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The Sibling Connection
Learn about Grief "At the Movies"


An important part of healing after the loss of a sibling is learning about the process of grief. It doesn't mean trying to force yourself into someone else's idea of a particular stage or phase of grief. Instead, education about this process allows us to compare and contrast where we are in our grief to an identifiable pattern, which helps to make sense of what is otherwise incomprehensible.

      Each of the stages, or other aspects of grief listed here includes a movie which describes it. The films can be obtained at most video rentals. I recommend watching these films for the parts described here. Instead of focusing on the stages of grief, pay attention to the changes in the character. Ask yourself, "How did my experience differ from this?" "How was it the same?" "Did I change in the same way?"

Stage--Denial and Disbelief:       Movie: "*batteries not included"
What to watch for: How the pain begins when the denial breaks.
      In a sub-plot within this film, Jessica Tandy plays a woman whose son was killed in a car accident years before. She tells everyone that he has just gone for a ride, and believes that one of the other young characters is her son. While this type of massive denial is rare, the film does a good job of showing the change that takes place when denial breaks.

     No matter which expert's theory you read about, all agree that the first reaction to hearing of a loved one's death is shock, disbelief, and denial. This is a normal defense mechanism that gives you time to sit down and catch your breath. They also agree that when denial breaks, the bereaved person begins to feel the pain of loss. In the movie, the young hoodlum eventually goes along with Tandy's character, pretending to be her son and visiting her in the hospital. At that moment, she realizes that her son is really dead and begins to cry.

     As I said before, this kind of denial is rare, so you may be wondering why I included it. I feel it is extremely important, because you may deny the loss subconsciously even though you are consciously seem to accept it. It takes much longer for the subconscious to accept the message of loss. However, just as Jessica Tandy does in the film, eventually the reality of loss sinks in. Often, an intense dream marks the occasion.

Interference in stage: Trauma

Movie: "Ordinary People"

What to watch for:

     a) the impact of the trauma and how it prevents the main character from grieving fully
     b) how the surviving sibling is convinced that he is the one who should have died

     In this movie, a wealthy family loses their "perfect", favorite son, and are stuck with Conrad, their remaining son (Timothy Hutton). Conrad cannot get over it, because he has repressed an important part of what happened. Repression is a defense mechanism that takes place automatically to protect us from information that is simply too difficult to accept, often associated with a life-threatening event.

     Conrad sees a therapist (Judd Hirsch) who helps him relive the tragic event. Then Conrad realizes that his brother could have saved himself if he had wanted to. He was furious with his brother for not trying to save himself and turned that anger against himself.

     Both of the movies "Ray" and "Walk the Line" tell similar stories of repression of trauma, and healing that takes places once it has been made conscious. > Stage: Feeling the Pain:       Movie: "Star Trek Generations"

What to watch for:
      a) the bereaved comforts the comforter,
      b) how pain is associated with the meaning of the loss
      c) how pain is associated with the bereaved person's perception
      of the deceased person's life fulfillment.

      The film begins with the captain of the Enterprise learning of the death of his brother and nephew back in France on planet Earth. The ship's counselor, Troy, comes to his office to find out what is wrong. Captain Picard informs her of the death, becoming emotional as he does so. She responds appropriately, but Picard immediately begins to comfort her. Now wait a minute--he is the one who had the loss, and he is comforting her? What's going on here?

      Unfortunately, this little vignette is all too true. In spite of the fact that his closest relatives have just died in a fire, the captain is, in effect, apologizing for having upset her. Clearly, this was as much a social gaffe in the 41st century as it is in the 21st century back here on Earth. No wonder humans go into hiding with their grief!

      The pain of loss varies according to many different factors, and one of these is the meaning of the loss. Captain Picard begins to talk about his relationship with his brother and nephew and talk about the meaning of the loss. Part of the meaning is in "the family name." Now the responsibility for carrying on the family name lies with him, Captain Picard. He had always depended on his nephew to carry on the name, which allowed the Captain to continue his work in outer space.

      Another factor that influences the intensity of grief is the bereaved individual's perception of the deceased person's fulfillment in life. Because his nephew was just on the verge of living, this is particularly painful--he had not lived a full life.

