Whenever I have a client well-versed in scary movies, I like to bring up the movie "The Babadook". Warning! Some spoilers are coming...
In the movie The Babadook, a grief-stricken single mother and her attention-seeking son are haunted by a boogieman like monster called the Babadook. He is frightening, unpredictable, and most certainly unwelcome. He gains entry into the house when the young boy reads a book about him. After he enters, he terrorizes the mother and her son in very specific ways. Though the Babadook is very scary, there may be more to him than meets the eye.
A [very] brief synopsis
Whether you've seen the movie or not (it is definitely a scary one!), there is something to learn from this beast called the Babadook. In the story, the viewer comes to learn that the father passed away in a tragic accident just before the birth of their son. While there are many complicated nuances between the mother and son due to the timely death of his father (like the mother's resentment), the obvious monster is the Babadook.
The boy tries to welcome him in, only to find out that he is much more frightening than he could handle. The mother tries desperately to avoid it and attempts to completely erase it from their lives all together. But the Babadook grows seemingly stronger by this. The Babadook seems so powerful that it is turning the mother against the son! It appears that it has gained the control over her that it wanted. She continues to run from it, and it drives her mad. This progresses throughout the movie until she finally stands up (literally) to confront it with anger, frustration, confusion, and fury. The Babadook shrinks away and it looks like she has finally defeated this monster.
The following scenes show the near future, depicting the mother and her son who are happy and getting along (something that you do not see until this point). The colors are brighter, both mother and son look well rested, and there seems to be more love between them. But what happened to the Babadook? The final scene shows the mother descending into the basement where the Babadook is kept and contained. She feeds it some food, and then returns back upstairs. The end. What?! She kept it and let it stay in her house?!
The grief monster
I was so intrigued by this ending - it was so unexpected! Why would she want to keep this monster in her house?! The more I reflected on this movie, the more I began to draw connections between the Babadook and the monster of grief. The mother was stalked by a monster that she wanted nothing to do with. He appeared when she didn't invite him, he stayed when she demanded he leave, he grew stronger and scarier when she tried to avoid him. Did I mention that he sometimes appeared wearing her husbands old clothes?
Having lost my father at a young age, I can attest to the fact that sometimes grief uses these tactics. It is unwanted, frightening, and unpredictable. It is far too scary to confront, so we shove it aside and avoid it. It seems to grow stronger the longer we go without confronting it. It grows, and grows, and sharpens its fangs until it cannot be held back any longer. Then it attacks, leaving us face to face with monster that feels far too big to battle on our own. If you've lost someone you love, I'm sure you can relate to this feeling that the more you try to put it out of your mind, the harder it hits when you can't escape it any longer. It feels like it has total control of your life.
Avoiding grief is a very normal and reasonable response, especially for those of us living in a Western culture like the United States. "Out of sight, out of mind," "Be strong," "Big boys don't cry"... These cute and catchy phrases all point to how many of us have been taught deal with grief and other painful emotions. We put on a happy face, ignore the pain, and keep on keepin' on. But does that eliminate the grief and pain that needs to be addressed? Not necessarily.
Feeding the monster
After the initial confusion, I grew to love the final scene of the movie when she feeds the Babadook that lives in the basement. Throughout the movie, the Babadook ran free and had the power to do whatever it wanted. By the end of the movie, it was not defeated but it was contained and it was visited. Much like grief, avoiding it can give it the power to wreak havoc in your life. I don't believe you can fully eliminate grief... and more importantly, would you really want to? Yes, it is scary and uncomfortable. But what if you can get yourself to a place where you are in control of your grief? A place where you can confront it, contain it, visit it, and feed it. As frightening as it is, it holds many of the feelings and memories you held for someone you lost. It may be worth hanging onto. The key here is learning to be in control of it.
Re-membering and grief
As with many things in life, there is no 'one size fits all' approach to feeding the monster of grief. This is an opportunity for you to be creative and personal. I know many people who have referred to the seven stages of grief, attempting to speed up the process to finally 'get over' it. Well, I hate to break it to you but grief is here to stay. It is up to us how we want to feed it. It is our mission to take it from an overbearing monster, to something we can visit in our own time.
I once heard from a colleague that his father had passed in old age. His mother ashamedly told him that she continues to set the table for him and carry a conversation on with him while she eats dinner. She explained that she was embarrassed that she did this, but it really helped her. It not only helped her remember her husband, but re-member her husband.
Remembering is a word you are familiar with - calling upon memories. Re-membering is an idea that we have the ability to continue those who have passed to remain an active member in our lives. While a person may no longer be with us we still carry their wisdom, experiences, opinions, etc. These can live on through the process of re-membering and allowing these people to still have influence in our lives.
Stop running, and re-member
If you have been running from the grief monster, it may be time to slow down and consider feeding it. You can call upon your own love for a person who has passed or your community to think of meaningful ways to re-member this person. How can you allow their wisdom to shape you today? What would this person have to say about you? How can you allow someone to still be a member of your life, even though they are no longer here? Only you can answer these questions, and you may find that through re-membering you can control your monster.
*Re-membering is well-developed idea in the field of Narrative therapy. If you'd like to learn more, you can start here: http://www.rememberingpractices.com/