The Myth Slayer – aka “me”

Jan van Eyck, "Knights of Christ" (d...

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Stumbled across a book on “closure” not long ago, written by Nancy Berns, a professor at Drake University in my old home of Des Moines, Iowa. She’s a sociologist, attracted to the cherry “death and dying” course work. I have perused her blog but only read the first chapter of her book because it’s essentially a textbook for one of her courses and, therefore, ungodly expensive.*

In Chapter one, Berns basically outlines the progression of the rest of the book in syllabus fashion with brief detours into the history of the etymology, psychology,  cultural and historical evolution of a term that she compares to the equally made up idea of “self-esteem”. It is not, exactly, a grief book. Although since nearly everything in our culture is now subject to the Kübler-Rossification of processing, it is heavy on the idea that humans need to define the death throes of all experiences. Nothing can simply end. It has to be analyzed, processed and brought to “closure”.

The case can be made that because people believe in the idea that all things unsettling, hurtful and traumatic need to be kneaded like dough, punched into submission and baked until closure, it must be real. Of course, Santa Claus is real until you reach a certain age of enlightenment about magic, and God is real until it becomes apparent that he is like Santa Claus and perhaps existence can’t be explained so simplistically.

Toward the end of Chapter One, Berns describes the two types of people who don’t believe in closure – The Walking Wounded, who can’t find it and the Myth Slayers, who simply can’t fathom its existence.

I like the term Myth Slayer, don’t you? It’s fitting. I don’t believe in grief as a process (unless you are willing to admit that life itself is a series of processes of which grief is just one and in that case I will concede). I am suspicious of the idea that everything needs to be analyzed in light of how we feel about it because feelings are often irrelevant. Some things just are. Birth and death are merely the beginning and end points of mortal existence and are viewed through the accepted societal narratives of the culture and times, which vary depending on where in the world Carmen SanDiego happens to be at any given moment.

One of the reasons I rail against the grief process whose end goal is closure so that people can move on, is that I think it sets up false expectations, hopes and even inspires fear and feelings of inadequacy in those who buy in only to discover that what is promised isn’t going to materialize. It’s not okay to sell grief á la Weight Watchers or peddle it as a life-long chronic emotional illness. Grief culture is just a mythology that our death fearing, but equally obsessed with, society has created to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Just like the Greeks and the Norse invented the gods and goddesses to explain and teach, we have the five stages of grief and closure to weave through the narrative of life’s rather ordinary processes. In this way, we can avoid the fact that life is full of beginnings, middles and endings where just about everything is concerned and we can avoid the reality that nothing much happens on any front without effort on our part. There is no magic.

No magic. It’s a letdown day when we first realize this as children and it continues to bum us out until someone has to bury us and search for closure of his or her own.

One thing that resonated was Bern’s belief that people don’t need closure to heal**, which runs contrary to what the grief industry would like us to believe. Unsurprisingly, I agree with this premise. The falsehood of promoting this has led many a person to sit back, wallow and wait instead of putting one foot in front of the other and moving on. Grief lessens until it reaches a point where it is so muted as to not really be grief as it is portrayed today. There is lingering regret, longing, and sadness attached to nearly anything that ended without our permission. Death is not special in that respect. Closure promotes clinging and this leads to wallowing, sympathy seeking and inertia in terms of moving on. It gives people permission to define themselves in terms of what life has done to them instead of defining themselves by what they do in life. Bonanno would say that this is tied to resiliency, which some of us have in abundance and others of us lack or don’t have the inner resources to access or use if we did. Some social Darwinism in play here too, I suspect.

Closure is hardly a grief thing. We are encouraged to look for it when we lose jobs, lovers, friends and when bad things happen to us good people. We are a 12-step culture and I blame the Baby Boomers, but I blame them for most things about society that drip with self-absorption and keen like a child denied.

