Why We Need Closure: Your Brain on Grief
“I just need to know what happened.”
This is the sentiment of many who have lost someone. After a tragedy like a plane crash, millions of dollars and months of work are spent searching for survivors and any trace of a clue that could lead to finding those who perished. Our brain can tell us a little about why we crave to know exactly where our loved ones lie or possess the last remains- why we need closure.
Why We Need Closure: What is It?
“Closure” is a term used by those who need to resolve something and leave it in the past. Whether it is from an unexplained bad break up, a loved one losing his or her life to a war oversees, or a missing plane with someone you care on board, our need for closure highlights something about us. Humans do not deal well with the unresolved. Closure is when there are no more burning questions, you don’t hang on to every bit of news that comes up, and you have learned to let go. However, for most people that takes some sort of physical act, a token that it is finally over and all questions have been answered. But why do we feel like we need this?
Why We Need Closure: The Neuroscience
Scientists now think that it may be in our brain. People don’t become obsessed with finding the exact location of their families’ remains purely for the sake of it. Recent research suggests that a part of the brain called the Hippocampal formation (HCF) may be responsible. The Hippocampal formation is a region at the very center of the brain that controls short-term memory, long-term memory, and spatial navigation. The key to the closure, however, is the relationship between memory and place.
The HCF has specific cells (let’s call them ‘place’ cells) that activate when you think of a place in the world. These place cells are also triggered when you recall a memory that is associated with that location. The association with place-recognition and memory means that we geographically plot the world in terms of memories. We remember places that matter to us- landmarks where we had our first kiss, got our first job, saw a beautiful sunrise, or someone who mattered to us died. There seems to be a certain codependency between strong emotions (like love and sorrow) and place. Our emotional health, personality, and much of what makes up who we are, as a result, is dependent on our ability to fully process an event. Tying a strong emotion such as grief or loss to a place gives us the illusion that the memory is more real. And reality is something we deeply require, especially when dealing with death.
Denial is a powerful coping mechanism and can be extremely helpful short-term. In the long run, however, denying reality only results in emotional stunting. Lack of emotional processing of the death of a loved one can lead to depression, anxiety, or even PTSD (read more on how to live with PTSD) in some cases. This is where closure comes to play. Whether it is by finding out what happened your spouse who disappeared, or finding the remains of a lost plane, our minds seek the closure. Something physical, something tangible, like a location, means you can’t deny anymore. It makes everything seem more real, gives you closure, and allows the grieving process to continue.
If you have recently found closure in a relationship, a death, or something else, then you may be wondering- now what? Many people spend weeks, months, and in some cases years consumed with the thought of “if only I knew what happened”. Here are ways to make the most out of the closure you have been seeking.
Take responsibility for your emotions.
What are these emotions? Do you feel sad, angry, guilty, or just confused? Think about what you are feeling, but most importantly why you are feeling it. If you have a tendency to blame yourself, recognize that. For example, friends and family of someone who has died- even if they were not involved in what lead to the death- can experience survivor’s guilt. Think critically about those emotions and ask yourself if they make sense. Is it fair to blame yourself? Who are you actually angry at?
Write down what you are thinking.
During times of intense emotion, it can be hard to sort out what is going through your head. Writing it down can clarify what you are feeling. Try and get down on pen and paper exactly what happened, everything that you can remember, and how all of it makes you feel. It is far easier to track your emotions and try to sort them out when they are not a confused, tangled ball of mess in your brain.
Talk to someone.
And by someone, I mean a professional (what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?). Friends and family, of course, are always there for you. But when it comes down to it, sometimes there is only so much they can do. Talking to a therapist, psychiatrist, or a specific trauma counselor can be more helpful since they can use methods such as Cognitive Behavioral therapy or other alternative mental health therapy techniques to guide you. Also, if your family is also going through closure or dealing with the grief it could be useful to talk to someone who is more distanced from the situation.
If you are getting closure from a break up, try getting in contact with your ex. If this is about a loved one who died, try and reach out to them in your own way. Write a letter and read it at their grave. Close your eyes, pretend they are in front of you, and talk to them. Or perhaps seek out survivors or family of the deceased and speak with them. It can be extremely therapeutic to let the source of your need for closure how you feel. Do you miss them? Are you angry they left you so early? Or maybe you want to say sorry because you should have been there with them. The important thing with confrontation, whether they are dead or alive, is don’t expect a reaction. You should be confronting this person because it’ll satisfy you to say what you need to, regardless of what their reaction is.
Closure after a death, loss, or end of a relationship can bring up a lot of feelings of anger and resentment. There may be plenty of people to blame for the sequence of events that lead you to where you are, but part of closure is forgiving them. If this is an ex who has hurt you, forgive what they did to you and achieve your own peace. This does not mean that what they did was right, but it means you are moving on. Let’s say this is about a loved one who died in a car crash- maybe it’s time you forgave the driver, or them for getting in the car. Most importantly, however, forgive yourself. If you blame yourself for letting them get in the car, or having a fight that may have made them run out of the house and leave, let it go. By forgiving yourself, you will finally be able to move on.
Closure means something different to everyone. At the ending of a significant part of your life- whether it is a relationship, death, childhood trauma, or something else- finding closure means accepting a situation for the way it is. Complete acceptance is hard to achieve, but our brain does seem to be hardwired for it. Our Hippocampal formation wants to be able to reconcile our strong emotions with something tangible so that we can recognize reality, and move on. If you are finding closure from something (and perhaps our biological predispositions aren’t enough to convince you), follow some of the steps above. But above all remember, finding closure means it is okay to let go of whatever is holding you back.
Deepti is a writer that specialises in neuroscience and psychology. She is passionate about modern medicine and finding other therapeutic techniques, and how both of these effect the developing brain. Deepti is extremely interested in the future of mental health awareness and treatment, and is always open to advice.