Grief and the Multiverse
Grief is a very complex and powerful experience. Anyone who has experienced significant loss will know what I mean by this. It’s something that takes hold and never really lets go though it does get alternately easy and difficult to deal with depending on an infinite number of factors. The best analogy I found to summarise this is the “ball in the box“. It clearly explains the experience in a way that is simple to understand and incredibly accurate. It doesn’t account for the fact that everyone deals with grief differently but that’s true of pretty much every emotional experience people might have.
This piece exists because I’m personally dealing with my own grief. Just over a year ago at the time of writing I lost my mother unexpectedly; in that time I’ve had good and bad stretches where I’m either coping well or barely coping at all. As the anniversary of the loss closed in and things really started to move towards a conclusion in dealing with the estate it became a lot harder to function effectively. Thoughts constantly drift back to the immediate aftermath of that phone call that would change me and my life forever and the associated emotions come with them. The feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and disbelief feel as fresh as they did back then and it’s hard to accept that I’ve made any real progress at all. Of course I have because I returned to work, re-established a routine and found a way to continue on despite this.
As with everything in my life, I retreat into science fiction because it allows me to escape my real life troubles and engage my imagination. This proved especially and unexpectedly relevant to this topic when completing a rewatch of Happy Death Day and its sequel Happy Death Day 2U. Both are films I greatly enjoy and I found myself watching a lot of time loop stories recently so they were a natural part of that. I was particularly drawn to a subplot in the film involving the lead character Teresa -or Tree- (Jessica Rothe) having the chance to interact with her dead mother. If you haven’t seen the film then the basic plot is that Tree finds herself in an alternate universe where her life is different. The most major change is that her mother is still alive where she died some years prior in her native universe. The last time I saw this film I hadn’t lost my mother so wasn’t impacted by this subplot in the way I found myself this time.
It immediately made me think of Avengers: Endgame where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) visits the past -also in an alternate reality- and has the opportunity to have one last conversation with his mother who he also lost some years prior. Both films are very different in almost every way but the similarities in these particular moments cannot be ignored. Both films feature a character who has the wound created by that loss reopened as they are confronted with the possibility of having a conversation with them. Both Tree and Thor had accepted the fact that their mothers were gone and were moving forward with their lives in their own way. Thor is at rock bottom through much of the film because he blames himself for failing to save half of the life in the universe and has suffered more personal losses than he can bear while still functioning normally. Tree dealt with her loss by launching herself into a shallow college lifestyle where she keeps people at an emotional distance by presenting as a less than pleasant person and showing blatant disregard for the feelings of others. The time loop in the first film lets her contextualise these feelings, realise the impact her behaviour has on others and ultimately become a better person as a result but she is challenged in the second film by seeing her mother alive and well in this alternate universe.
Each film deals with the opportunity in a slightly different way. Thor accepts that the moment is fleeting because he will have to return to his own time and universe before long so takes the chance he has to say goodbye to his mother. Tree initially opts to stay in the alternate universe so that she can have her mother in her life once again. Her arc in the film is around accepting that this alternate universe isn’t her life and she has to go back to her own despite what tragic events have occurred in it.
Science fiction in particular engages me because it allows for the exploration of an idea that isn’t possible in the real world. In the case of these two films characters are given one last chance to speak to a loved one and don’t hesitate in taking advantage of that opportunity. It strikes such a chord because anyone who has lost someone close to them would do anything to have the chance to be with them for even a few minutes. I personally found myself thinking about my final interaction with my mother and I’m forced to admit I don’t actually remember when my last conversation with her took place or what it was about. She died not long after my birthday so we did share a meal for that occasion and there must have at been at least one other phone conversation after that point but I can’t remember it. If I’d known it’d be the last time I got to hear her voice then it would have absolutely stuck in my mind and become meaningful even if it was mundane. The final communication I received was by text message two days before she died and I forgot to reply to it until a day later as I frequently do with messages if I receive them when I’m dealing with something else. The content wasn’t urgent and when I replied I never received a response. It’s a constant reminder to me that I never had a meaningful final moment with my mother and that’s something I find very difficult to deal with. Her death was unexpected so I never went into a conversation knowing it would be the last. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer famously had a variation of this with Buffy discovering her mother’s dead body unexpectedly. There are surely others that don’t spring immediately to mind but the Buffy example sticks in the memory as a really effective portrayal of this.
Loss is something that comes up a lot in fiction for a very good reason; everyone on some level can relate to it. How many times have we watched a film or TV show where a character is hunched over another as they share a tearful goodbye with both of them knowing that one of them was about to die? It happens so often because the audience can instantly connect to it whether it be relating to a personal experience they’ve had or knowing someone who has suffered a loss. When done well it can be emotionally devastating especially when the audience has an emotional connection to the dying character through their own enjoyment of the work.
It comes up a lot in science fiction and fantasy because those genres can employ tools to play around with the idea and allow characters to have experiences currently impossible in the real world. Experiences such as final moments with lost loved ones that take place after the loss. In each of the named cases for this piece the characters take the opportunity to give that final conversation meaning. Thor goes to his mother for advice and Tree chooses to tell her mother exactly how much she means to her. It’s an incredibly moving scene where Tree highlights that you don’t realise how much you mean those words until you know you can’t ever say them again.
The mothers in each of the films tell their children exactly what they need to hear in that moment. Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) tells him that failure is a natural part of life and it’s what you do in the wake of that failure that really matters; Tree’s mother Julie (Missy Yager) talks about how having Tree made her a better person and that the right kind of love does that. This inspires Thor to do whatever he can to make the future better rather than dwell on the past and Tree is given the advice she needs to embrace the new relationship she has with Carter (Israel Broussard) in her home universe because that’s the sort of love that can make her a better person. Frigga’s sentiment about people failing to be who they’re supposed to be with the true test being in how they succeed at being who they actually are and Julie’s sentiment about nobody being able to have everything but they do get whatever it is they need are actually very similar because they both basically say that life will be unpredictable and the true measure of success is how you handle what is put in your path.
I can’t help but think about what I would say to my mother if I had the chance now knowing that it would be the last thing I would ever say and, in honesty I have no idea what that would be. In the above examples the conversation was largely situational so my thinking is if I were ever to be faced with that opportunity then I would know what I wanted to say there and then. Sufficed to say there would be a lot I wanted to say and a lot I often think about. I’m not the most emotionally expressive person so I’d want to know if she knew that those feelings exist even if I’m not great at showing them, I often wonder if she is proud of me or was happy with the way her life turned out. What would she do with her life if she had more time or knew when her end point would be? Frigga put it best when she said to Thor “this was a gift” because having the opportunity to have that one last conversation would be a gift.
This article is different to the content I usually produce but I felt the need to put these particular thoughts into words and link them to these films because of the unexpected reaction I had to those scenes in Happy Death Day 2U upon my rewatch. It’s a further reminder that reactions to films and moments within them change over time depending on what happens in your own life and revisiting could unknowingly cause the film to change significantly on a personal level.
I’d like to dedicate this article to my late mother, Gillian McKenzie who died on October 6th 2019 and will be forever missed by me as well as countless others.
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