The NeverEnding Story: A Landscape of Grief
A few weeks back I was trying to explain a particular phenomenon to my client, and the only image that came to mind was from the movie, The NeverEnding Story. The image that I recalled was the iconic scene in which Atreyu watches as his horse, Artax, sink into the Swamps of Sadness. The phenomenon that we were talking about was despair. However, this was only one facet of the overarching conversation that my client and I were trying to navigate which was: how does one move forward in the aftermath of loss? It occurred to me then that The NeverEnding Story was full of images that explained this process, not just despair but the ineffable qualities of moving through grief itself. By this I mean, the movie progresses through bizarre and fantastical settings which seem possible only with a healthy dose of magical thinking which is uncannily similar to the way that grief comes into our lives with a surreal quality that evokes suspended belief and adaption on our behalf. Fantasia is a proverbial funhouse of distortions, reflections, amplifications, and mystery that hardly makes sense except on a feeling level. The movie has since become a stark metaphor full of language and images that have helped me work with clients suffering in the landscape of grief. You might be wondering if it comes across as glib to bring a children's movie into a therapeutic conversation to explain serious loss. Surprisingly, I have found it has the opposite reception. The nostalgic and playful aspects of the movie have contributed to more imaginative and reflective engagement from my clients. The following is a narrative approach to grief using The NeverEnding Story to externalize phenomena, and construct a map with which to understand the grief experience. I will go through the movie interpreting the different scenes and analyzing the constructs presented related to grief that have provided images I have found helpful with clients. It will probably only make sense if you have seen the movie recently, or had the storyline seared into your memory from watching it a hundred times as a kid. Also, spoiler alert: this will tell the story of the movie in its entirety.
We discover at the beginning of the movie that Bastian’s mother recently passed away, and we see two scenes which reveal Bastian’s difficulty connecting with others. We gather that Bastian has since suffered in school and has had difficulty communicating with his father. This part of the movie reveals how grief may look to someone aware but outside of the experience of grief: as despondency, indignation, and impassivity. We see Bastian’s father struggle with witnessing his son’s grief and providing some helpful wisdom. We see him fumble through a speech chastising Bastian for not “keeping both feet on the ground.” This moment briefly illustrates how difficult it is for a grieved individual to participate in everyday activities, and how complicated it is talk about loss even with those closest to the bereaved. Neither one of them know what to say. Then we switch scenes and Bastian is bullied into a garbage can by some kids who see him as a weak target. This short scene highlights how grief is seen externally to those who do not know: as weakness, and as victimization. We tend to see someone who is broken and incapable of advocating for themselves, but very rarely do we see this as symptomatic of grief.
After these two alienating and wounding scenes, Bastian retreats into the bookstore—which psychologically reveals that Bastian is trying to find a story that can provide containment and meaning for his experience. Bastian is drawn to the story of Fantasia despite being warned by the bookstore owner that that particular narrative is dangerous; it is beyond his ability. Which is how grief feels, doesn’t it? Like, every story or way forward is fraught with dangers beyond your ability? And yet, this invitation is almost a forgone conclusion. It is the story that calls to Bastian because it is the story that returns him to his own internal landscape for meaning.
Then we are introduced to Fantasia, a world that is disintegrating rapidly in the face of a nondescript phenomenon called the Nothing. Every creature is running away from the Nothing towards this image of innocence and purity—the ivory tower and The Childlike Empress. Thinking of Fantasia as a mirror for Bastian’s psychological experience, the Nothing is just that…it is apathy that is annihilating Bastian’s imagination and hope for the future. We see that Bastian’s psyche wants to fight against it, but doesn’t know how. After consulting with the most sacred part of himself (the Childlike Empress), a hero, Atreyu, is called. This is the part of Bastian that believes that he can be saved, the part that is willing to confront the darkness of what is happening to him. Atreyu is given the auren as a medallion of protection for his journey, a symbol of two intertwined snakes that create an ouroboros. This symbol reminds us that there is something archetypal in this journey, and therefore necessary to the human experience. And yet, it is also infinite in the sense that this journey to save one’s self from apathy and meaninglessness is a story that has no ending—it is cyclical, and will be revisited again and again throughout one’s life.
