It is all one; therefore I say,
he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
* * *
If you would only keep silent,
that would be your wisdom!
Hear now my reasoning,
and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God,
and speak deceitfully for him?
Job 9:22-23 & 13:5-7
One of the most insidious things about grief is that it leads to such a feeling of isolation, even though everyone experiences it sooner or later. In director John Cameron Mitchell’s film, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, two mothers cannot comfort one another, even though one is the mother of the other. Both their beliefs and temperaments, as well as the circumstances of the deaths of their sons, are too different. The same goes for the husband.
Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman), dwellers in an Eden-like suburb, suddenly are plunged into the abyss of grief when their four-year-old son Danny is killed by a car while he is chasing his dog running into the street. Eight months have passed and the pain of his loss has not ebbed. The two attempt to deal with their pain in different ways. Becca wants to get rid of Danny’s toys and cannot understand why her husband has not removed the child’s seat from their car. Howie wants to cling to Danny’s things, especially the video of the boy stored on his cell phone. He is enraged when Becca accidentally erases it while trying to use the phone.
Right away when we see them at a group grief therapy session it is obvious that Howie has insisted in them participating. Becca cannot stand the inane comments of the other parents, responding acidly to one mother’s assertion about her own loss that God must have needed another angel, “Why didn’t he just make one? I mean, he’s God after all. Why didn’t he just make another angel?” Following the awkward silence, we see that this will be her last session, though Howie insists on going back, even if by himself.
Her mother Nat (Dianne Wies), despite the loss of an older son years earlier, has retained her faith, and when she suggests that Becca return to church, her daughter declines. Later the two get into a fierce argument over their respective losses, Becca shouting that the two losses are not comparable, hers being but a child and not a grown man when killed. Meanwhile Howie finds a small solace in another group member whose husband has also dropped out. Gaby (Sandra Oh) seeks escape in smoking pot and listening to a favorite rock song. Howie joins her, and… Becca also has issues with her younger sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) who is pregnant. How do you rejoice at a coming birth while awash in grief over the loss of your own?
Most surprising, perhaps, is Becca’s spotting a teenaged boy on a school bus and following to see where he gets off. I wondered at first if he looked like her son might have become had he lived beyond the age of four. Over the next few days she follows him, even into the library where he returns a book on quantum mechanics and parallel universes. Taking out the book herself, she eventually meets with him on a park bench, and… Becca and Howie’s lack of any kind of faith is no doubt a big part of their inability to “get over it” (more on this below), but when she snapped back at the silly statement about “God needing another angel” (I swear, I have heard people say that at funerals I’ve presided at!), I wanted to applaud her. Such lame attempts to explain the ways of God ought to be rejected, just as the suffering Job rejected the simplified “explanations” of his would-be comforters, eventually accusing them of speaking falsely for God. Becca’s mother is not much more help than Job’s comforters by suggesting that she start going to church again.
When Becca asks, “Does it ever go away?” , Nat replies “No, I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t – has gone on for eleven years. But it changes though.” She explains that it is like a brick that you carry around, and that it is what you have left of your son, which is “fine.” Not exactly “Peace I leave with, my peace I give to you,” revealing that her own faith is a somewhat weak and shallow little thing. Thus what the apostle Paul calls “the sting” of death remains deeply embedded in them both.
The boy whom she follows becomes the means for Becca finding a small measure of relief. Without revealing more about him, I will say that his name is Jason (Miles Teller), and the library book that both have read is part of his research for a graphic novel that he is creating. We see a hand drawing parts of the book all through the film, the brief shots being puzzling at first until Jason at last shows her his finished work, a tale about alternate or parallel universes accessed by going down connecting “rabbit holes.” The basic theory asserts that all things are possible and are unfolding in an infinite number of universes, and thus in many of them those ifs we torture ourselves with, “if only I had been watching and stopped Danny,” “if only the dog had not run away, but had been secured more tightly,” indeed, “if only we had never gotten the dog…” —all these have come about. Thus the belief, that this world in which she grieves is but one, and that in another Danny is growing to manhood, offers her the possibility of going on and not breaking under the heavy burden of grief.
This solution might not seem like much, but it at least does not make the God she cannot believe in into a monstrous child snatcher. The questions that grieving parents like Becca and Howie ask are ones that theologians usually admit are a part of the mystery of life. C.S. Lewis in his Problem of Pain approached death in an academic way, as the title itself suggests, and as he admitted in his later book A Grief Observed. When his beloved wife Joy succumbed to her cancer, grief was not a “problem” but an aching pain that tore at his heart night and day. Like Job, Lewis saw the mystery that is suffering and death as something more than our finite minds can explain. One of the group therapy persons spoke more wisely than even she knew when saying, “We can’t know why. Only God can know why.” When it comes out on DVD, Rabbit Hole can provide a good opportunity to explore loss and grief, and the role of faith in dealing with death.
Spoilers after the 4th question.
1. Describe how the following are dealing with their grief: Becca; Howie; Nat; Gaby.
Which parts seem unhealthy or possibly destructive? Which parts helpful?
2.How is the loss of a child far worse than a loss of a parent? (In the “order of things” who usually dies first?)
3. What similar “explanations” have you heard from people trying to cope with the loss of a child? How can this be counterproductive to a mourner, especially one who thinks? (What does Job suggest such folk should do?) What does this make you think about being so quick to speak at a funeral reception? (There is another good scene in Contact when, following the death of a father by heart attack, a well-meaning adult tries to comfort the young daughter with a thoughtless remark.)
4. How do you think our culture in general deals with death? Does it help us to accept, deny, or flee the thought of death? How might a funeral, especially a lavish one, become an attempt to cover up either death or the survivor’s guilt in regard to the deceased?
5. What are the guilt issues that Becca and Howie struggle with? Jason?
6. Think about (or discuss) the following observations from C.S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed:
a. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
b. “We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of curse it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
c. “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
7. In the face of a loved one’s death do you think you would be able to find solace in Psalms 40:1-3 and 37:7 8. Reflect upon/discuss two Spirituals that deal with trouble and death: “Lonesome Valley” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” How do they realistically deal with death and grief? According to the songs, what does the lonely/isolated person in each see Jesus as providing?