The Myth of Closure
What happens when religious shunning shuts one door and leaves too many others open?
“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.
In 2002, I was disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Overnight, every friend and every family member I’d ever had vanished. Labelled an “apostate,” I was presumed toxic, a threat to my kids’ spiritual health and a stumbling block on their path to Christ’s Millennial Reich on a paradise earth. Indoctrination ensued. Eventually, the cult won. And now it’s as if they’re M.I.A. in a parallel universe. Should I mourn their loss and move on? Or should I cling to hope and put my own life on hold?
Author and therapist Dr. Pauline Boss calls such trauma ambiguous loss. As she told Krista Tippett in an interview on On Being, “With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution. Therefore, it ends up looking like what psychiatrists now call ‘complicated grief.’” However, she draws a distinction. This isn’t a mental pathology; it’s a pathological situation — “an illogical, chaotic, unbelievably painful situation that these people go through who have missing loved ones, either physically or psychologically.”
Under these circumstances, she insists that there’s no such thing as closure. In fact, she believes that the whole idea of closure is a myth. So, too, with regard to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famed stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression: there is no “graduation day” of acceptance. Some days you feel acceptance, some days you feel sad. In most cases, over time, the good days outnumber the bad. At this moment, I’m feeling rather pissed. Tomorrow might be better. Full overdisclosure: Zoloft helps.
For those who’ve been shunned, there is tremendous pressure to bury these feelings and move on. Faithful members will sneeringly complain that we should “get over it” — always a lovely thing to hear from your abuser.
Then there’s our society. In America, Dr. Boss (I love calling her that) observes a culture of “mastery orientation”: “We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions. That kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we’re very uncomfortable with as a society.” Understandably, I’ve had friends pull away at a time when I most needed human connection.
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:
“We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone. But now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution. To say either-or, in a binary way — he’s dead or he’s alive, you’re either here or you’re gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth, so the only truth is a middle way: ‘he may come back and he may not.’ The only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. Once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that that may be the closest to the truth they’re going to get.”
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.
Shunning has given me a blank canvas to create from scratch the meaning of my life without any obligation for it to make sense to anyone but me. For example, did you know you can add anyone as a family member on Facebook? A couple of years ago, my friend and muse Meredith did just that, adding me as her brother. My page shows her as my sister. I know it sounds silly, but it was touching and beautiful. Recently, I invited my longtime friend Kay to be my brother. He accepted. I’m slowly stringing together a new family, crafting a bespoke set of relations. I like this experiment. It feels good and makes a weird kind of sense out of something senseless. It tilts into the ambiguity. It gives me room to believe that things will be okay.
One day, poet Donna Carnes’ husband went sailing in San Francisco Bay, and that was that. Neither he nor his boat were ever found. Here’s her poem memorializing that ambiguous loss. You can also listen to Pauline Boss read it.
by Donna Carnes
You walk on
still beside me,
eyes shadowed in dusk;
at each day’s end.
I have to laugh
open-ended you remain,
still with me
after all these years
of being lost.
I carry you like
my own personal
as I put on
my lipstick, smile,
and head out to
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