Does “closure,” a favorite term in pop psychology (and one I have used), really exist?
Drake University sociology professor Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us (2011), questions the very concept of closure as an accepted fact. In a Q&A with the Boston Globe (link here), she states:
The idea of closure [is seen] as a new emotional state for explaining what we need and how we’re supposed to respond to trauma and loss. But closure is a rhetorical concept, a made-up term . . . .Closure is not something that we can simply find or something we need. It’s a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss.
She is especially concerned when people impose the idea of closure upon others who are grappling with grief or trauma:
…(I)f the concept of closure helps them in sharing or thinking about their own story, that’s fine, that might help them. But a concern is that they try and turn around and tell other people “you need closure,” or when people assume that everyone understands closure the same way they do and that everyone experiences it the same way.
Application to abusive work situations
Dr. Berns is coming at the topic largely from the perspective of dealing with personal grief. Nevertheless, her words may resonate with those who are processing the experiences of bullying and other serious injustices at work.
Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance. After all, the more we learn about trauma, depression, and other conditions that can be prompted or exacerbated by severe work abuse, the more we know that “getting over it” can be a very challenging process.
True, some bullying targets manage to achieve a sense of closure relatively quickly. I’ve seen this happen when there has been a fair and decisive organizational response, or when the individual has managed to move on to a better situation.
For others — many others, I believe — “getting over it” comes in stages, often with emotional relapses. When the relapses become less frequent and less intense, we see progress. Rarely does one reach a point where they declare from some virtual mountain top, “I have achieved closure. I am over it.” Rather, it’s a quieter realization that they have been able to move on.
Some may continue to struggle. This is most likely when the acute conditions — such as ongoing mistreatment or a bad career setback — have not been sufficiently addressed, or when someone is otherwise consumed by their situation. For these folks, progress definitely remains possible, but they may be in a difficult place for the time being.
This post was revised in June 2016.