There’s karmic irony in the fact that I’d started off the lockdown feeling victorious. As each of my exes trickled into my inboxes with “just checking in” messages, I felt validated: I’d held out on texting them and, by some twisted logic, “won.”
All except one ex, that is.
A month later, I’d be obsessing over him. I hadn’t spoken to Morgan in nearly three years. Nothing had changed, except the suffocating presence of an uncertain world brought on by the novel coronavirus.
“Why hasn’t he at least dropped me an email?” I’d wonder. I spent time reasoning: He never had social media and he knew my number had changed, so email must’ve been the most obvious means of communication for him. As days bled into each other and a few weeks passed, I debated getting in touch with him. I drafted a breezy email. But before pressing send, I decided to Google him.
The Google search would reveal he’d died. A genealogy site and an obituary site both said he’d died nearly two years ago, well before the world spiraled into chaos. I was still unconvinced until a third obituary site had photographs of his headstone, which included his middle name and a plaque of Max Erhmann’s “Desiderata,” his favorite poem. We’d talked about the poem on our second date, when I mentioned my school principal gave us each a printed copy at graduation, and I’d framed mine.
The thing no one tells you about the death of an ex is regardless of whether you loved them, their passing always affects you in some way. I wish I could say my obsession was put to bed knowing he was gone, but it became worse. I had to know why and how. I craved closure, knowing on some level I couldn’t have it. I rationalized emailing his mother and looked his brother up on Facebook before chickening out in both instances.
In the 1990s, a social psychologist named Arie Kruglanski coined the phrase “need for closure.” He referred to the “need for closure” as a framework for decision-making that aimed to find an answer on a given topic that would alleviate confusion and ambiguity.
I was convinced this closure I sought, especially of how he’d died, was somehow owed to me in the already confusing times we live in. After all, we live in a culture that tells us that the relationships that end with closure are ones that let us move on placidly; books and movies tell us that those who get to say goodbye get to move on.
It’s fitting that Kruglanski’s idea of “need for closure” exists on a scale, because closure is highly individual. We don’t all seek it out to the same extent. People like me, who want order and answers, struggle when they don’t find it.
Right now, as mortality rates climb, it’s estimated every death from covid-19 will leave approximately nine people bereaved in the United States. With social distancing measures in place, in the event of a death, we’re not able to mourn like we did before: no real-life funerals, no being comforted by loved ones.
On my journey for closure in this uncertain time — as I’m sure many people search for theirs — I spoke with clinical psychologists Jeanette Raymond and Kirren Schnack about how we can better deal with our “need for closure.”
“The need for closure has become a popular idea in society,” Schnack says. But despite it being in the zeitgeist, how we approach closure varies widely: As Schnack points out, some people seek to avoid closure, “because it is painful to face up to it.”
Closure doesn’t necessarily “resolve” things for us either, Schnack says: By getting closure, “our emotions don’t switch off, and our memories don’t change, we have simply filled a gap with something that we think we needed to feel complete.”
The “need for closure” stems from the end of a significant event in our lives. As humans, our brains evolved to keep us safe. Closure is our way of making sense of something confusing by connecting the dots in a way that, given enough time and space, heals and comforts us.
Given that, this need is never unhealthy, Raymond says. “Mourning and accepting is a major and essential psychological need. It’s not about finding the right answer — but understanding and letting go.”
Without closure, the threat to self-identify is huge, especially during a pandemic: Research on closure suggests that when we are under stress (as we are right now), our need for closure increases. “The trauma of coronavirus has changed both how we live and how we die,” Schnack says.
Without closure, Raymond says, our responses to stress are heightened. There are three main responses people turn to when under stress: fight, flight and freeze. Knowing which one you fall into and how you respond to stress is key in knowing what not to do while you seek closure, as well as how to go about seeking it in a healthy manner.
Fight or flight is our survival mode in response to a potential threat. In freezing, we ignore our brains’ instructions to fight or flee. As Raymond puts it, “freezing numbs and saves you from having to put energy into fighting or running away.”
Freezing protects you emotionally by suppressing and delaying trauma, but people who freeze may be more susceptible to using alcohol and other substances to “forget.”
It’s okay to need a crutch at times, Raymond says: “When one is frozen in [unresolved] trauma, the psyche needs comfort. It needs to shut down.” Raymond suggests tracking your behavior; if you notice addictive or self-destructive patterns, reach out to a mental health professional.
“Those who fight are trying to push [away] the reality of the loss,” Raymond says. These people need help moving on through acceptance, she adds, including acceptance of what is and what isn’t within their realm of control.
Those who flee may be overwhelmed with the situation and feel helpless, and they need more support to feel competent and self-empowered to move on, Raymond says. This help can come in many forms, but therapy — individual or group — is extremely beneficial for those who flee.
Theoretically, closure is simple: It’s about you accepting reality, mourning a loss and then moving on. But it’s hard to know how to mourn, especially in these uncertain times.
Here are some of Schnack’s tips on how to mourn someone you’ve lost right now:
• Remember your loved ones. Set up a Zoom call, hold a virtual memorial, talk about the loss, light a candle for them, look over old photographs, listen to music that reminds you of them, journal your feelings and memories.
• Create a scrapbook or video of their life or your lives together.
• Make a donation in their name to a charity or cause that they supported.
• Visit a place that was special to them, or make plans to do so in the future.
It’s been more than six months since I found out about Morgan. I can’t say with certainty if I’ve “moved on” at this point, but I do think I’ve taken the time I need to think about what his loss means and what he meant to me. My mourning process consisted of talking this over with friends, journaling and briefly giving into “what ifs,” before accepting that he’s gone and that I can’t change the past.
Closure, to me, is complicated in that it’s something I give myself. I hate ambiguity and the unfairness of a life lost before 30, but that’s all there is. I’ve found closure in just knowing those things.