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Good Endings Promote Better Beginnings

Saying goodbye and saying it well

Weddings, graduations – these are the major rituals of spring and summer. Both connote new beginnings, but a recent study reported in Motivation Science concludes that “Ending a phase in a well-rounded way causally promotes positive affect and a constructive transition.”

A well-rounded ending is defined as one marked by a sense of closure. Closure involves the feeling that one has done everything they could have done, has completed something to the fullest, and tied up all the loose ends. Until the sense of closure is achieved, people are plagued by the shoulda-woulda-couldas, ruminate on alternative choices or actions they might have taken, and limit full emotional investment in their next life era.

This is most clearly evident in situations of divorce; closure is a process that goes on for months, even years after the end of a marriage or other significant relationship, and incomplete endings often complicate the best-intentioned efforts in new ones. Graduation is another life transition that often suffers from incomplete endings; thoughts of missed opportunities, both social and educational, and worries about succeeding on the next rung of the education ladder negatively impact student adjustment to college.

A client’s son who just completed his first year in college – at his “safety school” – is still so upset at how badly he performed in high school that he has trouble focusing on being at a school he dismisses as “Nowhere U” – and is not planning to go back, despite the fact that he got good grades. A woman who was laid off from her last job has found a new one but is still fretting over the fact that former colleagues she describes as much less qualified were not laid off. “It’s not fair,” she repeats, even as she describes her new position as being both interesting and better paid.

As Bettina Schworer and her colleagues point out, "Most life transitions have foreseeable endings—finishing high school, ending a job, completing an apprenticeship, even going on vacation. While it's natural to focus on what comes next, a well-rounded conclusion to the current endeavor or life phase promotes a good start to the following one."

And although it’s difficult to interview those people who took pains to achieve closure in all their relationships in light of their coming demise—“take inventory of my regrets, express my appreciation and love, and say a proper good-bye,” as a recently deceased friend put it when she called me from the hospital—reports from hospice professionals underscore the importance of closure in assuring an easeful death.


Schworer, Kmott & Oettinger, APA Journal, April 2019

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