I spend a lot of time talking with clients about closure. Here are a few examples:
A client I’ll call Allie and her boyfriend recently broke up after being together for over two years. Things had been getting rocky between them for the last couple of months. She’s still not sure why. And the breakup itself happened suddenly, with an argument that led to them both deciding to walk away from the relationship. Allie and her now ex have texted a few times since that night, just checking on each other. She has asked him to get together and talk about what happened, but he refuses to. “I have to have some kind of closure,” she said to me. “Why won’t he give that to me?” I’ve had many similar conversations with clients who are ending a marriage.
Another client, who I’ll call Tommy, was recently laid off from his job. He had been there for five years. He and his boss didn’t always see eye to eye, and his boss jumped on him more than once when he wasn’t happy with Tommy’s performance. But overall, Tommy thought, they were getting along fine. Then Tommy was called into HR and given his lay-off notice. His boss wasn’t in the office that day, so Tommy packed up his belongings and left. He has repeatedly emailed his boss and asked if they can talk about what happened, and his boss doesn’t respond. “He at least owes me some answers on what happened to my job. Can’t I get some closure?”
Amanda is living with a chronic condition and has been working with the same physician for years. When Amanda says she loves her doctor, she means it. They have been through some rough times together. Amanda has especially appreciated being able to open up to her doctor and tell her what’s on her mind. Last week, Amanda received a letter from her doctor’s practice informing her that her physician has left the practice and providing her with the name of the doctor her case has been transferred to. Amanda is devastated. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” she said to me, “but I thought she would say good-bye and tell me how to say in touch. It wouldn’t have made her leaving any less sad, but at least I would have had closure.”
Yes, one word is repeated in each of these examples. Closure. It is only human nature to want closure when a relationship, romantic, personal, or professional, is coming to an end. Humans want to know! Why? Why not? How? When? Along with, often, whether the situation can somehow be fixed. Is there still a chance?
Wanting Closure is Only Human. But That Doesn't Mean It's Healthy. Have you felt that need for closure eating away at you lately? Can’t quite let it go until it has all been sliced, diced, and lined up in a neat row? You’re in good company. However, while wanting closure is only human, it can also be detrimental to your emotional wellness. Digging in your heels and demanding closure from another person can cause you to spend a lot of time ruminating, reliving one scene after another, rehashing what you or the other person said, rehearsing what you would like to say to them, re-experiencing all the emotions... Stuck.
Not going to rest until you get closure? Here’s help:
Define for yourself what closure means. Closure is a relatively general term. Are you looking for an explanation of what happened? An answer to why the other person made the decision they made? Are you looking for an opportunity to apologize for what you may have done or to receive an apology? Do you just want to hear that you were important to that person and that you will be missed? Taking the time to sit down with yourself and define exactly what closure means in this situation will help you to come to terms with why you are feeling such difficult emotions. It may also be the first installment on purchasing your ticket to freedom. We’ll get to that.
Nobody likes that nagging feeling you have when you are sitting with unfinished business. However, if you took the time to define what closure with that person would mean, you also gained some insight into yourself and a clue to why you’re feeling so much in need of closure.
Consider if closure is realistic for the other person in the way you have defined it. People can only do what they can do. Everybody has limitations. Sometimes we make decisions that we can’t explain, this happens in love. Or we are constrained by rules and guidelines, like in the workplace. Or professional boundaries may guide what is appropriate or not. And let’s face it. People can just be limited, whether we like it or not, and avoid a conversation that may be uncomfortable for them. If you’re expecting something from someone that they can’t or won’t deliver, then you are, like my mom used to say, trying to get blood out of a turnip. It’s a lose-lose, and you’re only hurting yourself.
Weigh the risks of further exposure to the situation or the person. Sitting down with the person you want closure from may not be the best thing for you. While on one hand, they might give you the detailed explanation you are hoping for, as well as listen to your side, and maybe even apologize. But they may not. Instead, you might be exposed to a litany of your shortcomings, what you did wrong, how you weren’t good enough, or otherwise be told why further contact is impossible. Potentially without willingness to allow you to respond. So a question: Are you sure your closure meeting might make you feel better instead of worse? Possibly lead to more feelings of unfinished business and lack of closure? Don’t let this turn into an endless cycle leading nowhere. And the risk to you? Further misery. No forward movement in your life. Disempowerment.
Get support. Talk it out. The need for closure, as my examples illustrated, is often about coping with a loss of some kind. And when we experience loss, we go through a grieving process. When you’re grieving, it’s really important to tell the story, even if you end up telling it over and over. Each time you do, something clicks into place. So find supportive people who are willing to listen to you as process the loss, and your need for closure. Let them know you don’t need answers or “fixing,” you just need listening. Through support, you may find your own way to closure. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional to help you sort this out.
Learn to validate yourself! Seeking closure can be a way of gaining validation. While having someone else validate us feels good, and is a necessary component of a relationship, we all need to learn to validate ourselves as well. You can validate yourself by taking the best possible care of your physical and emotional wellness. Building a solid support network. Taking time to do things you enjoy and that keep you grounded. Turning off the internal voice of self-criticism and replacing it words of encouragement. And I just have to say: Not learning to validate yourself leaves you vulnerable to being needy. And I just have to ask: Is it possible that your desire for closure with another person might also be rooted in your own neediness? If so, you’re only human. But this is another reason to validate yourself. When you choose to validate yourself, you take your power back into your own hands. And that’s where it belongs.
Embrace gratitude. For the time you spent with the other person — as a romantic partner, as a friend, as a boss, as a colleague, as a professional… however you were connected. Be grateful for the good times and how you were a benefit to each other. Also be grateful for any conflict or negativity that will no longer be part of your life, if that was part of your dynamic. Be grateful that you are a multifaceted human being, resilient and resourceful. Remind yourself of this every day, multiple times a day if you need to. Stay grateful for all the good things in your life. Make a list if you need to. Review it often.
Choose to move on. When I have a client stuck in their demands for closure, in a very kind way, I say something to the effect of, “Do you think you might be kind of having a temper tantrum right now?” A question, not a judgment. Clients don’t always want to hear these words but it does motivate them take a look at what’s happening on their end. At the risk of repeating myself: We can’t change how another person chooses to think, feel, or behave. Trying to do otherwise only leads to frustration, sadness, and disappointment. In a perfect world, we would all give each other the closure we need. But the world sure isn’t perfect. So the ball is in your hands. Grab onto the ball and run with it. You have a choice. Choose to get over it. And then get over it. Life is too short to demand what we can’t have.
Here’s the bottom line on closure. Sometimes the only closure is to accept that there is no closure. Move on with your life. Eyes forward. Head held high. That’s empowerment!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. His book, The Power of Closure: Why We Need It, How to Get It, and When to Walk Away, will be published by Tarcher Perigee in the spring of 2024. His website is: www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.