- Death and grief are at the heart of life.
- Closure is an unrealistic idea. Research supports that remaining connected to the deceased is often therapeutic.
- Grief is a process in which we relearn how to navigate the world after a significant loss.
Millions of people around the world are discussing the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II.
We have been collectively reminded that even the royal family is not immune to death and the raw impact of grief. For some, Queen Elizabeth's death has brought a poignant awareness that our own families, partners, friends, colleagues, children, and pets will also die at some point.
Death is at the heart of life, and when a significant loved one dies, the process of grief is complex. Yet there is often social pressure for individuals to wrap up their grief quickly.
Systemically, this is demonstrated by the lack of bereavement leave in workplaces around the world. The timeline we are given by our place of employment is a few days or weeks if we are lucky. Sometimes, we find ourselves having to return to work the same day a funeral has occurred.
On a more personal level, we might find the social expectation to grieve is six months or a year before we are told to move on. This idea of moving on reflects the myth of closure, which promises false hopes and expectations as it suggests we can simply get over it.
When we are encouraged to let go of our grief by others, we may experience disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is when our grief is not acknowledged or validated by others; the grieving person is essentially excluded from social support.1 It is painful when our needs are not understood by others, and this can make us feel alienated during an already vulnerable time.
In truth, closure is a made-up idea deriving from a society that craves certainty and fears ambiguity.2 The mindset which suggests we should hasten the grieving process is a common idea within industrial Western societies, which define human worth in values like productivity, being in control, independence, or stoicism (i.e., having a stiff upper lip).3 The problem with these values is that they go against our natural grieving response, and these values prioritize functionality over personal health or wellness.
Closure encourages people to repress their grief, and this often does more harm than good as a person’s natural reaction to a loss can become impeded.4 In other words, what can feel like a heartbreaking time in our lives can become even more stressful, as we may feel pressured to not express ourselves in a way that aligns with our personal needs or overall life situation. Trying to control our grief will only deplete our energy and burn us out.
These social expectations which encourage us to get over grief, or to grieve in a certain way have contributed to grief becoming a socially awkward conversation. The research literature demonstrates how people who have experienced a significant loss report others in their community often avoid them, or say insensitive clichés as people do not comprehend how to offer meaningful support.5
Thankfully, we don’t need closure or empty platitudes to cultivate a level of acceptance after a significant loss has occurred. Instead, we require compassionate spaces with other people who can openly acknowledge grief and death, with support instead of pressure.
When we move beyond closure, we can give ourselves permission to engage in grief, which is one of the deepest aspects of our humanity. It is essential to allow grief to unfold instinctually over time, as grief is a normal reaction to loss. Psychological research indicates that there is no timeline for grief, and that grief is a process that waxes and wanes within our lives.6
Additionally, continuing bonds theory advocates that we can cultivate a sense of meaning in a time of loss through our continued relationship with a deceased loved one.7 Research demonstrates that maintaining an ongoing relationship to the deceased is often therapeutic.8 This offers us the opportunity to continue to live our lives, without entirely surrendering what we have lost. This is a revolutionary approach to grief and loss, as it encourages connection to who we love most, and it is through connection that we achieve a level of healing.
The philosopher Thomas Attig suggests we understand grief as a process in which we relearn the world.9 It is through the grieving process that people navigate adversity and make new choices that reshape their lives. Grief is understood as an active process where we try to understand how our life has changed after a loss, and discover a new way to exist in a post-loss world. This means that we learn to connect with a deceased loved one in separation, and we change how we express our love.
Grief is a lifelong process with no easy solutions or quick fixes. Ultimately, trying to rush a process that expresses our deepest human need to grapple with suffering can lead to harm and isolation. While grief is a disorienting experience, it is this same pain that can also provide opportunities for deepening, growth, and healing.
Author's Note: Written in honour of Anna, Belle, Sandra, Sam, and all the beloved beings who now live on in our hearts.
1. Doka, K. (Ed.). (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington Press.
2. Boss, P., & Carnes, D. (2012). The myth of closure. Family Process, 51(4), 456–469. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12005
3. Harris, D. (2010). Oppression of the bereaved: A critical analysis of grief in Western society. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 60(3), 241–253. https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.60.3.c
4. Shelvock, M., Kinsella, E., & Harris, D. (2022). Beyond the corporatization of death systems: Towards green death practices. Illness, Crisis, and Loss, 30(4), 640–658. https://doi.org/10.1177/10541373211006882
5. Breen, L., Kawashima, D., Joy, K., Cadell, S., Roth, D., Chow, A., & Macdonald, M. (2020). Grief literacy: A call to action for compassionate communities. Death Studies, 46(2), 425–433. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2020.1739780
6. Shelvock, M. (2022). There is no step-by-step formula for grief. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/navigating-the-serpentine-path/202209/there-is-no-step-step-formula-grief
7. Klass, D., & Steffen, E. (2018). Continuing bonds in bereavement: New directions for research and practice. Routledge.
8. Neimeyer R., Klass D., Dennis M. (2014). A social constructionist account of grief: Loss and the narration of meaning. Death Studies, 38(6–10), 485–498. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2014.913454
9. Attig T. (2011). How we grieve: Relearning the world (Rev ed.). Oxford University Press.