On a recent flight, I re-watched About Schmidt. I had remembered it being a movie about grief, brilliantly acted by Jack Nicholson. (Honestly, when is Nicholson NOT brilliant??). Given that my memory is terrible about most things, I had completely forgotten the real point of this movie. I bring it up today because I think what it teaches might resonate with some of my clients.
Essentially, the movie is about Warren Schmidt a gray (inside and out) recently retired man, married to a woman he no longer loves. They are about to embark on an RV trip and he is less than enthused. When she dies suddenly, he discovers things about her and about himself. He drives that RV to his daughter’s wedding and tries to stop it. He doesn’t. But he gives the “right” speech at her wedding and in one scene it’s clear he’s never felt so alone.
Throughout the film, Warren Schmidt writes to an African child he has “adopted” and those letters are how we know what is going on inside his head. At the end, he realizes that his life has not mattered, that he hasn’t made one bit of difference – professionally or personally – in anyone’s life…with the possible exception of this little boy.
That’s it. That’s the film. Simple. Brilliant. Devastating. So why am I bringing it up? Because it is natural when someone is grieving – or facing their own terminality – to do a life review and the main question is always “has my life mattered?”. “Have I made a difference in any way to any one?”
I just watched another film about grief: Everybody’s Fine (2009) with Robert De Niro (another brilliant actor). In this film, there are some similarities (his wife is dead, he had little to do with his children, he is retired), but how he handles it is completely different. He realizes that he is not connected to his four children (after they all cancel a planned gathering at his house) so he makes a cross-country trip to visit all four of them and try to get them to come home for Christmas. He actively seeks to reconcile to them, to form a relationship with them – an open and honest relationship with them.
I won’t give away too many spoilers because I think the film is worth seeing, but my point is that while a griever is engaging in life review, while questioning the value of one’s own life, it is never never too late to make things better. It may not take a cross-country trip to four different states to make amends. It could be as simple as a phone call or a letter (yes, people still write letters!).
It isn’t clear what happens to Warren Schmidt after the movie is over, but that leaves room for me to form my own ending. I’d like to believe that he began making a difference in some way. Maybe he took a trip to Africa to meet his “adopted” son. Maybe he started to send more money over there to make a difference in more children’s lives. Maybe he looked around his own community for ways to help. Maybe he started to call his daughter regularly and formed a close, loving, supportive relationship with her…and any grandchildren that came along.
As long as you have breathe, you have an opportunity to make a difference, to matter.
If you’ve seen either of these movies, I invite you to leave a comment about your impressions…or email me privately to comment or make an appointment.
Copyright 2014 Lisa B. Wolfe, Translating Grief, LLC