It’s Time to Stop Trying to Get “Closure” When We Lose Something or Someone We Love. Dr. Pauline Boss Shares 6 Better, Science-Backed Ways to Cope With Loss
Many of us are taught that if we try hard enough, we can get over our losses. We go to therapy and read books in an effort to find closure. We spend time with friends who help us move on from the breakup, the job loss, or the death of someone we love.
Yet what if we’re going about that all wrong? What if closure isn’t actually good for us and in fact, stifles our normal (healthy!) grief process? What if moving on is a futile effort, because when something or someone has touched us so deeply that we feel loss when it’s gone, it’s a sign we need to keep that something or someone present in our hearts and minds?
Pauline Boss, PhD, has been studying these topics for years and answers these questions in her new book, The Myth of Closure. Last week, we sat down with Dr. Boss to talk to her about why she sees moving on from loss so differently than most, and what we can learn about love and resilience when we’re faced with the toughest stuff life throws our way.
A Conversation with Pauline Boss, PhD
In your new book, you write about how grief doesn’t have a prescribed end point (like we’ve been conditioned to believe). Can you talk about why “getting over” a loss may be a futile effort—and what we can do in the face of grief instead?
I think “closure” is a uniquely American term. It’s a perfectly good term in business deals, or when you’re closing a road after a storm. But it’s not a good word when it comes to human relationships. In fact, it’s hurtful. Finding closure after a loss is a futile effort because if you lose someone or something you were once attached to—pets, a house, humans—you don’t get over it, nor do you need to. You need to learn how to live with that loss, and how to grieve.
You also write about ambiguous loss. What is that?
Ambiguous loss is a loss that has no official verification, and therefore goes unacknowledged. There are no rituals. No way to comfort yourself.
There are two types of ambiguous loss that are hard to get over: One is physical, like a soldier missing in action or a child given up for adoption; the second kind of ambiguous loss is psychological, where a person is both there and not there—as is the case with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, addiction, or a serious mental illness.
During the pandemic, we faced a lot of ambiguous loss. We lost our trust in the world as a safe place. We lost the trust of being with our friends because we weren’t sure it was safe. Of course, we’ve had clear losses in the pandemic as well—loved ones who’ve died. But many losses have been more ambiguous—like paychecks, life savings, loss of trust in our leaders, and loss of being able to be in charge of our own routines. These all add up and cause us to feel this ennui, anxiety, and sadness.
We haven’t had a name for ambiguous loss in the past, and that’s been especially difficult for people experiencing it. After all, you can’t cope with something until you have a name for it. Many people appreciate the term ambiguous loss because it gives them a name for what they’ve been feeling.
Your research shows learning to live with grief and suffering rather than closing the door on it in the name of “closure” is the better path. Why is this?
Giving people a set amount of time to grieve is unrealistic. Grief takes place in oscillation. It’s often likened to the ebb and flow of the tides; grief goes up and down, in and out, back and forth. Those oscillations may grow farther and farther apart, but they never go away. Even 20 years after a loss, you might experience feelings of grief.
The people who are told to find closure, or who want to find closure, are really wasting time because it’ll never happen. And [going after closure] delays your normal grief process.
In America, we are good at solving problems and finding cures and putting people in outer space. All of that demands precision. But human relationships aren’t that way. They fall more into the artistic realm, where ambiguity is more primary. We need to realize we can’t find precision in human relationships. We don’t operate that way.
What are some of the ways you’ve learned to build resilience in the face of loss? And how has doing this helped you live with loss and grief?
The way to increase your tolerance for ambiguity is to do something different. It’s that simple. Stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Meet new people at a party. Travel somewhere you’ve never been before. Take a different path when you’re walking. Try a new recipe. If you stay in your bubble, doing the same thing all the time, you have assurance that your day will go a certain way. But if you get out of your comfort zone, you don’t have that framework. It’s like getting off a train in a foreign country where you don’t understand the language and don’t know where to go—and then you say, “This is fun! I can do this!”
I also think “both/and” thinking is crucial, which is the opposite of absolute and binary thinking. You could say, “This pandemic is both terrible and I’ve learned how to do things in a new way.” The goal is to balance the sentence with a positive and negative. For people experiencing ambiguous losses, “both/and” thinking helps to lower stress levels, because it is in the gray area—that in between area—where you can find some measure of truth.
