The Myth of Closure

What happens when religious shunning shuts one door and leaves too many others open?

Joel Gunz
Joel Gunz
Nov 6, 2016 · 5 min read
Above: Author and therapist Dr. Pauline Boss. You can watch this video with her on YouTube.

“A New York reporter doing a story on the anniversary of 9/11 asked me why I thought New Yorkers weren’t over [the trauma] yet. My answer: “Because you’re trying to get over it.” — Dr. Pauline Boss, in the Guardian.

Just thirty minutes up I-84.

That’s how long it takes to go see my kids: “M,” my son, age twenty-five and “L,” my daughter, sixteen. An easy drive, until you factor in the unbridgeable psychic gulf—a fiery lake of religious shunning, sulfured by an aging divorcée’s ancient grudges. So there’s that. I haven’t seen L in months. For M, it’s been years. They might as well live on Saturn.

It’s not me, it’s you

Fact of human nature: whether it’s a tornado or a tsunami, survivors often blame themselves for the disaster. Perpetrators, on the other hand, usually blame the victim. This is especially true in religions that practice shunning. Jehovah’s Witnesses declare disfellowshipped persons “unrepentant sinners”; those outed by Scientologists are called “Suppressive Persons”; members of the Bahá’í faith ostracize those they deem to be “Covenant-breakers.” In each case, fault for the breach in the relationship is placed entirely on the one being shunned. After being out all these years and getting lots of therapy, whenever I see a Witness on the street, I’m still overcome with feelings of shame. It doesn’t matter that I know it’s them and not me.

Name the pain.

Part of Boss’ genius was to give this malady a name where there wasn’t one before. Over and over again near Ground Zero, as if uttering a mantra, she offered these words to suffering 9/11 survivors:

“What you’re experiencing is ambiguous loss because your loved ones are still missing. It is the most difficult, most stressful loss there is, but it is not your fault.”

I’ve had to say this a few times to myself. It allows me to cry like a sissy. It helps me cope.

Own your paradox.

“Your kids will grow out of it.” They say. “Once they move out, they’ll want to see you again.” They say. Well-meaning thoughts. But the truth is: maybe. Maybe not. I know other disfellowshipped dads and moms who are watching their kids grow into middle age with no change in their relationship. As of now, M and L have blocked me from seeing them on social media. Sometimes I’ll grab a friend’s phone and look them up on Instagram. Reaching across the galaxy, but not quite touching. There, but not there. Says Boss:

Create your own damn meaning.

The Zen-like practice of holding two opposing ideas at once may not be ideal, but can be good enough. And in this crazy world, sometimes that’s what we have to settle for. If the trauma of shunning is ultimately meaningless, then let’s create our own meaning. For example, she suggests that “the mother of a kidnapped child may devote her life to helping prevent other children from going missing.” A cult survivor might (cough) write a blog with the aim of helping others escape.


by Donna Carnes

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