Despite a few flaws, “Rabbit Hole”, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, provides an excellent portrayal of grief. The stars’ characters, Leah and Howie, play a married couple who lost their 4-year old son to a car accident eight months prior. All of the emotions of grief — shock, sadness, anger, guilt/blame, regret — are enacted by the main characters, as well as by Leah’s mother (Dianne Wiest), and the teenage boy who caused the accident, swerving to avoid the family’s dog, and killing Leah and Howie’s son, who ran into the road after the dog.
Leah and Howie assiduously try not to blame each other for the accident. Instead, and as a result, they each blame themselves. At the same time, they both know realistically that they are not to blame –but heart and head are simply not the same. Themes of life’s constant moment-by-moment changes run through the movie, and a scene of Leah planting flowers, and a neighbor accidentally stepping on one, breaking it in two poignantly shows how fragile and ephemeral life is. Yet, we hold on to the hope that nothing dies. Certainly a four-year old boy should not die.
Change is part of the grief process too. Grief changes us. We are never the same after a major loss. In fact, part of the process of grief is to find one’s “new normal.” Conversely, as we change, our grief changes. As Leah’s mother eloquently describes it, grief is like a brick in one’s pocket — we always feel it, but over time it feels less heavy. After some time, we can actually forget that it’s there sometimes, but memories come back, and we feel the brick again.
Leah and Howie struggle to make sense of their loss. Sense-making is one of the paramount parts of the grief process. They join a support group of grieving parents, who all strive to make sense of their tragic losses. Some turn to God in trying to make sense of the process, saying “it must have been God’s will.” This statement infuriates Leah. It is too bad (one of the movie’s flaws) that there was not an experienced grief counselor facilitating the group to validate both responses and work with Leah’s rage at God. Howie thinks of starting an intimate relationship with another grieving parent as a way to cope with his loss. This demonstrates how grief changes a marriage. A family is a system, and the couple in a marriage is a system within that system. A system is like a mobile, always trying to create equilibrium. When an integral piece of the mobile/system is removed — here, Howie and Leah’s beloved son — the mobile/system sways wildly, trying to create a new equilibrium. “Rabbit Hole” is about the process of finding a new equilibrium, a new normal, in the marriage of Leah and Howie. The work of a grief therapist entails helping members of a family to create their own unique and healthy equilibrium, make sense of their loss, and find a new way of being in the world, transforming loss into healing and growth.