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’.

8 thoughts on “Seeking closure after decades?

  1. I agree completely. My uncle was killed in Indonesia in 1942, location unknown, but I don’t recall either my father or grandparents ever grieving that they had no grave or body to give them ‘closure’. They grieved because he was dead.

    Even if families want to follow up these matters they should be allowed and/or encouraged to do it in private and not turn it into a public spectacle. The whole matter becomes quite distasteful when politicians use it to get favourable media attention. Howard did it frequently and Rudd looks like he intends to do the same.


  2. “But beginning a process of grieving sixty-six years after death?” – but you quote Rudd as saying “which begins a process of closure “, which is not the same thing.

    I too hate the word ‘closure’ and that Oprah brand of therapy culture, but you shouldn’t dismiss the feelings of people who feel they want to know how and where a loved person died.

    Not even a loved person: I was recently helping a niece with a family-history school project and made sure to include one of my grandmother’s brothers who was killed at Pozieres. I didn’t know about him the only time I was in France – but now I have the story and photos. As far as I know, no one from the family has been to his grave. I don’t exactly know why, but if I’m in Europe again I will go to his grave (there may not have been anything to bury, of course), and leave some flowers there, and say to Bill that he’s not forgotten. It’s not, obviously, an intellectual response – it just satisfies a human feeling to be near to the person, as if the place where they lay is their place, and the right place to remember them.


  3. Russell – Fair point, so Rudd is saying that they can start a process of finishing grief? I don’t at all dismiss the feelings of people wanting to know how and where someone died (one of my own grandfathers was buried at sea, before I was born), but ‘closure’ should not rely on achieving this knowledge. While some sorrow at a loss may never go away, most people should be able to get to a point where the sorrow no longer greatly interferes with their day-to-day psychological functioning. The idea that this should be postponed to the date of some external event – discovering the body, ‘justice’ for the killer etc, is I think an unhelpful one.


  4. Why is it assumed that there are 645 people entombed down there anyway? There’s no reason to think they were all trapped on the Sydney when it went down. A lot would have stayed on the water surface and then drowned or got eaten by noahs.


  5. I notice The Age picked up with the ‘closure’ phrase in its headline. You are right, of course, but it seems very much like Rudd is happy to encourage grief and resentment over decades, if his recent public ‘apology’ to the Stolen Generations is anything to go by. Perhaps he sees it as an electoral advantage.

    (Incidentally, Steve Martin wrote a very funny satire on the phrase ‘Closure’, it’s published in his book ‘Pure Drivel’, if you can get hold of it.)


  6. Why is it assumed that there are 645 people entombed down there anyway?

    Warships at action stations seal their internal compartments to prevent flooding. That means crew are trapped inside if the ship sinks. Many would probably not even know the ship was sinking. That’s one reason why the sinking of warships in battle is always accompanied by a huge loss of life.

    May they rest in peace.


  7. Of course not. Grief won’t last for a lifetime it can be healed. But for the grief that someone haven’t seen their love one after a tragic event and have no clue whether they are still alive or not, now that would last a lifetime. I can really feel the grief this.



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