Seeking closure after decades?

“I would say to all members of the family of the crew of HMAS Sydney, our Government sends our condolences for the loss of these brave young men.

“This is a day … which begins a process of closure for many families of the crew of the Sydney. [emphasis added]

– Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the discovery of the wreckage of HMAS Sydney, which sank in November 1941, with the loss of 645 lives.

Grief can, of course, last for a lifetime. On my occasional strolls through cemeteries (the Melbourne General Cemetery is just up the road, with the graves of several of my 19th century ancestors and relatives) I find the decades-old graves with fresh flowers sad but touching.

But beginning a process of grieving sixty-six years after death? Many people have criticised the spread of the ‘therapy culture’ into ordinary language. The idea that we cannot recover from the death of someone we love until their body or grave is found seems unsound to me. Fortunately those bereaved by the loss of HMAS Sydney were from a (seemingly) more resilient era.

It is one of the paradoxes of the time that though there is less objective cause for the extremes of ill-being than there was in the 1940s, more people are reporting such ill-being. There is a debate about whether or not the statistical trends record real changes or just different descriptions of ordinary feelings.

But surely promoting the idea that grief can’t be put into the background until a body is found can only be bad for well-being, postponing the adjustment to loss that most people feel as time passes? We should not encourage people to spend 70 years with disabling grief, on the idea that bodies or graves are necessary for ‘closure’.