The movie Collateral Beauty is out soon. It’s a story about a father (Will Smith) who loses a child, and how his friends (Kate Winslet, Edward Norton et al) try to help him move beyond his grief and get back to living. I have a friend who lost a child, and she has a few things to say about that premise.
She asked to post anonymously, and I agreed, because her message is important. Our society is awkward around grief, sometimes showing disdain, and we make it difficult for those who are grieving to give themselves permission to do so on their own schedule (a good book on this is The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke).
Here are my dear friend’s intelligent, emotional—yes, it’s okay to show emotion!—and wise words on grief and Collateral Beauty’s flawed assertion.
Okay, can we talk about Collateral Beauty? Like, beyond the whole “Oh, look. There’s another sappy movie out in time for Christmas?” Beyond the “Will Smith can do better” convo.
Maybe it’s the “bereaved parent finds meaning again” trope that I want to complain about. Or “the death of a child changed the father’s/mother’s entire personality” trope. Or it’s Hollywood’s version of what it means to be a bereaved parent–what that looks like, what that should be–that I want to get to the heart of.
Despite what this movie trailer is trying to portray, time and love don’t heal all, and it’s both dangerous and upsetting to buy into this. It’s dangerous because this homogenized version of grief tells us there’s a right way and a wrong way to grieve, that there’s a hierarchy to grief, and that some people’s grief should be prioritized over others. That’s bullshit.
I’ve been at the grief game for a while now. I’m out of fingers and toes to deal with all the loss I’ve experienced over the years. So, hopefully you’ll believe me when I say I know a thing or two, and that there’s one truth about grief: There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. (Okay, obviously there are a few detrimental ways. Please don’t abuse yourself, physically or with drugs or alcohol, or others in the process. I could also write a lengthy dissertation on blame and grief.)
No one should tell you how to grieve. Especially Hollywood.
There’s a moment in Collateral Beauty where Edward Norton says, “I just want my friend back.” Well, your friend wants his daughter back, you dick, so how about you STFU, sit back and just be in his airspace until he comes to you? Why’s that too hard for movies and TV, or, hell, even our families and loved ones to get?
I remember being obvious about my grief to an EMS guy in a Starbucks once, and feeling horribly guilty afterwards for being obvious. But now I know it wasn’t my fault; it was society’s for telling us there’s a time and a place for grief, and it isn’t out in the open.
Fuck that. The place for grief is wherever we need it to be.
I remember another moment, two days after my son died. I saw a boy just a little older than my son, a cute moppet with blonde curly hair, coming out of a Starbucks (I have way too many moments at my local Starbucks). All I wanted was to feel the weight of a child in my arms. I can’t tell you what compelled me, but I asked his mother if I could hold him. She agreed. It was exactly what I needed.
Why can’t we be like that as a society all the time? Why can’t we ask for what we need in our grief? Why can’t people around us help us fill those needs instead of interjecting their own? Why can’t we grieve out in the open; even if the grief isn’t recent, even if it isn’t exactly ours? I watched the Gaycation documentary regarding the Orlando shootings recently; there was a person not directly attached to the tragedy who cried about it, and then apologized.
That’s such a wasted gesture. And I’ve done it. Multiple times. Because we’re taught by unrealistic depictions of grief in the media that it needs to be hidden. We’re also taught that if we’re not over it by some prescribed amount of time, there’s something wrong with us. That, too, is bullshit. It’s six years and change since my son’s life slipped through my hands and I’m not over it. Not by a long shot. I’m okay with that.
Do Not Apologize For Your Grief! Ever!
Don’t apologize, even if you think someone has it “worse” than you. A helpful part of my first bereavement support group meeting wasn’t that I shared my story; it’s that I heard everyone else’s. We all revealed different shades of pain and hurt and remorse. Some were sharper and closer to the surface than others. It didn’t make my pain any more or less painful. It just made it more relatable.
Keeping grief close to the vest, or homogenizing it in movies like Collateral Beauty, invalidates it. It makes us think we have to go to horrible depths to make it valid. I remember a story about a person who lost his son. His wife turned to drugs and alcohol. Why? I don’t know for sure. But I can theorize plenty. Maybe she’d never seen grief up close. Maybe she’d never been exposed to grief in a way she could digest or understand. Maybe the only versions of grief she knew were dramatized or homogenized, and her grief didn’t feel that way and she needed something else to help with the pain.
There’s a moment in the trailer in which the Time character tells Will Smith he’s missing life, and I wanted to yell a hearty “FU!” at my screen. He lost his daughter. He’s allowed to miss out on capital “L” life, capital “M” moments. Every day isn’t fucking Hallmark cards and roses when you start L-I-V-I-N again. The fact that the Dickens-esque Christmas-Carol-type characters in this movie are trying to convince us otherwise is horrible. I don’t care if Death is Helen Mirren. And let me tell you something, if Love was to suddenly embody a person, said person would not be Kiera Knightly, no offense to her (adored you in Pride and Prejudice and Bend it Like Beckham, Kiera! Call me).
The only part of the trailer I liked was that Will Smith’s character wrote letters, telling Death, Time and Love what he felt and what he was going through, because at least he found an outlet for it. (If you haven’t found an outlet for your grief, and you need someone to share it with, someone who will do whatever you need to find a balance with the grief, there are outlets.)
If everyone around you is telling you to do things JUST SO, I’m here to tell you to do what you need to do. As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or anyone else, what you need to do with your grief is the right fucking call.
If you are grieving a loss, no matter the size, grieve. Make a scene in a Starbucks. Hold a stranger’s child (you know, if they let you), hold onto a stuffed animal, scream into the void, cry really ugly tears. And whatever you do, don’t apologize for it. Your grief isn’t wrong.
Do you have opinions on how our culture deals with grief, or have you experienced a time when you found it difficult to express your grief? Please feel free to share below.
– Images courtesy of Unsplash