21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

A Novel View of Grieving in The Leftovers

Implications For Finding the Right Therapist

I am enthralled and thrilled by the disturbing new HBO show, The Leftovers. Like many pieces of literature, film or television, this show offers a novel and more complete take on common psychological phenomena than most of us in the mental health field can offer.

The premise of the show is that 2% of the population disappears suddenly and without explanation. Was it a mini-rapture? Was it aliens? How was it that the Pope disappeared and the President of the United States did not? Why did one woman lose three family members and other people suffered no loss?

And then there is the really weird stuff: a cult group, called the Guilty Remnant, who wear only white and chain smoke, the sad former alcohol abusing police chief whose wife has left him to join the Guilty Remnant, a strange and probably also exploitive man named Wayne, who "heals" by providing hugs (in order to take away devastating feelings), brutal violence involving the killing of dogs, not to mention a stoning (reminiscent of another stunning cultural and literary moment, The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson). And that is just the beginning.

The Leftovers is brilliant, in my opinion, because it is all about grieving and loss. 

Let’s dissect one episode of this show as a way to demonstrate what The Leftovers can teach us about trauma and loss:

Here’s the introduction to Episode six, as reported in The Washington Post. 

“This week’s installment was all about Nora Durst, who should technically be the saddest of them all: Remember, she lost her entire family (husband and two small children) in the Sudden Departure. However, as miserable as she is, Nora is by far the most likable character on the show.

Instead of leaving Mapleton and trying to forget the horrible things that have happened, she delves deeper into the Departure, landing a job in the Department of Sudden Departure. She interviews people who have filed claims (if you lost someone, you get money) and digs into the life of the Departed with 150 deeply personal questions.”

In this episode Nora attends a conference entitled, Departure Related Occupations and Practices and she is supposed to be on a panel. But Nora encounters something odd, if not nefarious, when she checks in at the conference. Her badge is missing; someone took it and so she is given a badge with the title of “Guest.” Nora, for much of the rest of the episode, has no identity. She is a guest at the conference, and though this frees her up for some drug-fueled fun, she ends up getting kicked out of the hotel for an aggressive act, which she did not commit.

Nora’s lost identity and the way that this is ultimately resolved, illustrates one of the more confusing and important aspects of grieving. Loss results in the confusion of identity. This is especially true when loss is sudden and violent.

I see this all of the time when I talk with people who experience the ghosts of childhood trauma. They don’t know who they are or who they should be. Before finding someone they can talk about their experiences with, they unwillingly become part of a version of the Guilty Remnant. 

Members of the Guilty Remnant do not want to feel. And by chain smoking and taking others to task for their fruitless attempts at trying to mourn, they stay stuck in their loss. In The Leftovers, they wear all white, just like living ghosts: A brilliant and powerful metaphor for those of who are haunted by loss. 

We can all get stuck in the process of grieving personal and collective traumas. My field has not done a great job of explaining how we grieve. The Leftovers offers some good insight: Trauma and loss causes us to lose ourselves. Healing involves finding the right relationships that can help us grieve, but also live.

Remember this when you are seeking therapy. Therapeutic interventions take on many forms, and technique matters very little when you look at the data on psychotherapy efficacy. Few people know that specific psychotherapy approach accounts for less than 15% of what makes people better. Most of the variance in what accounts for healing is the therapeutic relationship, and therapist empathy is primarily important.

When it comes to trauma and loss, it may not matter if your therapist practices cognitive behavioral therapy vs. psychoanalytic therapy, or whatever treatment is in style at the moment. What may matter most is if your therapist seems to understand the ghosts that haunt you.

 

 

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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