I think the majority of Americans should pat themselves on the back for how resilient they’ve been through the pandemic, adapting to everything that’s changed in our lives in the last two years! In fact, I think it proves the majority of people have a high tolerance for ambiguity, because we adapted. Those who didn’t adapt sought closure by saying, “There is no virus, it’s a hoax, I don’t need to where a mask.” That’s “closure” that’s harmful to the general public.
When you think about it, we’ve been in one big global experiment that has tested our resilience and tolerance for ambiguity. When there is such ambiguity, really the only way you can cope is to bend like an old tree in a storm: We will get up again. We will. But we had to bend to a higher power during this time.
In your new book, you offer guidelines meant to help people build resilience in times of both clear cut and ambiguous loss. Can you briefly explain how those of us dealing with loss can put these into practice?
- Find meaning. Researchers all agree there is no such thing as closure, but they do agree we need to find meaning in our loss. Some losses are meaningless—like murder, or oftentimes suicide. However, saying it’s meaningless is a meaning. And that means you’ll need to find some purpose in that meaninglessness. When my little brother died of polio at age 13, it was meaningless—but our family found purpose and meaning by going door to door to help the March of dimes collect dimes. Trying to find some meaning in a loss that makes no sense (or even one that does) can really help.
- Adjust mastery. I think our culture, unlike more eastern cultures, is highly mastery oriented. We’re good at solving problems and fixing things and less good at coping at something that doesn’t go our way. So, we have to learn how to cope with ambiguity that may remain, as is the case when someone goes missing or is kidnapped, or when someone has dementia, which will last until that person dies.
- Reconstruct identity. When you lose someone or something, you have to reconstruct who you are. Spouses of those with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, may wonder, “Who am I now that my husband is here and not really here? Am I still married?” The answer is always both/and: Yes, you’re still married and you should also have a social life because that will keep you healthy.
- Discover new hope. You can’t hope for what was; you have to hope for something new. I think that’s also going to be true of the pandemic. What we had two years ago may no longer be true for us. We hope eventually, the changes that have happened will be for the better. We’re in a mess right now—with our democracy, climate change, racism in this country. It seems a little like the 60s to me. But that makes me hopeful! We are in the period of upheaval, and we have a chance to feel hopeful that things will start to shift for the better.
- Revise attachment: Continuing bonds with loved ones who died allows us to move forward with life. When people have been deeply attached to each other and one dies, there is a reluctance to let go. Yet contrary to what some may think, finding joy in life after the loss of someone you love doesn’t mean the end of that attachment. We are, after all, an accumulation of all the relationships we have had over our lifetime. The task is to let go of the person we lost but keep them present in our heart and mind as we gradually rebuild our lives in new ways.
- Normalize ambivalence. All too often—and oftentimes unknowingly—we push people to stop talking about who or what they’ve lost. Many people who’ve lost loved ones say that few people mention his or her name anymore. That’s a shame, because people who’ve lost someone really want to continue thinking of their loved one in a way that makes them feel like the world hasn’t forgotten about this person. That’s why I think one of the cruelest things you can say to someone who’s lost someone is, “Have you found closure yet?”
The pandemic has brought so much ambiguous loss. What is the best way for us to start to recognize this and deal with it?
Talk about it with your friends! When you talk to someone about ambiguous loss, it takes about 5 minutes for someone else to figure out their own ambiguous losses. By talking about it, you’re helping to educate people about ambiguous loss, which will help them manage their stress around it.
Pauline Boss, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, family therapist, is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and a former president of the National Council on Family Relations. With her groundbreaking work in research and practice, Dr. Boss coined the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s and since then, developed and tested the theory of ambiguous loss, a guide for working with families of the missing, physically or psychologically. She summarized this research and clinical work in her widely acclaimed book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Harvard University Press, 2000). In addition to over 100 peer reviewed academic articles and chapters, her other books include Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss (W. W. Norton, 2006) and Loving Someone Who Has Dementia: How to Find Hope While Coping with Stress and Grief (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Her most recent book is The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change (W. W. Norton, 2022). Her work is known around the world wherever ambiguous losses occur, and thus her books are now available in 18 different languages. For more information about Dr. Boss, her writings, and the ambiguous loss online training program, see www.ambiguousloss.com.