Dedicated to all those who lost family members prematurely, and to two students -- one struggling with addiction, and the other who lost her father.
This is grief. The silence that comes with a loved one's death is like no normal silence. It is in our culture that we respond to this stillness with stillness upon stillness. We try to think of death as that leap into some great beyond, perhaps finally letting our loved one's fluorescent inner radiance free. In the process, those loved ones take with them the air from within our lungs. So, in coping, we respond to their perceived new freedom by restricting ourselves with strict boundaries. And, as we cope with loss, we find relief in reunions. Time begins to jump around as we sit in the moment in front of us, leaping between moments in the past, frightened by the cloud in the future. The reunions open old happy memories that help turn that searing, salty burn of the tears into a blankety warmth. But, in our culture, the reunions often end quickly, leaving us alone in the darkness, unable to sleep. This is grief. And, this is what I observed in the first half hour of Susanne Bier's soft-spoken "Things we Lost in the Fire" (2007).
This movie is a whisper. It is the story of an instinctively good man Brian (David Duchovny) instinctively trying to do good, and dying in the middle of life, in the middle of a moment. And, in our culture, there is no such thing as a death by natural causes. Autopsies of the body will tell us such, yes. But, if we could autopsy the heart, we'd see that no death happens on schedule. Yes, some people leave expectedly after an expected struggle. But many leave a bit early. In all those other cases, however, the Angel of Death belts us with a blow the beyond, like nothing produced in this world.
Brian leaves behind his wife Audrey (Halle Berry), two curly haired kids, a neighborhood of stiff pals, a business of anonymous colleagues, and his childhood best friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro). Where Brian beams with an awkward saintliness, Audrey stands with affectionate backbone. Jerry, however, is a heroin addict with a few stories hidden in the wrinkles under his eyes. But Jerry is Brian's best friend, not Audrey's. That Brian would inject Jerry into his life was always a threat to Audrey.
In life, we long to be in the company of our beloveds, and anything or anyone that keeps our beloveds away from us incites jealousy, protest, and if the love is such, then rage. In life, at least, there is hope to reconnect. In Death, however, any such hope for rendezvous with the lost beloved would necessitate our own deaths. Death, then, provokes our most deep jealousy. Then, this jealousy deepens. We are already so deep in resent because our beloved has been banished from this world. But, then we see others fulfill what our beloved could not. So, why is it, Audrey wonders, that Jerry knows anything about her life? And, why is it that Jerry knows things about her family that she herself does not know? How would you feel if the love of your life kept secrets from you. Even if those secrets were innocuous and mostly irrelevant, how would you feel? Sometimes jealousy tastes the same as betrayal. When Audrey takes Jerry swimming with the kids, it becomes it a mistake. Not because the experience was unhappy, but because it was so happy, in a way that Brian could never accomplish.
And, when the Reeper strikes us by taking our beloved, what is that blow? It is the feeling that a predator has reached in and torn out an organ from within your gut. The hole matches the size and shape of the person you lost. So, when hit with death, what do we do? We instinctively seek to fill the hole. We reach for memories and tokens. We reach for the loved ones of our loved ones. Audrey has footprints of their embraces, her photos of their smiles, her habits and routines with the children. Jerry has the favors Brian did for him.
The kids, have dreams. The kids hope Jerry will replace their father. Jerry knows not what to hope. Audrey wants to preserve Brian through his world. The problem is that when we reach to fill the hole, then we must cross those boundaries we had imposed upon ourselves. Our beloved's clothing remains untouched, hoping to be recovered by archaeologists in the future. If our loved one had a room or an office, we refuse to enter it, but eventually, we will have to. Audrey refused to enter Brian's study. But, Jerry needs to use a computer. Thus, they need to enter that otherwise locked, untouched fortress. And, when they enter his room, they realize that they kept another vault, hidden in their own secret gardens, locked away from sight, and now it is open and vulnerable. So, when we cross those boundaries without a safety net, we will fall off the tightrope and get hurt. More. But that is grief. Rather, that is the growth that comes from grief. In some ways, grief is holding your breath underwater because you do not know what else to do. At some point, though, you will have to come up for air.
But, this movie has me thinking that we have a few different problems in our culture. This is a movie about people who live in isolation. The funeral was packed with people, but their lives otherwise are mostly desolate. Brian and Audrey live at the end of a long unpaved driveway. Their neighbors need to get in the car or jog to get to their house. This movie reminds me that we are in our culture so very separated. And, when our characters pass by the spot where Brian died, they find a sort of anonymous memorial, perhaps made by strangers, if not by their friends.
Similarly, we are masters at national mourning. If an event makes the news and shocks us, we mourn together. And, the more that an event is covered, the more we are reminded, thus, the more we mourn. Our the amount national mourning tends to be proportional to the number of casualties of our own people, the youthfulness of the victims, and the proximity to our own sense of security. But, that is human. But, this movie reminds me that the mourning of an unreported death by fire is not different for the family of the deceased than the mourning of a nationally reported tragedy, or an internationally reported disaster. The problem is that the families of the victims still go to sleep alone, that night, and in each of those nights after we have ended our collective mourning. I'm not any different here; I cried for an hour when I heard about the massacre of the children in Connecticut. I cry when I hear about kids dying in war in Syria. I cry when I read about kids dying from drone strikes. But, I do not do much else beyond prayer, which is the weakest form of faith. Though we each clearly remember the images of water and smoke, I cannot name a single victim of Hurricane Katrina, or a victim of 9/11. It seems to me that sometimes that national mourning becomes a ticket to inaction.
Another problem that this movie reminds me about is that grief can become an addiction, when the sufferer refuses to grow. It is not a substance we keep injecting or smoking. It does not give us that short fix of feeling, like the "Kiss of God" that some heroin addicts chase after. Rather, it can become, as a form of depression, the murky swamp of warmth that keeps us feeling balmy enough to want to stay inside, knowing that life on our own two feet is better for us, but is ice cold. It is that need to pick at our scabs, knowing that the wounds will become more permanent, the scars deeper, but we still feel we've done something substantive. It's that need to stick our heads into a trash can, hoping to vomit. So, in the process, we expectedly see that Audrey's relationship with Jerry shifts from rivalry to support to dependence. But, it is not a clean growth, for it becomes a rivalry again, before becoming a loving friendship.
And, on the flipside, the film does take a few easy steps, if that is possible in a story about grieving. We speak here of a family without any financial concerns. And, even with the few friends and relatives in the story, we speak of something that sadly has become an anomaly in our culture. If this story took place in a different social, economic class, it would be a different film. But, that is besides the point. It is most importantly a movie about mending broken souls.
And, what I like additionally about the film is that it does not take the Hollywood choices. We would expect certain relationships to develop in certain directions, but they do not. The most Hollywoody thing about this film is that the people are all so nice, but even some of the characters in the story get skeptical about the random moments of extreme generosity.
In the end, the film teaches us that the path out of grief is not to try to fill up the empty hole, because nothing will fit that hole, and any attempt to force something in will be abrasive. Rather, the path out of grief is to plant a seed and grow a tree. And, often, that seed is a dose of compassion sown into the soil of someone else's heart, someone else who is trying to heal. That dose of compassion is not a one-time fix, sending a broken soul on his or her tattered way. Rather, that dose of compassion is a longtime personal investment in someone else's well-being as though our own well-being depends upon it. And, like the steps to recovery from addiction, that is a process that gets handled a day at a time.