Coping with loss is complicated. When I lost my wife in 1989, my world fell apart. I could not understand it then nor can I can understand it now. How God in His wisdom could end the life of such a beautiful soul was totally beyond my ken. Yet this is what happened and that is what my family had to deal with. It was extremely helpful to have my children present to support me and for me to support them in this time of darkness. To a large degree, the love between the surviving spouse and the children helps one to deal with the overwhelming sadness.
I was reminded of this complicated adjustment period as I watched We Bought a Zoo, an emotionally rich film about Benjamin Mee, a widower still mourning the death of his wife. Emotionally exhausted with managing his kids and dealing with school discipline issues with his 14-year-old son Dylan, he decides to begin his life again by purchasing a new home in a rural area. But there is one problem. The house comes with a zoo, and the person who buys the house also has to accept responsibility for the zoo. Ben’s brother counsels him against the purchase, but Ben disregards his advice and buys it anyway when he sees how much Rosie, his 7-year-old daughter, is infatuated with the idea of owning a zoo and playing with the animals.
Together with Kelly Foster, the attractive and sensitive head of the zoo staff, they start renovating the zoo with the goal of opening it to the public. The task is monumental and requires strict compliance with the law to pass an inspection from the authorities. Expenses mount and the project is in danger of failing, but they find creative solutions.
Ben and his son Dylan are not on the same page with regard to the zoo enterprise, and eventually a heated argument between the two crystallizes the different perspectives of spouse and child on how each responds to loss. The father wants to survive emotionally and be a good parent, but he realizes he needs the support of his older son to help rear his young daughter. He cannot do it alone.
When Ben, in frustration, yells at Dylan, Dylan asks why he is yelling at him. Ben responds: “Because I’m your father and I’m the only one you’ve got! And the line of people in this world who really care about you ends here! So stop moping around this place, man! Do something! You just sit here and feel sorry for yourself, man! Help me with your sister! Help me, damn it!” When Dylan starts crying, his dad tearfully says: “I’m sorry that your mother got sick when she did. Believe me. I’m sorry that you didn’t get more of a childhood, man. That’s just how that one went. But we live here with a seven-year-old girl who still believes in the Easter Bunny. What are we gonna do?” At that moment, Dylan sees the pain and frustration of this father, and there is reconciliation.
Jewish tradition provides a pattern for dealing with loss. The mourning period is divided into three stages. The most intense time is the seven-day period after death, when friends and family visit to comfort the mourner. The second stage is the first thirty days after the death when the family begins to integrate the loss and function normally while still under the shadow of tragedy. The third stage is a year after the death when the anniversary of the loved one’s passing is marked by the lighting of candles and the recital of prayers in the synagogue.
Every year after that, there is a yearly ritual marking the anniversary of the day of death when candles are lit, prayers are said, and the person is remembered. The end goal is not to forget the loved one. The goal is to move on with life, but at the same time to treasure the memory.
This grief cycle is reflected in the final scene of We Bought a Zoo. Ben brings his children to the restaurant where he first met his wife and shares with his kids his first encounter with her. It is a tender and happy moment, which reminds us that dealing with loss does not mean forgetting; rather it means integrating the memory into our minds and hearts so that the loved one who is gone is still with us to comfort us and to inspire us.