Artreyu sets out on his journey and comes upon the Swamps of Sadness. The Swamps of Sadness reiterate the inertia of grief and the sinking quality of despair as it engulfs one in sorrow. Atreyu/Bastian (as they are one in the same) must move through his sorrow in search of wisdom represented by the Ancient One, Morla. I think now of how we seek the advice of others when we feel lost. We think that they will provide us with answers, or take up the quest for us. Oftentimes, we become disheartened by the irreverent nonchalance of those who we ask for help, as they do not see our quest as important as we do. As with Morla, those that we turn to may disappoint us by offering seemingly impossible suggestions. They may send us back to The Swamps of Sadness exhausted and feeling the depth of anguish more acutely. We may feel it taking over as it does with Atreyu.
However, we see that just as Atreyu is about to fully sink into the Swamps of Sadness he is rescued by the luck dragon, Falcour. When the grieved is in the throes of depression and sorrow after a loss, it does feels like a bit of luck when another breaks through and is able to meet him/her in the sadness. However, the thing that saves Atreyu is not luck; the thing that saves him is the compassion of another. Falcour pulls Atreyu out of the swamp, takes him to safety, has him cleaned and his wounds tended to. This is why community and sometimes therapy are so helpful in times of crisis: having someone witness your suffering and temporarily take on the burden of caring for you emotionally can make grief manageable. It isn’t a cure, it doesn’t stop the destruction of the Nothing, but it can reinvigorate the heroic part of yourself.
Falcour helps Atreyu/Bastian traverse the expanse of his psyche to the Southern Oracle where he endures a number of trials to find the answer of how to stop the Nothing from spreading. As they are leaving, Atreyu falls from Falcour and faces Gmork, the wolf who has been hunting Atreyu and trying to thwart efforts to save Fantasia. Gmork represents rage, and its how it works as a secondary antagonist to apathy. However, Gmork functions in two seemingly opposite roles—he works on behalf of the Nothing by going after Atreyu, while at the same time propelling Atreyu forward through his journey by chasing him. Gmork orients Atreyu in his quest which is often the overlooked part of rage; it reminds us of our power and our own ability to be willful. Grief robs us of our sense of control, and rage often gives it back. Also rage, like Gmork, tends to reveal an inherent truth about our suffering; it reveals how susceptible we are to giving up hope for the future. Gmork attacks Atreyu with little strategy and is killed swiftly, as rage often acts through us impulsively, eruptively, and with little foresight.
What Atreyu discovers at the Southern Oracle is that The Childlike Empress needs to be renamed in order to stop The Nothing. Thinking of the Childlike Empress as a part of Bastian’s psyche, she would represent the sacred and innocent part of Bastian. This part of himself must be redefined in order to stop the destruction of the Nothing. The ability to name, and confront the way that phenomena work within our lives is an essential part to narrative therapy, and we see how imperative it is with The Childlike Empress. There is no other way to confront loss except for the grieved (Bastian) to take ownership of his story and care enough to save it. The grieved must name and reinvent the core of himself in the face of loss, and give the loss meaning through story and imagery. Bastian renames this part of himself “Moonchild” which we discover is the name of his mother who died. Importantly, Bastian memorializes his mother as a way to save himself.
As with Bastian, The Moonchild part of the grieved may seem like it is already destroyed by the time it is given a new name. It may be small (think of the small grain that is left of Fantasia), as all of the extravagance has been shedded, and it must learn to grow again from the darkness. And how does this part of Bastian’s grow again? Through his desire and wish for something more. He believes that Fantasia has purpose, and that the story can be reclaimed. The more that he wishes the bigger that Fantasia grows.
I think now about how grief is often a hidden part of our culture. How little time and space is given to the bereaved to discover who they are now in relation to absence. This whole process is often privatized, and rebuffed because it is antithetical to the progressive ideal of culture. It is the winter, when our culture relishes summer. The NeverEnding Story, however, is one story that reminds us that there is space in our collective imagination for grief no matter how painful or disturbing. It has become a cult classic movie which seems to aptly live in our collective imagination in much the same way as grief: as a bizarre but pivotal memory. Occasionally, I will meet individuals who tell me that they watched The NeverEnding Story as an adult and that they found it disturbing or just plain awful. This observation always makes me wonder how much of this reaction is an unconscious aversion to grief, and how much is cinematic taste. Either way, this movie gifts us with a myriad of images to carry with us as guides when we encounter grief in our very own never-ending stories.