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Foreclosing on Closure

by Julia Sneden

My friend Helena called me the other day, in great distress over her daughter's impending divorce. There are children involved, and a worst-case scenario of bitter feelings and angry suits and counter-suits. The situation is compounded by the fact that Helena dearly loves her son-in-law, and despite feeling that she should support her daughter, suspects that the majority of the blame for the situation rests with her.

What's a mother to do? What, for that matter, is a grandmother to do? There seem to be a number of guiding principles here, some of them in direct opposition to each other. I muttered the usual inanities about not taking sides, and being a good listener, and helping the grandchildren to understand that they are not to blame, but I felt completely inept when it came to easing Helena's pain.

As always when divorce is the subject, I found myself revisiting my own experiences. An early marriage ended in divorce, a casualty of youth and ill-matched backgrounds. We had a two-year-old child, and although he survived without discernible emotional damage, who can really say that there was none?

My own parents were divorced when I was eight, and although I don't dwell on it or excuse my quirks of personality because of it, I am well aware that it will never disappear from the radar screen of my life. Occasionally, it comes at me out of nowhere and shows up as a rather large blip.

For instance: thirty-four years after my parents' divorce, I was sitting in an airport lounge in Newark, when a swarm of passengers deplaned from a Los Angeles flight. Two children who had been playing nearby spotted a young man carrying a briefcase. "Daddy! Daddy!" they yelled, and hurled themselves on him. Watching them, I found myself with tears streaming down my face. My husband looked at me in amazement.

"Sorry," I choked. "It just never goes away."

Nor, I suspect, should it. To speak of "closure" for some things is to belittle their importance to our lives. Can't we move on with our lives without denying the import of things that deeply affect us?

Loss and heartbreak are as much a part of life as are joy and fulfillment. To quote that old song from The Fantastics, "...without a hurt, the heart is hollow." Or, as my friend Maeve said when her son was dumped by his girlfriend, "Everyone needs to have his heart broken at least once. It makes for a resonant human being."

Those of us who have lived long enough to be called "senior" have probably endured more than a few heartbreaks, and yet the old organ just keeps pumping. My stepfather died twenty years ago, and my mother said sadly: "The salt has gone out of the stew." And yet until her own health began to deteriorate, she managed to enjoy many lively interests, as well as her relationship to family and friends.

Living with sadness is nothing new. The rending of families by divorce may have reached epidemic proportions in modern times, but only a few generations back, lack of medical knowledge had the same effect. Somehow human beings survive despite bearing cruel losses.

Imagine losing a beloved, 18-month-old baby brother who is the delight of your life, as my grandmother did. He was born on her birthday, so that she always thought of him as a birthday present. During the great grasshopper plague that hit Minnesota in the 1870's, he and hundreds of other infants in the area died from drinking "poisoned milk" that the cattle produced after eating grass covered with the insects. At least that's the diagnosis that doctors gave in those days. My grandmother felt the sorrow of his death all her life, and yet she was neither a bitter nor depressed person. On the contrary, her bright spirit and amazing strength supported all of us, right up until her death at age 98. For all who remember her, they continue to do so.

Death, divorce, or any of the things that turn our lives upside down are part of this bargain that we call life. Sometimes we can fight against them and win. Sometimes the price of doing so is too high, and we have to accept them. Sometimes we don't have any choice in the matter. Traumatic events exist and are inevitable. In the long run, escape isn't within the realm of possibility.

"Closure," with its implication of being finished with a matter, doesn't seem to me to compute. One can never finish with life-changing events. One simply absorbs them and moves along. They become a part of who we are. Who is to say we don't become better, more sensitive human beings because of life's hard knocks? You don't have to like something to discover that you've learned something from it.

As long as we can manage to keep putting one foot in front of the other, we'll probably get through the worst of times. To me, the much over-rated "closure" isn't nearly as important as the simple determination to survive. They say that time heals wounds, but it seems to me that it doesn't so much heal our sorrows as put them into perspective. Eventually, one notices that there are still beautiful sunsets and starry nights. And although the sorrow itself never goes away, new things develop to bring joy and meaning back into life, so long as the heart is open to them. There are many avenues to finding them: religion; the love of friends and family; professional counseling; the arts; travel; doing for others; enjoying nature; embarking on self-improvement projects; etc. There are as many methods of coping with sorrow as there are individuals in this world, and who is to say which one is best?

There's nothing wrong about continuing to feel grief. The thing that's wrong is to let it take over your entire life, dwelling on it so that nothing else exists. In cases like Helena's, where her own grief is only a small part of her family's affliction, it may well be necessary to forget about solutions and closure, and get on with living life as normally as possible in spite of her grief, for the sakes of her grandchildren, daughter and beloved son-in-law. In my grandmother's time, this was called "keeping a stiff upper lip." In our own more indulgent times, it is often perceived as being cold and unfeeling. But where there seem to be no good solutions, conducting oneself with a certain restraint may well be the best answer.

The word "closure" sounds like the end of a business deal, or the compartmentalizing of a problem (like closing the door of a closet). I don't think it is beneficial to human beings. You can't escape your life experiences: you can only absorb them and move along.



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