Super 8: Grief, Escapism, and Healing
To whom can we cast our anxieties and sorrow?
As for man, his days are like grass;
Like a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place no longer knows about it.
— Psalm 103: 15-16
The spring of 2021 has been a trial for me. I’ve had seasonal allergies like never before, receiving at least three head colds over the span of a month and a half, and my recovery has felt at times like trying to jump start an old car. Job and relational stresses have been upgraded to a new degree as well. However, what hurts the most is the absence of a certain person in my life. On May 22, my grandmother died. She was 87 years old.
It was not a sudden death. She had been struggling with health issues for a bit, and it was not hard to see what was going to happen in the near future. But the turn for the worse she took towards the end did come very quickly. I had not seen her since February, and the last time I saw her before that was Christmas. The “2020 Sickness” made her cautious to see people or have visitors over to her place, even as the cases dramatically fell in our area. As she was immunocompromised, I understand the caution grandmother had, but as I mentioned, it made for a period of time where I did not see her often, if at all.
After she was admitted to the hospital a few days before she died, I wondered if I would be able to see her one last time. The answer I received from my dad, who had already experienced a battle or two with hospital staff on this issue, said that per hospital policy (in light of the 2020 sickness), only one visitor is allowed in the room with her for the day. It wasn’t long before I got a call from my dad, as he asked me if there was anything I wanted to say to grandma. I knew what this meant, but I still asked if there was a way I could see her to talk to her in person, and not have to do this - such a personal and final act - over the phone. The answer was still no. I don’t remember word for word what I said to her over the phone, but I know for sure it wouldn’t have been what I would have said in-person.
Not much time has passed since I spoke those words, but my emotions are still tender. I’m angry that the hospital she was in was still implementing visitation procedures that were created at the height of the “2020 Sickness,” refusing to revise them after the virus cases in our area dropped off considerably and have stayed that way for months. People - both the sick and the grieving - are not designed to go through this kind of an ordeal alone and isolated from each other. Death is abnormal enough. The fact that our society is coldly enforcing extreme measures that force loved ones apart from each other as death looms shows you just how fallen our modern selves are, and how little society cares for the sacredness of life.
My emotions are multiplied by the fact that my grandmother was not religious, as she admitted to with both word and action, and my dad even described her this way as well at her memorial. In my more than 30 years with grandma, I was never able to get the full story on why this was the case. Hints and insinuations were received, but nothing explicit, and certainly nothing that would lead me to believe that she was a Christian and that I would be seeing her again in heaven and the new earth. While I do not know if there was any change of heart at the end of my grandma’s life - and there may have been, by the grace of God - for all of my current comprehension, I’ve accepted the fact that I may very well not ever see her again. In light of this, it angers me that because of these restrictions at the hospital, I wasn’t able to say proper goodbyes or even give a last attempt at ministering to her.
I understand that even with all of this, I still received more closure than others do. At least I got to say something, anything to her towards the end. For so many other hurting people, their loved ones were taken away instantly, and they’re left with absolutely no closure and no goodbyes. The story that speaks the most to me about this is J.J. Abrams’ film, Super 8, released exactly a decade ago from today. It’s a Spielbergian tale set in 1979 about Joe Lamb, a 14-year-old boy, who instantly loses his mother in a tragic workplace accident. All Joe has left of his mother are the memories he made with her, and a simple locket with her photo in it. Four months after losing her, Joe is still wrestling with the grief but is able to distract himself and channel his energy into creating a low-budget sci-fi / horror film with his close group of friends for a Super 8 film competition. During the filmmaking process, Joe and his group of friends get caught up in their own adventure, as a train literally carrying an alien monster spectacularly crashes, unleashing the monster into the small town. The next thing you know, people and items go missing, power outages occur, and the military comes in to “clean up” the mess.
During all of the insanity, Joe, with the help of his friends, eventually discovers where the monster is hiding, and also finds where it’s storing all of the people and materials it took. Everything, including the monster, is about six-feet underground in the local graveyard. It’s interesting to note that just as Joe dove into the creation process as he tried to escape his current life moment (grieving for his mother), the monster was also creating something for the purposes of escape. It was fusing the stolen materials from the town into a spacecraft that would take it back to wherever it came from.
Previous to this discovery, the kids discovered a film from a former government researcher that showed how they captured and experimented on the alien monster. After viewing the film, it was clear to the kids that the monster wasn’t there simply to wreak havoc on the town. It had also been hurt, and was desperately trying to escape the people who hurt it. Joe understands this as he comes face-to-face with the monster underneath the graveyard. As Joe also has the knowledge that the monster has the ability to psychically connect with humans, he appeals to the monster when he’s captured, saying, “Bad things happen, but you can still live. You’re gonna be okay.” At these words, the monster looks at him deeply, and then releases him, seemingly at a mutual understanding with Joe.
