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The Sunday Read: ‘What if There’s No Such Thing as Closure?’

The Daily

The New York Times

News, Daily News

4.597.8K Ratings

🗓️ 9 January 2022

⏱️ 37 minutes

🧾️ Download transcript


In her new book, “The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change,” Pauline Boss considers what it means to reach “emotional closure” in a state of unnamable grief. Hard to define, these grievances have been granted a new name: ambiguous loss. The death of a loved one, missing relatives, giving a child up for adoption, a lost friend — Boss teases out how one can mourn something that cannot always be described. The pandemic has been rife with “ambiguous loss,” Boss argues. Milestones missed; friendships and romantic liaisons cooled; families prevented from bidding farewell to dying loved ones because of stringent hospital rules. A sense of “frozen grief” pervades great swathes of the global community. Boss believes that by rethinking and lending language to the nature of loss, we might get closer to understanding it.

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Hi, my name is Meg Bernhardt. I'm a contributor to the New York Times magazine.


In July 2020, my grandfather was living in a care facility in Texas, and I was living


pretty far away from him. Our family found out that he'd caught COVID and from everything


we'd been reading and hearing at the time, it seemed that his survival as someone who's


especially vulnerable was pretty unlikely. So we decided to drive halfway across the


country to Texas, just so we could see him and possibly be able to say goodbye to him


through a closed window. He passed away from COVID on July 8th. I was feeling an immense


amount of guilt. I hadn't really been present at the end of his life, and I couldn't


really do anything to change his situation. I decided that I wanted to stick around in


Texas and wait for him to be cremated, because driving his ashes home personally felt like


the most dignified thing I could do for him. So one day, while I was waiting to receive


the ashes, I was cooking lunch and listening to the on-being podcast by Krista Tippett.


Her guest was a family sciences researcher named Pauline Boss, who in the 1970s coined


this term, ambiguous loss. At its core, Boss's theory is about any loss whose nature is uncertain.


She challenges the traditional Kuhler Ross and Freudian theories of grief, which tell


us that grief is a linear process and that it has a prescribed endpoint. What Boss is saying


is there's actually no timeline for mourning these losses. They might not ever end because


that person could still be with us, physically or psychologically. And Bigger's loss was


a way to describe the reality that my family and I had been living for a decade. My grandfather


had been physically far away, but even when he was near us, he felt absent. He had Alzheimer's.


He couldn't remember my face or name, and he could barely even remember my mom, his


own daughter. Boss, who's 87 years old, has a new book out called The Myth of Closure.


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