As he emerged from a courthouse where jurors imposed the death sentence in the rapes and killings of his wife and children, the sole survivor of a brutal 2007 home invasion said he didn't expect to find closure.
"I don't think there's ever closure. I think whoever came up with that concept is an imbecile, whoever they are," said Dr. William Petit, who has come across as calm, clear-headed and committed to seeing justice in the trial of convicted murderer Steven Hayes. The random selection and cold-blooded slaughter inside his Cheshire, Conn., home left behind "a hole with jagged edges, and over time, the edges may smooth out a little bit, but the hole in your heart, the hole in your soul is still there, so there's never closure."
Petit said he was "very much insulted" when asked a year ago if a death sentence in the case would "somehow give me closure. Absolutely not."
Closure, a relatively new term in psychology, arises in the context of how people come to terms with terrible crimes, terrorist attacks and other traumatic incidents. Closure provides an opportunity to "come to some understanding and some clarification of a situation," said Manish Pandya, a licensed clinical social worker and psychiatric response team manager at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston. "Closure isn't essentially forgetting the matter or forgetting the traumatic event or the loss."
Not everyone touched by such tragedies necessarily needs closure, but they need to pass through stages of recovery and healing. "If healing doesn't happen, then the injury does not improve and then as a result, is permanent," Pandya said. That can produce depression, anxiety, isolation and in some cases, self-harm or suicide, Pandya said.
Petit may not need closure to recover from his searing wounds, according to mental health experts who on Tuesday, a day after the verdict in the Petit case, described the path to healing as highly individual.
"People are very different in their ability to metabolize, to cope with stress like this. Some people have a very hard time tolerating even minor levels of stress. And other people are very resilient," said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. As he contemplated the gruesome details of the Petit deaths, he said he didn't think it was realistic to expect Dr. Petit to find closure. "I think the way the human brain's built, it's probably more honest that you're always going to be carrying part of this with you."
A conviction can help some people come to terms with a horrific crime, but "a lot of times, it's not enough and people feel dissatisfied because the damage is done and seeing somebody else suffer because of something evil or bad they did doesn't always help as much as people would hope." Plus, sitting through a trial where a victim's family has to relive the crime "is like tossing salt on the wounds."