Like with any good monster story, the alien creature in Super 8 is a darker, twisted version of the film’s protagonist, Joe Lamb. Joe wasn’t just talking to an alien creature in this scene. He was speaking to himself, coming to grips with his mother’s passing and how he needed to go on and live his life. He needed to hear the words coming out of his mouth just as much as the alien did. It’s not a random coincidence that Joe and his friends are filming a zombie movie about how they need to get a cure to bring zombies back to life! Joe was indeed dead inside, and confronting the monster under the graves - in both the physical and spiritual realms - had to happen in order to renew Joe’s heart and start him on a healing path.
It’s also not a coincidence that the film was set in the late ‘70s, evoking a classic kids adventure vibe that successfully delivers all of the nostalgia to mature audiences. I also refuse to believe that the specific usage of the Super 8 film camera was just a random choice, as Abrams and Co. went so far as to name the film after the tool. By highlighting the camera and the nostalgic echoes that come from seeing it at work, the audience is captured not just by seeing how the kids make memories on-screen, but by their own memories of times gone by. Better times. Times when things were seemingly perfect, when life couldn’t possibly have been better than roaming around the neighborhood and small town you grew up in with your best friends going on thrilling adventures.
I myself have understood this pull all too well lately, as I’ve lately gravitated towards familiar echoes and memories of days gone by. Nostalgia itself can be an escape, though like most other things in life, too much of it can affect us negatively. Memories are very much like the old Super 8 footage - the more you make transfers or copies of them, the more they lose quality. Details are embellished, sometimes even contradicted by other individuals’ recollections. Important quotations that you know helped shaped who you are today are forgotten. Images distort, sounds fade, and smells vanish. Our memories, much like man, all return to dust. But after time, what’s still left is the knowledge that those experiences did happen. They mattered then, and they matter now, regardless of what form they take today.
In the case of Joe Lamb, his sole memory trinket was the locket his mother wore that had her and Joe’s photo in it. He carried it around with him everywhere the months after her death, and sometimes when he grasped it or thought of it, the grief clearly crippled him, stopping him in his tracks. It wasn’t until the final scene of the film, when the alien is trying to escape the planet, that Joe is finally able to escape the clutches of grief. By some mysterious force, Joe’s locket - along with many other metallic items around the setting, escapes from his coat pocket and floats up into the air, caught quickly by Joe. As the pull continues, Joe realizes what he has to do - again, both in the physical and spiritual realms - and lets go of the locket. It floats up to the alien’s ship and allows it to take off, the final piece of the poetic puzzle. Our heroes watch, as spellbound as Elliott in the film E.T., as the alien ascends to the heavens, vanishing into the brilliant night sky.
While we know Joe will have memories of his mother for the rest of his life - as imperfect as they may be - the scene is strong not just because of what the locket represents, but also what it actually is. It’s the last physical item that Joe had from her, and he was brave enough to let go of it. In addition, 1979 was not a time when captures images were plentiful as they are in our digital age, and letting go of a travel-size image of your late parent was more of a deal then than it would be now.
What the film doesn’t tackle, however, is that “letting go” is just one part of the equation. If you let go of something, it doesn’t just disappear. Someone, or some thing, catches it, and the same can be said for physical or spiritual matter. If we let go of our personal grief, sadness, depression, or anger, there needs to be some one stronger that can catch and deal with it without dropping it on another person. As Christians, we know this is none other than the God who freely came down to His creation’s level, who lived the life of a human and experienced the same emotions we do. Only Jesus proved that He can take our sufferings and pain onto Himself and leave us white as snow as He redeems our life by defeating death itself. Thankfully, we aren’t left without instruction from God regarding how to go about “letting go” of our hurt. Ephesians 4:31-32 states,
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV)
1 Peter 5:7 has this to say about our anxieties and the Lord’s care:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (ESV)
The Book of Isaiah is also full of the Lord’s comfort, especially in 43:18-19, where He promises,
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (ESV)
Instead of focusing intently on the things of the past, constantly escaping into our nostalgia and rose-tinted histories, should we not instead take the Lord’s Word as gold and focus on the work He is currently doing? None of us can take tragic impact moments and deal with them on their own. I know even as a Christian, I’m having a hard time dealing with the latest death in my family and the details surrounding it, but I know I need to cast all of my heartache on Him. I don’t know when I’ll be able to complete that journey and let this moment go, as it is still quite raw, but with God’s mercy and help, I know it’ll happen.
While we’re never promised an easy life, we can take the promises that God has given us that say He can help us through our hard experiences. I post the Scripture above not to lecture, but to help remind myself of the love of the Lord, even as I gradually lay my sadness, anger, and frustrations at His feet. Joe Lamb may have taken the first true step of healing in Super 8’s final moment, but he’s sure to have plenty more trials he’ll need help with as well. Our paths to finding His way in the wilderness and bathing in the rivers in the desert may all look different, but the end result is the same: those who believe we can truly cast our pains to the heavens for Jesus alone to take care of will be made whole again. He has promised us healing, and although we may never see that healing in this life, we’re sure to experience it in our eternal state.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
— Revelation 7:17 (ESV)
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
— Psalm 56:8 (ESV)