• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

How can these two movies about dealing with grief help you?


Halle Berry and Benicia Del Toro; movies about dealing with grief
Coming to terms with grief and loss can be a mixed journey.

When I recently watched two different movies about dealing with grief, I was struck how many diverse emotions accompany bereavement. It also impressed on me how individual grief expressions can be, based on culture, gender, religion and Grief is an emotional and cognitive response to losing something or someone significant to you. It’s also a complex state that encompasses more than just sadness about losing someone or something (as in divorce, job loss, etc.)


Grief is not just about sadness

If you mostly associate the experience of loss with sadness, you’re not alone. However, anger can be a big part of loss. So can confusion, hurt, and anxiety, to name just some of the emotions that go with grief. Of course, many people have heard of the “stages of grief“ as proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her classic book, On Death and Dying. In that exploration of her terminal patients’ experiences, anger was named as a stage along the way to acceptance. The book isn’t just about grief, but it is often associated with grief because it concerns death and dying. It is one of many models of grief that we can use to understand our experiences of grief.


Stages versus emotions about grief

Stages are not necessarily the same as emotions. Both emotions and states are not meant to be static. To be static is to be stuck, and that’s when one’s psychological state becomes problematic in his or her life. When you feel as though you can’t go on living and you don’t experience and the painful yearning for the deceased last for a year or more, you may be experiencing prolonged grief.


Because our society is so focused on being productive and “normal”, you might internalize shame about having grief and expressing it for too long. You might also be embarrassed about just how the messy, painful suffering seems as though it will never end. The good news is that with time, the pangs of grief diminish in frequency and intensity. You can get back to your normal, healthy routines or establish new ones. And when this happens, you have relief.


Relief and grief?

Yes, grief can also include relief, which might puzzle you when you experience it. You might think it’s disloyal to the lost loved one if you feel relief when the person dies, or when you’re grief lets up. However, it’s natural for grief to go through different phases, or stages.


Stroebe and Schut came up with the dual process model of grief, which says that there is a natural rhythm of going between feeling pain and emotionally upset about the loss, followed by times of “restoration” when you do not feel the loss is intensely. This is necessary and normal for healing from grief. This necessary reprieve from the suffering allows you to move to the next part of your life, where you reestablish contact with important people in your lives and normal daily functioning.


If you can accept the messiness, the pain and the different faces of grief, and not be lulled into the false reality of it lasting forever, you can get through it better. It will still hurt and confuse you, but won’t be bracing against it. The bracing and resisting makes it harder.


Movies as catharsis about dealing with grief

Christmas Angel in the House; movies about dealing with grief
Toni Colette struggling with grief

When you watch a movie that is emotional in nature, you can experience many different things. You might identify with certain characters and their emotional experience. It may provide you an opportunity to have new insight or to learn about how another person coped with an experience like grief. It can also provide catharsis, or allow you to express feelings that you have stored up for a long time – even ones you may not know that you had. These two movies about dealing with grief can be helpful for all the reasons above, and more perhaps.


Raw emotions in movies about dealing with grief

The first movie that really touched me about dealing with grief was “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro. It was hard to watch sometimes because I didn’t know what to expect from Halle Berry’s character. She could be very kind and loving to her children, but then lash out in jealousy, hurt and rage at her husband’s best friend, played by Benicio del Toro. You might appreciate the raw, honest performances of all the actors, including the children.


The movie explored several themes of grief, such as self blame, resentment of the living, and the desire to withdraw socially. One thing I took away from the movie was that when you try to experience grief all by yourself, it is pretty hard, from the looks of it! It was definitely worth a watch. For fully grasping the many shades of grief, it was valuable; as a piece of art it was exquisite (in my humble opinion).


Spiritual exploration in movies about dealing with grief

“Christmas Angel in the House” was the next movie I saw, which was unapologetically a feel-good movie. Nonetheless, it did a good job of showing the guilt, shame, and fear that can accompany grief. In this movie Toni Colette and Ioan Gruffud have lost their young son in an accident and since then, could not conceive. The movie is an emotional as well as spiritual exploration of how grief can hold people back in their emotional, interpersonal, and even work lives. You can’t help but fall in love with little Ian, who helps facilitate the movement through grief.


One issue that this movie portrays nicely is the idea of making room in your heart for a new person to love. This doesn’t discredit or dishonor the deceased. In fact, many times, making room is what the deceased might have wanted you to do so you wouldn’t suffer in loneliness anymore. This movie also teaches you to have patience for your own psychological journey through life, and an open mind to what may come next. All of this can facilitate your process of letting go, and letting in. Toni as the mother is not angry and lashing out, but is frozen in some ways. It was lovely to watch the process of her and her husband’s journeys through grief unfold.


I don’t often recommend movies about dealing with grief, but I think these were two very good movies to reflect upon if you are experiencing grief. It can also help you understand and empathize with someone you love who is bereaved. You can understand the myriad emotional states and struggles that they face and perhaps show more informed compassion through understanding them better. You can also have more compassion for yourself as you explore different types of loss through the lens of cinema.


If you need help on your grief journey and want to explore how these movies influence your dealing with grief and loss, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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