As pervasive as references to "closure" have been in recent years, the meaning of the term remains elusive. Psychiatrists and psychologists say there is no standard definition of "closure." Nor is there any formula for finding it.
"There may be an infinite number of things that might provide a sense of closure," says Steven Gold, a psychiatrist and professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., offering as a general definition "a sense that things are resolved so that [people] can move on with daily life."
The origins of the term are obscure. Some trace it to the rise in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s of Gestalt psychology, which encourages people to find a sense of "wholeness" in their lives. Others link it to the idea of stages of grief codified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in which "acceptance" of a loss is the seventh and final stage. A few point to the growing effort medical professionals paid to clinically diagnosing trauma during the 1980s.
More than any other single event, however, the Oklahoma City bombing and its aftermath cemented the status of "closure" as a popular term in American life. A common question during the 1997 sentencing of Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the bombing, and again at the time of his execution, in June 2001, was whether giving McVeigh the death penalty would bring "closure" to the families of the dead.
The word already had widespread currency by then, though. In 1997, the term had become so common, The New Yorker parodied the notion of "closure" in a cartoon showing the Grim Reaper lurking behind a door: "It's the closure fairy," a woman tells her unsuspecting husband.
The Problem: Imposing a 'Term Limit on Grief'
This rather promiscuous use of the term books today discuss how college seniors can find closure after leaving campus, while politicians now talk of seeking it after elections has instigated a backlash.
The primary problem with all the "closure" talk, argues Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and author of The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, is that it superimposes a timetable on the unpredictable and often lifelong matter of coping with a trauma.
"For people who are victimized by violence, this is a loss that will be with them forever," says Linenthal, who is part of a group planning a memorial near Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11. He adds: "There's no regularly predictable process. But we act like there's a kind of term limit on grief."
George Zeo, a counselor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., says the same issues apply to people who followed the events of Sept. 11 on television.
"When we're talking about the loss of a family member, or even the psychic impact of seeing those planes crash into the World Trade Center time and time again," Zeo says, "to say we have closure, then the term is inappropriately used. In time, the pain may not be as severe, but events will pop up that will be reminders."
To be sure, those closest to the Sept. 11 attacks may choose to seek closure in a variety of ways, from requesting official death certificates to searching for the remains of a loved one. New York City firefighters staged an angry protest near Ground Zero last fall over a city plan that reduced the number of firefighters looking for remains of the missing at the site.
Linenthal empathizes with the impulses behind those actions, and says his main worry is simply that those affected may feel pressured by others to find a sense of closure they may never have. For this reason, he says, "It's almost an unbelievable act of disrespect to go up to somebody who has lost their wife or husband or child in the World Trade Center and say, even 20 years later, 'Have you reached closure?'"
When the Political Becomes Personal
Ultimately, even for Americans who did not lose family or friends during the terror attacks, the months since Sept. 11 have brought about a new twist on the old adage that the personal is political. In this case, a political attack on America has brought personal pain that may not abate until people feel secure again if they ever do. That means the search for complete closure has been postponed, at the least.
Among the people sensing this is President Bush, whose own comments could be interpreted as part of a trend away from seeking closure. As Bush remarked in January, during this year's State of the Union address, "For many Americans, these four months have brought sorrow and pain that will never completely go away."
Americans may not take their emotional cues from the president even one who is currently very popular but they are surely mindful of Bush's emphasis that the campaign against terrorism will be a "long war." And they notice when the government issues new terror alerts, as it has several times since September.
"Part of the nature of the terrorist threat is to keep a sword hanging over our heads," says Gold. "Their actions are specifically designed to keep people uncertain, to keep a sense of closure from being possible."
Down at Ground Zero, onlookers have been framing their thoughts in the same way, noting the resumption of heavy fighting with al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and the uncertain whereabouts of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
"You're probably not going to have closure until you bring everybody to justice," said Megan Shutka, a recent college graduate from Long Island who is pondering a career in the military. As the battle against terrorism continues and even spreads, however, that day may be a long way off.