Bereavement in Ordinary People

Bereavement in “Ordinary People”

Brooke J. Cannon, Ph.D.
(From the Turkish electronic publication Psinema, 2009 Issue 6.)

Now almost three decades old, the film Ordinary People (1980) is no ordinary film. It remains one of the best ever made, from both entertainment and psychological perspectives, winner of the academy award for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Redford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Timothy Hutton), and Best Writing. Further, Ordinary People allows for consideration of bereavement diagnostic criteria, family dynamics, and posttraumatic growth and is one of the most realistic portrayals of varied responses to the unexpected loss of a loved one.

The film chronicles the Jarrett family’s response to the loss of a child, Buck, in a boating accident. The Jarretts are an affluent family in the suburbs of Chicago. The father (Donald Sutherland) is a successful tax attorney. The mother (Mary Tyler Moore), is an active socialite. At least on the surface, the couple appears to have a strong, loving relationship . They are affectionate with one another and have a large circle of friends. Their home and their friends are beautiful. Their life seems perfect.

Indeed, they even had the perfect son. Through flashbacks we meet Buck – handsome, funny, athletic, self-confident. Perhaps too confident, as we learn later in the film.

In contrast, the remaining child in the family, Conrad, is an inhibited, introspective, and generally non-descript teenager. He has no outstanding qualities, even his bedroom is barren. It is his brother’s room that is still full of life – trophies, photographs, various mementos of his success.

The mother, Beth, adored Buck. The only time we ever saw her truly laughing was during her flashbacks of being with Buck. In the present, we can imagine and get small glimpses of the enormous pain she is feeling, but not expressing, over the loss of this beloved child. It is clear where she learned/inherited such inhibition when we meet her mother.

Conrad is also in pain, but his pain is readily apparent. We learn that he had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt since Buck’s death; since his discharge Conrad continues to be depressed. He has withdrawn from his friends and finds no enjoyment in life. Like his mother, he suppresses his feelings.

The father, Calvin, loves all of his family and is open with his emotions. He clearly misses Buck, but also is very concerned about Conrad; however, he is inept and ineffective in his attempts to help. Unlike Beth and Conrad, Calvin is focused on the present. The pain he feels arises from his impotence in dealing with his son’s depression and his growing insight into the dynamics between his wife and Conrad and, ultimately, between his wife and himself.

With encouragement from his father, Conrad begins psychotherapy with a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Dr. Berger is direct in his therapy. He confronts, he challenges, he pushes the limits. Conrad is initially resistant, but eventually begins to appropriately engage in therapy. Berger gets Conrad to openly express the emotions he has been suppressing – “Little advice about feeling, kiddo, don’t expect it to always tickle.” We see this new expressiveness in Conrad’s daily life now, as well, where anger is no longer is suppressed.

Even Calvin seeks out Dr. Berger to deal with his own issues (the ethics of treating both father and son might be questioned, however), but Beth is unwilling to even consider psychotherapy. She views it as a sign of weakness and is embarrassed for others to know of her family’s problems.

As time goes on, Conrad confronts his survivor guilt and allows himself to begin to enjoy life. Calvin’s eyes are opened to his wife’s superficiality and coldness toward Conrad. It is Beth who remains unchanged.

No one would argue that bereavement is a central theme of Ordinary People, but is a diagnosis of bereavement, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-TR (DSM-IV-TR), applicable here? The DSM-IV-TR identifies bereavement as a separate, time-limited state, although the symptoms of major depression may be present. Bereavement is actually an exclusion criterion for a diagnosis of major depression within the 2 months after the loss. This inability to diagnose major depression during the first 2 months of bereavement may have significant consequences, such as inhibiting treatment referrals or insurance reimbursement (i.e., bereavement is a “V code,” the treatment for which is often not covered by insurance).

This exclusion criterion has been challenged. For example, Zisook, Shear, and Kendler (2007) found no differences in the depressive symptomatology among bereaved and non-bereaved within the first 2 months. Similarly, Wakefield, Schmitz, First, and Horwitz (2007) found no differences between what would be considered complicated bereavement (major depression beyond 2 months after the loss of a loved one) and depression following another form of loss (e.g., occupational, financial, social).

Furthering the distinction between bereavement and major depression is the concept of “recovery.” It is hoped that one recovers from depression, but does one ever truly recover from bereavement? Rosenblatt (2008) explores these issues and point s out that the perception of recovery from bereavement may be more likely to occur in outside observers who assess overt behavior – “She’s back to normal.” The person who experienced the loss, however, may feel that there is no such thing as recovery. As Beth said in Ordinary People, “For God’s sake, enough change has happened; let’s just hold on to what we’ve got. “

Following the loss of a loved one, there may not be recovery, as in the return to the previous state, but rather there is change in one’s cognitive schema, or outlook. Davis, Wohl, and Verberg (2007) developed models of posttraumatic growth. In studying those who lost loved ones in a mine disaster, Davis et al. identified three different posttraumatic growth models: Rebuilt Self, No Meaning/No Growth, and Minimal Threat/Minimal Growth.

The Rebuilt Self model is exemplified by those who are “struck to the core” by the loss. In coping with their feelings, these individuals become introspective, developing greater personal strength and insight (Davis et al., 2007). Both Conrad and Calvin would fit within this model.

The No Meaning/No Growth model describes individuals who continue to search for meaning in the loss. They are more likely to experience negative changes in their world view, seeing the world as unfair or dangerous. This is in contrast to the change in the Rebuilt Self model, which is more personal (Davis et al., 2007).

According to Davis et al. (2007), the final model, Minimal Threat/Minimal Growth, describes individuals who do not seek explanations or meaning in the loss. They do not attempt to process their emotions or to identify how the loss has affected them. It is likely that they had a pre-existing world view that expected negative events.

Perhaps Beth fits within this last model – always on guard, inhibited, attempting to deny or repress true emotion, or perhaps never truly able to experience a sense of loss. Beth’s focus is on the outward appearance to others – needing to seem perfect. Her response to the loss of her son and its impact on her family was just as when she broke a dinner plate in the kitchen – “I do think this can be saved; it”s a nice, clean break.” Conrad and his father, however, would have been creating something new from those broken pieces.


Davis, C.G., Wohl, M.J.A., & Verberg, N. (2007). Profiles of posttraumatic growth following an unjust loss. Death Studies, 31, 693-712.
Rosenblatt, P.C. (2008). Recovery following bereavement: Metaphor, phenomenology, and culture. Death Studies, 32, 6-16.

Wakefield, J.C., Schmitz, M.F., First, M.B., & Horwitz, A.V. (2007). Extending the bereavement exclusion for major depression to other losses. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 433-439.
Zisook, S., Shear, K., & Kendler, K.S. (2007). Validity of the bereavement exclusion criterion for the diagnosis of major depressive episode.World Psychiatry, 6, 102-107.