There was a time when Americans didn’t assume that every tragedy requires “closure.” The Drake University sociologist Nancy Berns explores how that changed in Closure (Temple), a book about a word whose meaning is fluid: At different times, it can suggest either remembering or forgetting, either vengeance or forgiveness. Sometimes it is invoked in ways that have less to do with helping the bereaved than with stigmatizing people whose bereavement is making their acquaintances uncomfortable. Often the word carries a commercial or political agenda.
Berns attributes the rise of “closure” to several social forces, from the victims’ rights movement to changes in the funeral industry. She understands that some people have found the concept useful in coming to terms with grief, and she doesn’t dismiss their experiences. But it’s wrong, she argues persuasively, to expect everyone else to follow a formulaic “healing process” aimed at “moving on.” As Berns reminds us, “You do not need to ‘close’ pain in order to live life again.” —Jesse Walker