Everyone should don a cape, pick up a bludgeon and play “whack a mole” with cultural foolishness now and again.  It’s liberating to discard made up notions superimposed on normal feelings and milestones.

*At $75 for a hardback and $25 for paper, I won’t be purchasing it anytime soon. College students, it seems, are still viewed as a cash cow captive audience. In the age of e-readers and smart-phones, it astounds me that they haven’t risen up and demanded downloadable e-texts at affordable prices, but that’s a post for another day.

**However, she seems to adhere to the same idea that society pushed people through grief – as if this was actually possible – and that grief, like a fine wine, should be savored. I have to chuckle a bit because by and large people move on at a pace dictated by their personalities and needs in spite of society’s best efforts to school them.

5 thoughts on “The Myth Slayer – aka “me”

  1. I, too, love this post. Intelligent and reflective. I wonder if the cultural attempt to bring closure to grief is somewhere along the same spectrum as the unspoken cultural rule that we must be happy all the time and if we’re not, then here’s a nice anti-depressant to snap you out of it. (I’m not against anti-depressants as a rule. Just not as a bandaid.)

    I wrote a post on grief a few months ago, though this was during a time when two friends were experiencing fresh, raw grief. So the post is a bit more emotional than yours, though you might find something of value there.

  2. Love this post!

    I can see how as a society we want label this notion of closure, find an end-point to unpleasantness, but I’m not sure how much an attempt to attain it actually holds people back from moving past pain.

    Many grievers I know have come to realize the hard way that closure is a Holy Grail. Unattainable. So we try to cobble together terms to make sense of what we are living – a new normal, moving on, etc. The nebulous the idea of ever achieving closure is impossible since there is no definition for it.

    We all look for a day when we can wake up without the pain of loss smacking us between the eyes, and begin to look forward. We learn to look back with the perspective of our new foothold. Whether the hope of finding an end-point to pain holds us back or moves us forward I guess is a matter of resiliency as you say, though most grieving people I know have resiliency in spades, usually as a result of their losses.

    Society imposes a great deal of ridiculousness upon us on a daily basis. Some of it works to help us along, some of it doesn’t. I know that when I was initially told “it was time to move on,” I was angry. But eventually I saw this idea that I was meant to find “closure” as permission to face forward again, a kick in the ass for which I’m eternally grateful.

    Thanks for some great thinking here.

    1. I’m not sure how much an attempt to attain it actually holds people back from moving past pain.

      I think most people are like us and see that the framework of processing to closure is a bit of trees blocking the view of the forest, but putting it out there as a an end goal keeps some of us stuck and/or searching for it when perhaps we’d be better off concentrating on life.

      I am grateful to those who had the courage to put voice to the words “move on already” because I am not sure that we see it for ourselves. Grief and the widow culture is comfy and inviting when nothing else seems to be. The hunt for closure lets us tarry there – sometimes too long.

  3. Ann, you are fearless, honest and direct. I admire these qualities in your writing and what I presume must be your personality! I agree with so much of what you say about the grief “thing.” For some people, loss is a springboard into a whole other dimension. For others, it’s a call to stay connected to their past. And everything in between… there’s no formula, no set method. You just have to find your way. And, while I agree there is definitely an evolution (as with all things), I also shy away from the idea of “stages.” Life is just too fluid for those kinds of definitions. Perhaps some people are comforted by the idea of locating themselves inside some continuum that is laid out for them. I prefer to carve out my own path…

    1. The book talks about how feelings are defined and refined in a sort of evolutionary way. The closure thing springs from several different sources that have been maturing and shaping our culture since the 60’s and 70’s (victims rights, funeral industry, grief counseling) and that by establishing parameters, it placed a limit of what was or was not acceptable in terms of reactions, which as you point on can vary by a lot. There are certainly commonalities in the human experience but to so narrowly define moving on by throwing in the closure stumbling block does a disservice in much the same way that ignoring facts about grief and moving on do as well.

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