John Cassavetes once said “Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important.” Gail Rubin’s article, first appearing in The Cremationist in 2015, shows us how we can use movies to get a glimpse into the human experience in all of its variety. The chance to see peoples’ journeys and the many ways they express grief provides us all useful perspective long before they sit at an arrangement table.
Lights! Camera! Action! Movies are a great way to teach, learn and tell stories that people remember. Studies indicate most humans are visual learners, so movies are a powerful medium to make a memorable educational impression – especially on touchy topics like death and grief.
Movies can be a great way to introduce funeral directors and cremationists, especially those new to the industry, to the diverse reactions that families may exhibit after a loved one dies.
When you look at examples from movies, coupled with background information from thanatology – the study of death, dying and bereavement – you can learn about the different ways people express or repress their grief. You can better understand grief responses without fear of offending a client family.
Consider these movie scenes and the types of grief they illustrate.
Elizabethtown — Instrumental Grief
Drew, a young man who lives in Oregon (Top 5 in cremation rate), has come to his father’s home town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky (Bottom 5 in cremation rate). Dad had unexpectedly died of a heart attack while visiting family there. Mom instructs Drew to have Dad’s body cremated and return with the remains to Oregon. The family in Kentucky wants to bury Dad in the centuries-old family plot.
In one scene, he’s having a phone conversation with Mom in Oregon about the cremation choice. She says, “Honey, I don’t know when I’m going to crash, but as of right now, we are learning about the car, and I’m learning organic cooking, I’m going to tap dance, and later on today, I am going to fix the toilet. It is five minutes at a time.”
Drew says, “Mom, I think you need to slow down.” She replies, “Look, everybody tells me that I should take sedatives, but hey, I am out here and I am making things happen. All forward motion counts.”
The instrumental grieving style focuses on practical matters and problem solving.
Mom is busy, busy, busy – that’s her way to deal with grief. This reaction is not determined by gender, as reported in the book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn by Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin (2010).
You might think men are more inclined toward the practical approach, but Doka and Martin found it’s a pretty even split for men and women to experience an instrumental grief reaction. If you see a family member working a list of things to do prior to the funeral, understand that person is likely an instrumental griever.
A Single Man — Intuitive Grief
At the opening of A Single Man, George, a gay man mired in grief over the death of his partner, wakes up and gets ready for his day. He gets out of bed, showers, shaves, gets dressed, and goes into the kitchen. He narrates his thoughts in this monologue:
For the past eight months, waking up has actually hurt. The cold realization that I’m still here sets in. I was never terribly fond of waking up. I was never one to jump out of bed and greet the day with a smile like Jim was…. It takes time in the morning for me to become George…. Looking in the mirror, staring back at me, isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament. (Aloud) ‘Just get through the goddamn day.’ A bit melodramatic I guess. But then again, my heart has been broken. I feel as if I’m sinking, drowning, can’t breathe.
An intuitive grieving style emphasizes experiencing and expressing emotion. Rather than getting busy with activities that may distract or channel emotional pain and sadness, the intuitive griever is immersed in mourning. While we may think of women as emotional, men are just as likely to embrace this style of grieving, although they may retreat to the privacy of a “man cave” to mourn.
Overt sadness, tears and withdrawal in the arrangement conference or at the funeral/memorial service are signs of an intuitive griever.
In the film, George is experiencing profound sadness eight months after his partner’s death. While there is no timeline for grieving, at this point, he may be experiencing complicated grief – when deep mourning is unremitting. Addressing complicated grief is best handled by working with a trained grief therapist.
Because A Single Man illustrates mourning for a partner in a homosexual relationship, it’s the perfect segue to discuss disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is “the grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported.” (Kenneth Doka, 1989)
While people may be more understanding of mourning the death of a same sex partner now, A Single Man is set in 1962, well before homosexual relationships gained acceptance. Other examples of disenfranchised grief: a mistress unable to publicly mourn the death of or breakup with an illicit lover, mourning other losses, such as jobs, health or friends, or pet owners who are devastated by the loss of a beloved companion animal.
The Jane Austen Book Club — Disenfranchised Grief
At the opening of the film, friends gather for a graveside funeral, complete with a celebrant, flowers and a photo of the deceased. It turns out the funeral is for a woman’s dog. One attendee checks her watch. Others roll their eyes.
At the reception afterward, a man says, “Let’s get some perspective here. I mean, do you think if Jocelyn was married with kids she’d be giving her dog a state funeral? This whole thing is warped.”
The love of a pet is intense, and with the loss, there is intense grief. Yet, grief over the loss of a pet often does not get the same level of public recognition given for the loss of a person. Mourners may turn to social media sites like Facebook to receive supportive comments from friends.
Savvy funeral homes are expanding their services to include sensitive death care to help pet parents. Such services can provide an opening and connection with families that leads to human death care business later on.
Other films cover the many faces of grief, including Grief and Past Trauma (The Big Lebowski), Grief and Talking and Repressed Grief (This Is Where I Leave You), Processing Grief (Walk The Line), You Can’t Tell Someone How To Grieve (Six Feet Under), Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages (All That Jazz), and Moving Beyond Grief (Gravity). I have a presentation called The Many Faces of Grief: Mourning in the Movies which offers two CEUs through the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice and looks into all of these films in-depth to help funeral professionals see different forms of grief on display.
Join Gail and CANA in Albuquerque on October 2-4, 2019 to discuss consumer insights she’s gleaned from the increasingly popular Death Cafes and consumer oriented Before I Die Festivals at the first-ever Green Funeral Conference. Learn more and register: goCANA.org/gfc2019
Gail Rubin is a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator) who teaches about pre-need funeral planning and end-of-life issues, using humor and funny films to reduce resistance to discussing death. An award-winning speaker, she “knocked ‘em dead” with A Good Goodbye, a TEDxABQ talk which provides a compelling online video supporting pre-need funeral planning. She’s the author of three books on end-of-life issues, one of the first people to hold a Death Café in the United States, and the coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.