REVIEW: An Elephant in the Room (SXSW 2020)
Death isn’t an easy thing to process, even under the best of circumstances, when it comes peacefully and entirely expected. It’s hard enough for adults to come to grips with the loss of a loved one, but it’s almost unimaginable for a child to deal with, so uniquely vulnerable and still learning how to identify complex emotions. The mere concept that someone could be with us one day, eating, talking, and laughing, and then gone forever the next is simply too big of an idea.
An Elephant in the Room focuses on Good Grief, a bereavement therapy program in New Jersey that specializes in helping children through the death of a parent or sibling. A huge part of their work is simply helping kids to name their own emotions, and to deal with them in a healthy way. An Elephant in the Room does a really good job of maintaining its focus on the experiences of the children. Although we see them interact with their parents and caregivers, the film doesn’t feature interviews with adults communicating with us about the losses experienced by the children. Instead, it has the patience and empathy to allow the children to speak for themselves, to take ownership over their own grief. It’s heartbreaking to listen to very young children discuss their parents’ death in a straightforward manner and with limited emotional vocabulary. But it’s also incredibly moving to watch the seemingly endless capacity for tiny humans to adapt to difficult situations and thrive despite adversity.
And this is where we see the tremendous good that this program does for the children who are enrolled. It provides them with a space to talk about their loved one among other kids who can understand what they’re going through. It breaks down grief into identifiable emotions, so that the children know that it’s OK to feel angry or sad or scared, and how to cope with those feelings. They do activities that allow them to keep the memory of their loved one alive, by making stuffed animals out of their old t-shirts, or releasing paper lanterns into the night sky, or writing notes for their parents. And slowly, they heal.
What’s especially interesting about An Elephant in the Room is how much it flies in the face of a commonly held instinct to protect children from the concept of death. We often futilely strive to hide the darker realities of life from children, believing them incapable of understanding them. When really, the lack of coping abilities in the face of grief is a direct result of the unwillingness of adults to address death and loss and a multitude of other hardships children will be forced to confront at one point or another. The work Good Grief does shows that not only are children capable of being spoken frankly to about death, but that therapy surrounding grief is the healthiest way for children who have experienced loss to make their way through it. These kids already know what death is; they’re well acquainted with the subject. So instead of attempting to shield them, Good Grief gives them the tools to process the trauma of losing a loved one.
An Elephant in the Room gives the kids so much space to express themselves in different ways, but it’s fascinating to watch the group sessions when they’re able to interact with other kids who can relate to them. They have so many shared experiences of trying to navigate talking to their friends about death when they’re really not sure what to say, of getting angry and hurt when people at their school bring up things that they did over the weekend with their father, as though they’re trying to rub in the fact that they have a dad. Here it’s clearest of all how valuable this program is for the kids. They can talk to a therapist anywhere, but at Good Grief they are able to make connections with other kids who know what they’re going through, and understand the emotions they’re not always able to put into words.
An Elephant in the Room is an incredibly powerful film, but it never comes across as emotionally manipulative. There are no manufactured moments of intense grief, just the day-to-day activities of parents, caregivers, and children doing their best to move on from the trauma they’ve experienced. Because of this, it feels grounded yet ultimately hopeful and uplifting; that with love and communication and understanding, even young, vulnerable children who have faced unimaginable losses can learn to co-exist with their grief and find peace.
Directed by: Katrine Philp
At Good Grief groups, children meet to understand the passing of a parent or a sibling through play, giving in to rage in ‘the volcano room’ and saying goodbye to a dying teddy bear patient in ‘the hospital room’. Over the course of a year, we follow the weekly meetings and get close to Kimmy, Nicky, Peter, Nora, Nolan and Mikayla and their close companion: grief. It is sometimes heartbreaking, but also humorous, to experience the questions about life and death through their open and curious minds. Grief is high and heavy as a mountain, but it helps you understand what has happened, and that death is irreversible.