One of the most horrifying moments in The Nightingale is when a young Irish woman (Aisling Franciosi) is raped by several men, who then murder her husband (Michael Sheasby) and infant right in front of her. It’s a brutal scene and grips audiences with rage and an overwhelming agony — feelings all too familiar in today’s news cycle.
From the abortion bans to the mass shootings to the sudden deaths of beloved celebrities, it seems like we are in a perpetual state of mourning. We share the traumatic news on social media, which only ensures that we are all equally paralysed by it. Though platforms like Twitter and Facebook have given us spaces to collectively discuss our morose mood, we’ve done ourselves a disservice by not allowing ourselves to process our grief, several mental health professionals told HuffPost.
“Nobody’s talking about that side of it,” said psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, owner of Anchor Therapy in New Jersey. “It’s all, ‘Oh, my God, Donald Trump just said this,’ or, ‘He’s putting children in [cages] and no one’s helping’. No one’s saying, ‘Let me take a minute to process this and see how this emotionally affects me and my life’.”
Though some films, like The Nightingale, offer support for their actors by having a psychologist on set while shooting traumatising scenes, audiences remain susceptible to the dismaying images. That’s why therapists like Glashow, who treat many clients dealing with triggers of grief and trauma, point to recent films that have shown characters actually navigating the impact of grief such as The Nightingale, Someone Great, Midsommar, The Farewell and others.
Some of these narratives warn us of the damaging toll grief can take on our mental health. Others remind us how compassion is crucial in a world that seems devoid of it. At their best, these films — transcendent of race, age, culture and genre — help crystalise grief so we can be proactive about our own.
Though on the surface it looks like a standard comedy, Someone Great offers an image of each stage of grief as it follows a journalist (Gina Rodriguez) who hits the town with her friends after her longtime boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) ends their relationship.
“She’s so upset and gets drunk, then she remembers something good [about their relationship] and wants to get back with him,” Glashow said. “This makes audiences experiencing their own loss feel validated.”
That familiarity with Rodriguez’s character can help viewers discern their own experience as a loss and encourage them to seek a support system — even if it’s not professional therapy. “Empathy is a huge thing for someone going through grief,” Glashow said.
But not everyone has someone with whom they can share their pain. This lack of support is an impetus for the action in Midsommar, where the protagonist (Florence Pugh) allows a cult to murder her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) after he doesn’t show her the level of empathy she desperately needs after her mentally ill sister kills their parents and then herself.
Obviously, this horror film is a heightened version of what can happen when grief isn’t treated properly, especially in today’s rage culture that can be very accusatory. But its climax still highlights a core problem.
“That just shows that when you go through something traumatic, you always look for someone who can understand you or just be there with you,” Glashow said. “When someone doesn’t have that, the person grieving can get angry or go on a downward spiral, which is what happens in this movie.”
But watching films like Midsommar and The Nightingale, which follows Franciosi’s character on a quest for revenge, can exacerbate the grieving process.
“Although the filmmakers may intend this to be a revenge fantasy, my experience suggests that that doesn’t bring catharsis to people who are watching,” said Chicago psychologist John Duffy. “And it’s presumptuous to think that any of us would want to exact that type of revenge or that it would in some way assuage their grief.”
See You Yesterday, which confronts the epidemic murder of Black people by police and how that impacts surviving loved ones, promotes a healthy response to grief. In the movie, a Black teenage girl (Eden Duncan-Smith) invents a time machine to rewind the last 24 hours and prevent her brother’s killing at the hands of police.
“A Black teenager can watch this and talk to their family and friends about how this issue makes them feel,” said Kristen Wilkinson, a clinical psychologist at The Barrington Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy in Illinois. “For audiences who don’t identify with the main characters, this gives them the opportunity to say, ‘I didn’t think about that. That must be really scary.’ Being an advocate is incredibly important.”
Giving viewers the ability to sympathise also extends to the various ways one loss can impact multiple people. In The Farewell, an Asian family is grieving the impending death of their matriarch (Zhao Shuzhen) in very different ways. New York-based Billi (Awkwafina) grapples with suppressing her grief or confronting her family, which is planning a hoax wedding to say goodbye to their ailing loved one instead of telling her the truth.
“There are many cultural rituals across the globe that [highlight] how different people experience grief, loss and healing,” said Sherry Cormier, a licensed psychologist and certified bereavement trauma specialist. “I like the idea that grief is depicted in diverse ways so that people [understand] that if they grieve a certain way that’s different from others, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with it.”
As is the case with Billi, who comes to embrace how her family mourns, Cormier believes that grief can be transformative and inspire someone to change in a positive way. In Late Night, Emma Thompson plays a veteran late night talk show host struggling to come to terms with the fact that her dated comedy routines and habit of hiring only white male writers in a changing world have made her nearly obsolete and put her job in jeopardy.
“She is facing the loss of not being relevant anymore, which often comes with aging,” Cormier said. “But I loved that she isn’t the same woman by the end of the film, because the best way to heal is to understand what we’ve learned from loss. Eventually we change the way we view ourselves, our relationships with others, and most importantly our philosophy of life.”
Understanding grief’s positive life-changing effects, and how to navigate its dire impact, is critical to how we consider our mental health as we deliberate the daily onslaught of triggering headlines and our own experiences. Cinema this year has helped us become more fluent about grief, so that we can relate to each other more openly about our vulnerability.
“There are so many things happening in the world today that we really need to count on each other to find some healing,” Cormier said. “And we need our sensitivity to do that and promote social change.”