On April 19, 1995, I was called in to the Hollywood studios of CNN to be an on-air guest psychologist to take calls from anxious parents. It was the evening of the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. Seventeen children who were attending the America's Kids Daycare Center housed in the federal building were killed. This now-iconic photo punctuated the anguished shock of many callers who were parents with young children who went to daycare centers.
To one distraught woman, I empathetically offered this observation: "We expect to die. We even expect our children to die. What we do not expect is to see our children die. It's so hard, isn't it?" to which she reacted with an even greater flood of tears and sobs in between words of resigned agreement.
As mammals, grieving for the loss of a child is built into our species. Numerous wildlife movies have captured the grief and mourning response in primates and elephants most conspicuously. Life comes to a halt and, as Arthur Miller wrote in his play, Death of A Salesman, "attention must be paid;" In a family the excruciating pain must also be shared like a communal wafer and endured like a crown of thorns.
Recently, I chaired a panel discussion related to styles of grief and mourning at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. We screened and discussed the-soon-to-be-released film, Morning, the title being a play on both spellings of the word. This small, mesmerizing movie views the parental grief and mourning reactions of a husband and wife, Mark and Alice, over the death of their young, only child. The loss of a child is always devastating but often even more so for couples left childless.
At the start of the movie it's clear that the child's death inflicted a most grievous blow to the marriage. Mark's anger and need to physically distance himself from his wife are played against his wife's outreaching yet dazed and isolated wail of pain. This hints that, in the almost inevitable blame game that follows the accidental death of a child, Alice may be blamed by both of them. One is never quite sure at the start how, why or under what circumstances the child died, although hints intrude in almost-subliminal flashbacks as the story unfolds. It was a drowning.
But that knowledge isn't really of immediate importance. The contrasting styles of depression and grieving are where the action is, perhaps especially so, for an audience of psychotherapists and more than a few grief counselors. After all, the child has died; it is the living who must try to put back together both the pieces of their individual lives, and of the surviving family unit. -- the struggle-ground upon which clinical intervention plays out.
Morning stars writer/director/actor, Lelan Orser
and Jeanne Tripplehorn as the parents, Mark and Alice, and features Laura Linney as a grief counselor.
It boasts a host of excellent cameo performances by actors like Elliott Gould and Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler portraying a lonely, traveling businessman who, in a pivotal scene, mistakes the confused, flailing grief of an inebriated Alice for something more along the lines of his momentary needs.
The film's spine is the grieving/mourning process. I have rarely seen it handled so well and in so nuanced a way. Moreover, it is not the interaction between the parents that is on the docket; it is their separate disintegration and reintegration that engages the viewer. It is the chasmic differences between them in their styles of shock, in their non-comprehending struggle to make sense of what is surely an almost incomprehensible event, which pulls along the drama and their week-long passage through existential chaos.
In the unfolding narrative, issues of fault-finding and finger pointing are implied but are not the recurring basis for drama. The drama resides less in their between and more in their within. It resides in accidental moments, as when Alice meets a mother who doesn't know of her child's death as she holds in tow her still-living child and suggests play dates.
It occurs when, in a long instant, the son of Alice's good friend, now seen through her querulous, grieving eyes, finally, looks like the teenager he has been for quite some time. In that look, Alice grasps that, for her son, adolescence has become a far country whose shores he will never visit. All the while we see that this friend's son intuitively gets that his tone deaf, verbally stumbling mother cannot quite wrap her heart and common sense around -- the emotional truth of Alice's son's death -- perhaps because, consciously or not, no man and no mother is an island.
Mark and Alice stagger blindly and dizzily in their grief, each in their own way, stabbing at strategies to regain the sanity that has temporarily abandoned them to their primeval, primordial agonies. Probably the most unforgettable and touching moments in the film are afforded when Jeanne Tripplehorn's Alice, her mind and body reduced to exhausted encumbrances, momentarily looks into the eyes of Laura Linney's psychologist and "accidental" grief therapist, Kyle Chandler's violently disabused businessman, and Eliott Gould's avuncular physician, Dr. Goodman, and repeatedly pleads, "Can you help me? Will you help me?"
The help for which Alice so desperately pleads cannot be granted by anyone, whether or not they fully grasp the meaning implicit in her appeal -- the resurrection of her child, or at least the magical undoing of his death! These are screen moments that sear their way into your heart and brain and make you want to reach out and at least try.
All the while, like a retooled Lady Macbeth, Alice longs for the relief that only elusive sleep might provide.
While Alice searches for help through others, Mark works through his grief by staying hold up in the house and reawakening the action memories of a child lost by enlisting the child in him to follow and repeat the steps of the child of him. He runs, walks, even crawls across the innards of the home, using the traverse as a vehicle to heal, and let go, maybe even forgive: a sequence that just might have been scripted by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim.
As research shows, men are more likely to pull in, grieve through action, even briefly immerse in silent, wordless sex to hold on to some "safe" level of intimacy. Women, by contrast, are more disposed to reach out with their grief and achieve that intimacy through words and reassuring, non-sexual gestures of touch. Mark and Alice, in their own fashion are following separate odysseys, grieving in parallel universes. Parallel lines don't easily meet unless something throws one or both off course.
Mark's wildly executed grieving rites finally complete, his adult, blue-suited persona once again in place, his briefcase at the ready, Alice's call is safely taken. What she tells him, however, rocks his carefully laid composure. Alice reveals to him what Dr. Goodman told her -- she is pregnant!
This immense fact provides a causal reversal of Alice's malaise and nausea -- symptoms which appeared at first to be largely the handiwork of psychosomatic wounds from a child's death and a marriage hemorrhaging its life.
"Come home..." Mark finally exhales into the phone, "Come home."
Will Mark and Alice heal? Possibly. Hopefully. Their parallel lines may, in the end, meet to follow the same path toward a rebirthing of their family.
Morning is a new and most welcome addition to the genre of films dealing with the splintering, fissuring effects of a child's death on a family. Movies like Ordinary People, In the Bedroom, and more recently, The Greatest, spring to mind. Each brings its own focus, emphasis, breadth and psychological orchestration.
Collectively these films offer a cinematic group therapy clinic on styles of grief and mourning. The audience can see that, while grief over the loss of a child is universal, the interplay between styles can be the marital stuff of dreams, nightmares or a marriage merely staring into space.