A Pastoral Reflection on Children’s Grief and Two Movie Reviews

A conversation…

Years ago I was asked by a parishioner to “talk” with her 4 year old granddaughter about her mother’s late-term miscarriage.  “Why does God need my baby brother?” asked Mary (not her real name), a shy, quiet, precocious child who liked to sit on the very edge of the chancel steps whenever I shared a moment with children during our Sunday morning worship service.  Taken aback with her question, Mary peppered me with another, “Why does God need another angel in heaven?” How many times I’d heard well-meaning people grabbing the hands of mourners  and comforting them with the quiet assertion that “God called so-and-so home because he needed another angel.” Only once in my ministry did I ever hear someone deep in the throes of grief question that statement. The father of a teenager who had committed suicide asked the woman who whispered this platitude, “Why? If God is so powerful and can do anything, then why did he need another angel?” 

There are comments we tell those struggling with loss that make no sense to them or us. I did not have an answer for Mary, but I knew she loved to color, so I invited her to find a pillow and come sit with me around my coffee table and color pictures. Years earlier, a skilled, creative spiritual director, Eileen Chwalibog, suggested that art has the power to open hearts in ways that speech cannot. She had a group of reluctant adults select cardboard cake rounds and, using construction paper, ribbon, glitter, glue, pictures and words from magazines, make collages that we would use to tell others in the group about ourselves. I hoped coloring pictures would open Mary’s confused, grief-filled heart in a way my words could not. 

While Mary debated which pillow to choose – the pink furry cat face or the black-and-white striped zebra face –  I pulled out my plastic bin of craft supplies. Mary immeditely grabbed the scissors and announced that her mother NEVER let her use scissors in the house. She then reached for the glitter, which I learned her mother also never let her use in the house, magic markers, also forbidden, construction paper, not in her house!, a cake round, stickers, and back issues of Highlights, Ranger Rick, and Family Circle magazines. I did the same and we spent a half hour talking and decorating our cake rounds with mounds of glue and glitter, pictures we cut out of magazines, and little pieces of construction paper which Mary covered with heart stickers.

Without a scintilla of space left to decorate, Mary lifted her cake round and told me that she finished “that thing that makes cars go.” “Oh! You mean the wheel,” I said, “Like the wheels on the bus that go round and round.” Her eyes lit up and she began singing the childhood classic, “The Wheels On the Bus”.  I joined her and soon lost track of all the verses we sang together. “Where are we going on this bus?” I finally asked as she launched into yet another verse I had never heard. Mary gave me that withering look that children do when they think the answer is obvious. “Heaven, she answered. “We’re going on a bus to heaven to see my brother.”

I share this story about a pastoral conversation that did not go as planned knowing how difficult it is to be present and attentive to children and teenagers dealing with the grief of profound loss. As spiritual directors, pastors, therapists, counselors, and caring adults, how do we listen to young people whose lives are forever turned upside down?  I offer reviews of two films that deal with children and death and encourage your viewing and prayerful reflection when walking with young people through the valley of the shadow of death. A word of advice…keep a box of tissues handy. As one grieving child said in the documentary, Beautiful Something Left Behind “Crying is my superpower.” May it be ours as well.   

 Ponette by Jacques Doillon

This French film is a jewel of intimate drama that stops you in your tracks and leaves you marveling at the magnificence of the human soul. Four-year-old Ponette played by the four year old actress, Victoire Thivisol, gives a luminous performance as a survivor of an automobile accident in which her mother is killed. Her father, who is devastated by the tragedy, accuses his dead wife of “being stupid”. He cannot fathom her decision to drive fast and unseatbelted with their daughter.  Ponette defends her mother and then turns to comfort her father. “I’ll make us feel better,” she promises. The father continues to spiral with grief, and he goes away on business leaving Ponette with relatives, an aunt and uncle and two young cousins. Her well-meaning aunt tells the little girl that her mother is with Jesus who rose from the dead. She uses all the appropriate theological words to describe resurrection, and we viewers watch the grief-stricken eyes of the little girl as she struggles to make sense of her aunt’s words. Ponette then turns to her young cousins for comfort, one of whom tells her, “The dead don’t come back to life.” Over the course of a season, Ponette, loyal to her mother’s memory, tries to bring her back with presents, prayers, and magic words. In a heartbreaking scene, her impatient, atheistic father assures Ponette that “God is for the dead and not for us.”

Ponette remains hopeful that she will find a way to convince God to let her talk to her mother. At a summer camp, Ponette meets a Jewish girl who puts her through a series of tests in order to prove herself to God and win his favor. The worst news comes from an unkind boy who tells her that she killed her mother by being a bad girl. Fortunately, her cousins and a sympathetic teacher remind her that she is loved. Even so, Ponette clings to her belief that somehow she will see her mother again, and we witness the growing pain of a child aching for God to hear her prayers.

Writer and director Jacques Doillon has created a masterful study of childhood grief and the ways in which a sensitive and imaginative little girl tries to handle her deep feelings of loss. In the end, it is her own unique brand of faith that helps Ponette pull through this period of mourning. We viewers are challenged to make sense of  a tender closing scene that includes a rmomentary precious reuniting of a mother and her bereft child. This scene has been deeply criticized, but I believe that Doillon invites us to confront our own self-assurances about death and resurrection.  Do we really understand how a merciful God responds to the depths of a little child’s longing for relationship with God and a beloved parent?  

