If you’re familiar with quantum mechanics (because why wouldn’t you be) or a fan of The Big Bang Theory, then you’ve probably heard of Schrodinger’s cat. In simple terms, Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment where a cat is put into a box with something that could kill it (ex. a radioactive atom). The box is then sealed. Thus, until the box is opened, and the cat’s status can be empirically observed, the cat can be pronounced as both dead and alive.
Hence, the revelation of the box provides closure, a conclusion to an unknown. However, if every opened box with a cat provides closure, then what happens when we can’t open the box? In other words, what if we can’t achieve closure? More importantly, why can’t we always achieve closure?
To understand why we can’t get closure in some cases, we should first understand the need for it. Essentially, closure feels nice. He didn’t call this past week because he wasn’t interested, not because he fell into a coma. The event got cancelled because of the rain, not because of the lead singer got an STD. From closure, we gain a peace of mind, a finality of knowing whether the cat is dead or alive, an ability to move on.
Yet, recently, our need for closure has escalated significantly. According to Dr. Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist professor at the University of Maryland, our demand for closure increases dramatically during periods of heightened anxiety and paranoia, such as a global pandemic. We’re living in very uncertain times, so closure is the best reassurance.
The problem is that closure doesn’t value the quality of the conclusion, so long as it’s an answer. Through closure, the notion of reaching a conclusion is extremely comforting in anxious times, like an anchor that grounds our emotions. Perhaps, this phenomenon could explain why some people are persistently against COVID-19 vaccines. It doesn’t matter if the science is real or fake, so long as my mind settles on a final decision. Anti-vaxxers might be more resistant to relinquish that sense of certainty in such unprecedented times. Additionally, Dr. Kruglanski remarks, “We’re also drawn to leaders who are decisive and paint solutions in simple terms.” Subsequently, I believe we can all understand why a certain past president was so fervently supported by his red capped followers, despite his questionable proclamations regarding the severity of COVID-19 and his views on America.
Keeping the traps of closure in mind, I acknowledge that closure is attainable. Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s “five stages of grief” linear model is a popular grieving technique attempted by many. The deal is, essentially, if you follow this protocol accordingly, then you will ultimately achieve peace of mind, or closure.
I admit that closure is a tempting promise, yet the reality is that closure isn’t always attainable. In fact, we often don’t ever reach a stage of closure. Even if it is achieved, it might not be the best choice, given that our minds may compromise on the closure’s quality for comfort.
Dr. Pauline Boss, a social scientist from the University of Minnesota, proposes an intriguing alternative: ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss, defined as an unclear and often unacknowledged absence in one’s life, was a concept initially proposed in 1999 by Dr. Boss. However, the term was recently revived due to the widespread anxiety ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Jan. 6 attack of the U.S. Capitol.
A person with an ambiguous loss will feel confused, unable to achieve closure after the “loss,” even after a long period of time. Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, in collaboration with Dr. Boss, explain that ambiguous loss can be caused by “frozen sorrow” (people who are stuck in their sorrow) or “disenfranchised grief” (others do not see a significant loss as legitimate or deserving of support). In other words, people are unable to open the box with their cat; it’s a weight that they carry in their hands, constantly wondering if the cat is dead or alive.
I would like to clarify that “grief” and “loss” do not necessarily mean death, in this case at least. People say that loss comes in a variety of sizes, but I’d argue that one cannot measure the significance of a loss. You can’t possibly know the exact weight of the box unless you’ve carried it yourself.
With that in mind, I assume that most Duke students are probably more familiar with “disenfranchised grief,” where we encounter losses that seem objectively irrelevant but still irk us today. She knows my worst fears and greatest desires, but I’d be lucky if she even says “hi” to me anymore. I used to envision working at my own startup, but now I can barely respond to my emails. Sometimes it’s even more frustrating to move on from a seemingly insignificant loss because we don’t consider it worthy of grieving over. However, an unacknowledged loss, especially if you’ve suppressed multiple mini-losses, can be detrimental and leave you in state of ambiguity, unable to achieve closure.
Dr. Boss has plenty of advice on how to overcome ambiguous losses, but I believe her suggestion of “becoming accustomed to ambivalent feelings” was personally the most striking one because I see the world through a rather binary perspective. Yes or no. I’m over it or I’m not. The cat is dead or alive. The idea of living with ambivalent feelings, a place without closure, is peculiarly uncomfortable.
But it might be a reality. People know that closure isn’t always attainable, but I think less people would agree that it’s unnecessary. Maybe closure isn’t the destination. Maybe I’ll never truly move on from my own disenfranchised grief from five years ago, and I’m stuck with that feeling. Is this the only option? Probably not, but rather than endure the weight of carrying the box with the cat in my hands, stressing if it’s dead or alive and being frustrated why I can never seem to open the box, maybe I can be content with just setting it down by my feet. Unopened.
I’d like to think that I’m okay without closure. As for the cat inside the box, I’d like to tell it that I’m okay with not opening the box. I’m okay with you being alive, and I’m okay with you being dead.
Linda Cao is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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