Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Without forgiveness, closure is impossible

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at 76710.3306(AT)

UNDATED _ The death sentence imposed on Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing will not bring closure for the victims or the families of those killed in the attack. Nor will his eventual execution _ if it ever happens.

Closure has become a national buzzword, but we have little notion of the psychological impact of tragedy and its two components _ grief and anger.

Whenever we lose someone we love, our pain involves both grief and anger, especially when death occurs suddenly or strikes someone young.

Grief is the pain of loss, and it never really goes away although it eventually diminishes and no longer interferes with life. Grief is sorrow over the loss of someone we love. No matter how long ago we may have lost our parents, we still experience touches of sorrow when we think of them or visit their graves. We still dream about them as though they were alive (the unconscious does not believe in mortality).

Nor do we ever forget a spouse or a child. We go on with our lives but a sharp ache is ever present in a corner of the soul with which we learn to live. In the human condition there is no other way.

The other dimension of tragedy is anger: rage at the one who has taken away the one we love. We rage against the doctors who we believe have failed us, at the fire fighters who did not come in time, and at our relatives who we believe are not showing appropriate sympathy and are still alive after our beloved is gone. And we rage at God, who we believe is ultimately responsible for our pain.

Sometimes, we even rage against the dead.”If he had listened to us,”we say,”he would still be alive. He should have stopped smoking!”Or”If she had changed doctors, she might not have died. How dare she leave us behind!” I know many people who have suffered tragic losses and yet are completely unaware of the pent-up rage within them, though it is obvious to all around them. They don’t realize they are angry, much less do they have any idea at whom they are angry. Their rage centers on abandonment, as though they are the only one who has ever been abandoned.

Grief weakens with time but rage does not diminish until we are ready to let it go.

The execution of a criminal stops neither the grief nor the anger. We are never free of anger until we decide to give it up. Those who hang onto anger often lead twisted, stunted, and ruined lives.

In a recent powerful and touching story in The New York Times magazine, reporter John Tagliabue tells of being shot in the back during the Romanian revolution, of the resulting six operations, of the hepatitis he contracted from surgery, and of two years of deep depression.

Then he returns to the country, the father of a new daughter. Romania has a new president. There is hope again for Romania and for him. But when faced with the opportunity to learn the name of one of sharp shooters _ not necessarily the one who shot him _ he passes it up and concludes his story with these words:”No matter how contemptible our own villains might have been, unless we let go of the past, we hurt no one but ourselves.” Forceful words. Words of truth. Words that are hard to heed yet must be heeded if we are to live healthy, meaningful lives again. Essential words without which closure is impossible.