For those who are privileged to sit with a grieving child, the film reveals how important it is for adults to watch what they say and do in the presence of little ones because everything has significance to them. Meaning will be attached by grieving children to that which is left spoken and unspoken by adults. Ponette honors the harrowing spiritual path to resiliency grieving children reluctantly undertake, and in doing so, invites us viewers to eexamine our own spiritual paths.

Beautiful Something Left Behind by Katrine Philp

This emotionally stunning documentary follows six children as they participate in a year of group bereavement counseling through a New Jersey program called Good Grief. At their sessions, skilled grief counselors tackle mortality without timidity or tentativeness, prompting children and teenagers not only to identify their raw emotions but also to share about seeing their lost loved ones’ bodies after death. Though Good Grief’s activities can sometimes seem morbid—a grieving brother and sister play at a sand table with a toy headstone—they also present death far more directly than children can outside the Good Grief House. We watch the faces of children who are not allowed to use the word “died” at home, children who all agree that their classmates treat them differently now, children who are unsure what to say. And when new children dealing with their losses join this sympathetic community, they are welcomed by their peers with an understanding embrace that they would never find anywhere else.

Like Ponette, the documentary wisely foregrounds the voices of the children. While we viewers hear from their families and grief counselors, the adults never speak directly to the camera, and Philp only shows them as they strive and sometimes struggle to communicate about loss with the children in their care.  At times it is painful to watch these loving adults, themselves caught in their own sorrows, fumble with their children’s pain. Philp conducts interviews with six children, allowing each one to share the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. So we listen as siblings Kimmy and Nicky animatedly trade lines in their narrative, an act of shared storytelling that seems to comfort them while allowing them to take ownership of events they do not fully understand.

At times, Philp’s eager search for symbolism undermines the documentary’s honest portrayal of these children’s lives. Six-year-old Peter, who lost his mother in a car accident, is shown playing with a toy car and crashing it, and after the boy has moved on to his next activity, the camera closes in on a shot of the upside-down toy. In some ways, Beautiful Something Left Behind is prone to “over-explaining” events for viewers, zooming into objects like the overturned car and milking them for psychological meaning, rather than showing us the children as they build lives beyond loss. The documentary does not have to do any work to convincingly demonstrate that each child’s life is irrevocably touched, in countless ways, by parental loss.

As one dealing with children and their losses, I appreciated how the documentary shows how adults, struggling through their own sadness, try to share grief with their children. Peter and his Uncle CJ release a pair of balloons, one for each of Peter’s parents, so they can fly to heaven together. When the balloons’ paths diverge, Peter’s uncle quickly offers an explanation that “Daddy might know a shortcut to beat Mommy there.” A few minutes later, Peter repeats his words, “Daddy took a shortcut.”  We viewers see how the ritual of the diverging balloons is now fully integrated into a child’s understanding of the afterlife. The Good Grief program, with its repeated use of the ritual of lighting candles and releasing paper lanterns with messages inside for the deceased, reveals another path for healing. As someone working with grieving children, I found this emphasis on developing meaningful rituals especially helpful and insightful.   

It is not until the final moving montage that Beautiful Something Left Behind shows the children and their families apart from their grief, as they laugh, play soccer, and romp outdoors together. In doing so, Philp invites us to consider the possibility of life beyond loss, or rather, life alongside it.  As viewers we are deeply moved as the children come to recognize the limitations of the adults in their lives to help them process grief.  “I don’t really understand why people come in my room and ask if I’m okay,” one child tells his group at Good Grief. “I always say I’m fine. What would they do if I said no?” Neither the documentary maker nor the grief counselors suggest that there is a right answer to that question. But Philp’s documentary, taking its cue from Good Grief, humbly argues for a clear-eyed frankness in talking to bereaved children about loss, acknowledging that they, after all, are now unwilling experts in grappling with grief.

An unplanned ending

At her grandmother’s urging, I met with Mary several times over a course of months to “talk” with her about her mother’s miscarriage. In our time together she never asked me questions about God’s actions or inactions, and she never wanted to know where her brother was. Our last meeting, Mary walked into my office clutching her dog-eared cake round. She grabbed the furry pink cat face pillow from my couch, plopped it on the floor in front of the coffee table, and pulled four unlit striped birthday candles from the pocket of her jeans. “I took them out of Mommy’s junk drawer,” she explained. Thinking we were going to have a pretend birthday party, I brought out a brand-new can of green Play-doh from my plastic bin of craft supplies, opened it, and handed the squishy contents to Mary. She promptly made a lop-sided cupcake and pressed the four candles into it. “Light them!” she commanded.  While I fiddled with an ornery lighter, Mary picked up her cake round and began singing in her high-pitched little girl’s voice, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” I interrupted, “Where are we going?” Out of the corner of her eye she gave me a quick look followed by a big smile. “Heaven, silly,” she giggled. “We’re going to heaven to see my brother. It’s his birthday.” 

Rev. Dr. Rindy Trouteaud, retired Presbyterian Pastor and author of the weekly blog, Epilogue: for those seeking new chapters. If you would like to receive her blog, contact her at:  rindy@trouteaud.com.