GRAVITY: Grief Metaphor Disguised as Hollywood Star Vehicle – PG-13

As an actor, screenwriter and all around movie fan I was drawn to the film GRAVITY by the promise of seeing another wonderful performance by one of my favorite actresses Sandra Bullock, and what appeared to be, at least from the coming attractions, another visually stunning film by director Alfonso Cuarón. Both of those promises did not fail to be fulfilled. But what I did not know, and did not expect was to be taken on an emotional ride which in it’s entirety is a metaphor for surviving grief over the death of a child and finding a way back to living life.

            The story is a very basic tale of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who are on a relatively routine mission in the space shuttle, when a completely unforeseen catastrophe occurs, thrusting them into an improbable scramble for survival. On the surface a very seemingly standard action picture, but the film quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. As the two embark on their journey for survival we learn that Ryan Stone (Bullock) has no family back home. The only family she once had was a four-year-old daughter who fell while playing tag at school, hit her head and died. At this point the movie changed for me. In 2009 my ten-year-old son fell at football practice, and even though he was wearing the best protection money could buy, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and was gone from our live in under an hour. Much like the catastrophic accident that occurs to the safe haven of the space shuttle in the film, our “safe lives” were torn asunder and we were cast into open space with no seeming lifeline to protect us. Stone and Kowalski (Clooney) are thrown into the same metaphoric situation in space. Stone initially seems destined for deep space, a direct metaphor for the lost and helpless feeling a parent suffers when a child dies. Against all reason Kowalski somehow finds her, and begins to drag her back to the safety of the space shuttle.

            But much like a grieving parent or sibling that has had their world turned upside down by a sudden death, the safety of home, or the space shuttle, is no longer viable. Instead it has been decimated and left in pieces, unable to provide the safety and comfort required. So the two astronauts are left to attempt to reach another place of safety. Much like a therapist who has maneuvered others through grief in the past, the more experienced Kowalski leads Bullock on to a place where they can find safe haven. But much like the road many of us travel in our grieving process, the destination is not what it appears to be, and it creates more dangers and pitfalls than it solves.

            As I grieved the death of my son, for the first two years every time I felt I had reached a place of understanding and security, my world would be turned upside down by a song, or a well-meaning friend’s careless words. That feeling of stability was always just out of reach, and much like those that attempt to lead us through our grief to a place of comfort and light, Stone loses Kowalski just when she needs him most. She is left to deal with saving herself alone. Just as, ultimately, all who suffer in grief are left to come to grips with their losses by themselves. We can seek all the guidance and support from many people, and it can help us see the things grief has blinded us from seeing, but in the end, if we are to find a place where we can continue life from, we must find it for ourselves. None of us goes through grief the same way, and no one has “the Answers,” we must come to terms with our pain ourselves.

            Struggling in the void of space, Bullock’s Stone improvises and strives ever forward to reach a place of safety. Eventually she reaches a place where seemingly there are no more roads to travel, and her journey is at an end. It is in this place, as she gives in to the impending end, that the words of the departed Kowalski return to her and she finds the strength and courage to move ahead. She finds one last moment of clarity that calls on her experience, knowledge and not surprisingly her failures, to find wisdom she was unaware she even possessed, to drive her forward and perhaps most importantly, find her will to not simply survive, but to live again. She let’s go of her fear, and comes to terms with the loss of her daughter years before which she had never fully dealt with. And while recognizing the loss, moves forward.

            This mirrored my own experiences coming out of my nightmare of grief very acutely. It dawned on me that everything I had spent my life learning could be used to begin a drive forward anew. It gave me a new direction to not only heal, but to thrive and in turn help others.

The final scene of the film is again just one big visual metaphor; a rebirth and a coming back to life through the water, and a shedding of cumbersome and heavy hindrances and a coming to shore, with acknowledgement of where she has been, and gratification for her own survival.

I’m sure that many who have never had the misfortune of traveling the dark
road that envelopes us after the loss of a child will simply love this film for it’s brilliant acting, compelling tale of survival, and it’s state of the art, beautiful and stunning visuals. In those regards it is a masterpiece. But for those of us who have traveled the same road Sandra Bullock’s character has, the film has another level that resonates and brought me to tears during the film, not only for the main character’s journey, but for my own journey of survival as well.

Article Images

About the Author
Bart Sumner's book, HEALING IMPROV: A JOURNEY THOUGH GRIEF TO LAUGHTER is available in the Grief Toolbox Marketplace. He is the founder & President of HEALING IMPROV, a nonprofit charity in Grand Rapids, Michigan that provides no cost Comedy Improv Grief Workshops to people struggling with finding the road forward. He lost his 10 y/o son David in 2009 to a sudden accident. He is an actor and writer who writes the blog MY STORIES FROM THE GRIEF JOURNEY at the website for
Grief In Action