every life, losses will accumulate like stones in a backpack. We will all be caught at times between remembrance and resilience.

So whatever our national passion for emotional efficiency, for quality-time parents and one-minute managers, there simply are no one-minute mourners. Hearts heal faster from surgery than from loss. And when the center of someone's life has been blown out like the core of a building, is it any wonder if it takes so long even to find a door to close?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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