Stage--Protest and Anger      Movie: "Steel Magnolias"

What to watch for: Sally Field's anger and protest after the funeral.

      Sally Field plays the mother of a diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts), who dies in a coma, leaving a husband and toddler son. She shows how difficult it is to express anger when there is no immediate target. One of her friends suggests that she hit someone.

      This movie shows a healthy grieving process, where the bereaved is supported by friends throughout. As a result, life goes on, at least for the main characters. Typically, little is shown about the siblings' experience.

Stage: Relinquish Old Attachments
Movies: "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Always"

      Some people think that "relinquishing an attachment" to a dead person means that you don't love them any more. Although we let go of the deceased loved one in some ways, we still remember them and still love them. In the following movies, a dead person prevents the main character from moving fully into life, but in totally different ways.

What to watch for: attachment to the dead in the dancing scene

           In the movie, "Always" (starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman), the character Pete, a pilot for the forest fire service, dies in a mid-air explosion. After death, he is given an opportunity to visit his girlfriend, Dorinda, in order to tie up loose ends.

      Dorinda is aware of Pete's presence, and the scene of them dancing together shows the strength of her attachment to his physical being, which continues after death. At this point in the story, her attachment prevents her from moving on with life. Later, when Dorinda recklessly flies off to rescue six firefighters who are trapped on the ground, her plane crashes into a lake, and the dead Pete intervenes to save her from drowning. She is at a different point in her healing now and she "chooses" life over death and lets go of the physical being of Pete. The movie does a good job of showing how the attachment to the physical being of the person weakens and finally is broken.

      At this point, many bereaved siblings tell me that they feel a burden is lifted, and that their sibling now lives within them, or that they have an ongoing spiritual sense of connection to their sibling. Instead of being spiritually buried themselves with their dead sibling, the dead sibling now moves into life with them. Many bereaved siblings have told me that it feels as if their brother or sister is with them all the time. Far from being a ghostly experience, this feels like a positive resolution of their grief.

"Like Water for Chocolate"

What to watch for: How Tita separates from her dead mother.

      In this charming tale, which takes place in the early years of the twentieth century, on a small ranch in Mexico, we learn about three sisters and their repressive mother. Tita (played by Lumi Cavazos) is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena so she is forbidden to marry or have children until after her mother's death--the family tradition demanded that she take care of her mother instead. Tita is agreeable to this situation until she falls in love with Pedro (Marco Leonardi). When Pedro learns that he cannot marry Tita, he agrees to an engagement with her older sister, in the hope that by marrying her, he will have ample opportunities to spend with his real love.

      Mama Elena spends a great deal of energy in keeping Tita and Pedro away from each other. Eventually, the mother dies, but Tita is still haunted by her. Even though her mother is dead, her mother's ghost watches Tita and judges her harshly. At first, this makes Tita feel guilty and terrible. But, after a time, she takes a stand against the ghost and the ghost disappears. This demonstrates the power that the dead can have over the living until the living person becomes strong enough to overcome it.

Stage: Re-invest in Life       Movie: "Forrest Gump"

What to watch for:
How Forrest's pain of loss does not prevent him from continuing to love.

      If you haven't seen this film, you've missed a lot! Tom Hanks plays the sweet, slow-witted character of Forrest Gump. The movie begins with him sitting on a bench at a bus stop telling his story to the others waiting for a bus.

      We learn that while Forrest is having many experiences, such as fighting in Vietnam, his childhood friend has followed a different path, which includes drugs and unprotected sex. At some point Forrest re-connects with her briefly, they make love, and, unknown to him, she has a baby, who she calls "Forrest". When she gets a disease (they don't say, but it's probably AIDS), she asks Forrest to take care of her and the baby. They marry and eventually she dies.

      The movie ends with Forrest taking his son to the bus stop to wait for the school bus. The bus arrives and his son gets on it, leaving Forrest to wait for him. Once again, he is sitting on a bench at a bus stop. The story has come full circle. He has re-invested in life by going on with life, and letting himself love his son.

     The roots of psychotherapy lie in the classic Greek tragedies. People watched the plays and cried their hearts out. This provided "catharsis" or the releasing of pent up emotion. Movies can provide the same function now. They help us release emotion, but also help us cognitively, to understand the process of grief.

     For further information, email the Sibling Connection .

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