CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 14. . . .December 3, 2010.
Tim Wilson (Writer & Director). Annette Clarke (Producer). Kent Martin (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
70 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9908 458.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
Death will come to us all, and, for most, this is not cheery news. Sure, we can talk about death as a concept, but when it comes to talking about actually dying, the conversation often shifts to something else. Grief Walker looks at our fear of dying through the work of theologian and social worker Stephen Jenkinson, whose view of death is both thought-provoking and challenging.
When filmmaker Tim Wilson was gravely ill, Jenkinson, his friend, came to his bedside and performed a ceremony over his body. Wilson eventually recovered and was told by Jenkinson, a palliative caregiver, that he, “didn’t sound like a man who had been given his life back. Death is the cradle of your love of life. Death is what turns you into a human being.” This angered and perplexed Wilson who decided to follow Jenkinson and see what he meant by that.
Jenkinson, who looks like a modern day Grey Owl, has embraced a Native American view of the life cycle. He feels that non-Native cultures have the wrong notion of death, and, as a result, when the end is in sight, he sees “a wretched anxiety in the eyes of the dying.” Most are afraid that it will hurt. Jenkinson wonders why “dying should be news to anyone.” He feels that people are “afraid of the wrong thing.”
Wilson shows Jenkinson dealing with Sandra and Ed. Sandra has terminal cancer, and she tries to be stoic about it. She says that she does not think about it much. However, through the session with Jenkinson, Ed reveals that the cancer “dominates every conversation.” Sandra is surprised at this statement, and clearly the two have much yet to discuss. While Sandra is quite vocal, Ed sits beside her and says very little. The camera focuses on their hands and shows they are devoted to each other. Still, there is work to do here.
As the act of dying is seen as part of the natural cycle of things, nature and time images are used to bridge the scenes in this film. These include beautiful displays of lakes, autumn, and pendulums.
Jenkinson is shown skinning a beaver. He shows respect and offers thanks to the beaver and acknowledges that he must give something back. When the canoe that he built takes on water, Jenkinson states, “Everything about this canoe comes from around here so the solution is here too—if you know what you are doing.” He claims that “everyone has a hole, a wound in the approximate shape of a soul.” He feels that we have become too removed from the actual death process. We have chosen to pass that on to others to do for us. With death, “everything is done for you.” So when it comes to your turn, there is no anticipation--the path is unclear.
Scenes of running water in spring takes us to Pamela and Jonathan whose 22-month-old Sacha is dying. Transfusions take her to the next transfusion. The parents are willing to do anything to keep her alive. Each enables the other in the hope that Sacha will get better. However, Jenkinson guides them to see that perhaps Sacha should be allowed to die. While they hope for a miracle or some discovery, both come to accept the fact that they were simply keeping Sacha alive. According to Jenkinson, “Every transfusion was diminishing her.” He asked, “Is keeping her alive improving her?” So the parents took Sacha home and allowed her to die in peace. Pamela admits that she was enabling Jonathan’s hope that Sacha would get better. When Sacha died in Pamela’s arms, she can say that, despite the feeling of loss, she felt peace.
Being alive, according to Jenkinson, has a degree of responsibility. Each morning, “wake up with a sense of gratitude knowing that some did not make it through the night.” He expresses concern that in some religious traditions, life on Earth is “a kind of booby prize.” The loss of the garden is a punishment, and death is the consequence of disobedience. That part of the film alone could generate interesting discussion.
Grief Walker goes back to Sandra who is planning her funeral. She is offered the chance to make a video to show on that day. She and the cameraman are having fun and cracking jokes. She likes the idea of a video. In the midst of their laughter, she says that perhaps they should be more serious.
Cathy, a mother of three, reflects on the nearness of her own death. She wants her children to be able to express how they feel about the fact that she is dying. She wants them to still be a family after she is gone, and she is sad that she cannot be a mother to them much longer. Jenkinson tells her that how she dies will determine how the family will fare after. He states, “The table you set will determine the food they eat.” She has to accept that she has done what she could.
Jenkinson states, “You have to learn to love someone as if it is not going to last, because it isn’t. You have to love the end of a love—not just accept it.” When we are given life, “a hole is left somewhere that must be replaced or filled. We owe a massive debt. We are in the loop, and we are the loop. We must feel grateful and then indebted. “Sewing grief and death into life means becoming a human being.” “Even our own death is not for us,” he says. “We must die extravagantly. Set the banquet table. When everyone who knew you is invited, the stories will be the feast.”
Ed tells Sandra that she is not to try to hang on for him. He gives her permission to go although the pain in his eyes is clear.
Grief Walker, while beautiful to watch, is difficult as it cuts right into everyone’s basic fear. Jenkinson’s philosophy and spirituality are appealing and will no doubt generate much discussion. The topic may not resonate with a young audience, but certainly it will with the teachers. Parts of the film would work well in a Sociology, Religion, or Philosophy class. Jenkinson’s view on death may not appeal to all religious groups, and so there is a potential for parental complaint. However, the film is worth the risk.
More information on Jenkinson’s work can be found at: http://www.orphanwisdom.com
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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