Not Such Ordinary People
Updated: Jan 11
I loved "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the lovely Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." How could you not love Mary? They were both funny and lovable characters who let females know it's OK to be quirky and funny. But then I saw her in "Ordinary People" and all of a sudden...I didn't like Mary! "Shame on you!" you might be thinking. How could anyone not like Mary? The problem for me was seeing the cute, sassy Mary Richards turn into the cold Beth Jarrett. I was not prepared to recognize this standoffish character nor our beloved Mary portraying her.
The issue was, I was 13 years old when I first watched "Ordinary People." The movie surrounds the sudden death of the elder son, Jordan ("Buck") in the Jarrett family. He was in a boating accident with his younger brother, Conrad who later attempts suicide. The movie is through Conrad's eyes and the impact that grief has on his life as an individual as well as his relationship with his parents. Moore's character, Beth, appears to politely hate her surviving son. In my eyes, this character was a horrible woman. How could any parent treat their child with such disdain? It wasn't until I watched the movie again as an adult in graduate school that I realized I was completely wrong about this character. She was a woman dying inside.
When I first began working with bereaved families, my biggest fear was counseling bereaved parents. It is the one death that just seemed impossible from which to recover. How does a parent bury a child? No matter what the age of the child. The child is a part of you forever. The popular notion is that the parent would cry and feel sad forever. But Beth Jarrett showed an icy, cold mother who did not want to be around the surviving son. But why? Why would a mother not feel so grateful for having her surviving son with her? Why would she basically shun this boy and skip out on her husband at the end? Why? Well, to answer that question, we need to ask ourselves an important question: Why aren't we educating our children about the concept of death and dying?
Beth was faced with the nightmare that she would never see her son again. With no preparation, she was forced to bury a boy with whom she seemingly had a perfect relationship. Without teaching children as they grow to grieve a death, children will grow up and experience death at various times in their lives. We prepare children for kindergarten and dating and marriage and becoming parents and for a whole litany of other milestones. But we don't prepare them for death. Our culture turns a blind eye and we tell each other, it's "too sad" to bring a child to a funeral. We use euphemisms like "passed away" or "gone to a better place." But in the end, we are cheating our children by not showing them the "how's" and the "why's" of death. We expect them to learn through osmosis and when that moment comes along for that child, they have nothing to fall back on. No one showed them the toolbox that they will need to cope with death. The toolbox we can help them fill with different coping skills. We don't explain death properly to children and, therefore, they can't name their emotions.
Beth was paralyzed by her son's death. No one taught her with life, comes death. There is no handbook that she could read that would explain to her how she will feel after her child's death. Nor the stages of grief one experiences. No one explained to her that she had every right to feel everything from rage to depression to helplessness and everything in between. No one told her that it's OK to have those moments of feeling like you're dying inside and not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. No one told her that as much as people will judge how you appear to be coping, only you can tell them how you truly feel. Only you can name those emotions for yourself and others so they can understand that it's the grief talking.
I see Beth Jarrett in such a different light now. I only hope that one day, we can have that honest and open conversation with our children so they can have a toolbox to help them through those times of grief and not be so misunderstood by those who just don't get it.