JACKIE: A Study On The Nature Of Grief

How Natalie Portman's portrayal of Jackie Kennedy's loss is scarily accurate.

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Anyone who has dealt with grief knows about its ephemeral nature. You are by turns heartbroken, numb, angry and a thousand other things. It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it. Watching Natalie Portman’s performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in the film Jackie explains it better than anything most of us could say. The film tells the story of Jackie Kennedy from shortly before President John F. Kennedy’s death to his funeral, though it’s hardly a straight line. The story of someone’s grief never is. 

The film begins with Jackie giving an interview to a reporter, but jumps around from the moment before she leaves the plane for Dallas, practicing her Spanish speech, to her famous television tour of the White House. It leaps from her anger and confusion about whether or not to walk behind the President’s funeral procession with her children, to her drunkenly dancing in gowns that reminded her of other times. She tells the reporter (played by Billy Crudup) her story, letting him know that he isn't going to be allowed to publish anything she doesn't want him to. After a significant life event, sometimes we create our own mythology. As we tell the story of what happened, we add feelings and use words that end up solidifying a slightly different version of the event until it becomes a new memory. This is so accurately portrayed here that it’s almost jarring to see someone else go through it. 

I spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Janina Scarlet (my co-author for chapters in the PsychGeek series of books) to get her professional description for some of the things we see in the film. She explained, "First and foremost, there is no timeline on grief, meaning that people generally need a long time to grieve the loss of their loved one and we cannot expect them to 'get over it' in a timely fashion. Everyone is different in their grief process.” Those first days after a death are fraught enough, but Jackie had to do her grieving in public. In the film, we see her in a daze as she passes the new President and First Lady looking at fabric for their White House redecoration, before she’s even left. She had to plan a state funeral, celebrate the birthday of one of her children and appear in public with her husband’s blood still on her dress and legs. She couldn’t fall apart in public, but everyone around her needed her to “get over it” far faster than she reasonably could.

The story, as Jackie tells it, has her saying she doesn’t remember the assassination and what came after, though she later says she remembers every second. Scarlet explained, “People experiencing grief generally need to process the loss by taking about their experiences with the deceased. Sometimes they might repeat the same stories over and over again, while at other times, their stories might seem fragmented and disjointed. This process of allowing the person who is grieving to discuss their memories of the deceased can be helpful in assisting the individual's ability to process the event and make sense of it.”

During the telling, she’s clearly moving quickly around all five stages of grief, angry at talking about it at all, then by turns sad and weeping, to fondly reminiscing. Scarlet said, “Psychologists generally identify 5 stages of grief - denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. However, these are not always experienced in that order and people might fluctuate between these. This means that someone might be in an acceptance stage one day and in anger another day.” In the film, we see Jackie snapping at officials and telling them to shame heads of state for being afraid to walk behind her. Then she’s in her bedroom, dressing up in her old gowns, remembering her life with Jack, drinking and taking pills, playing the song “Camelot” from the Broadway play and drifting through the White House. We see her calm with her children, in shock during the swearing in, clinging to her friends and then pushing people away. We see her anger at God when she’s speaking to the priest they’ve called in to help her as she falls apart. (You certainly get the feeling that everyone around her is hoping she doesn’t do anything to make them look bad, and at times, hoping she’ll just fade away.) In the film, you even hear a difference in her voice as she goes through different stages. Sharp when she’s angry, deeper when she’s talking to the reporter, and softly girlish when she’s making public addresses. 

The film doesn’t lean too heavily on the drinking and drugs, leaving it largely to the dress montage, but it’s there, with the sadness, and manic need to do something to combat the memories. Scarlet says, “Jackie, as portrayed in this film, was in a unique situation, where she witnessed the assassination of her husband and was someone in the media spotlight. There was a lot of pressure on her to be able to ‘handle it,’ which may have made it more difficult for her to cope adaptively.” It’s when she’s self-medicating that things go wrong, though it’s portrayed in a subtle way. Scarlet continued, “In addition, the more people numb and avoid their grief with drinking or pretending that they're unaffected, the more likely they are to experience prolonged grief. They are also then more likely to experience depression or other disorders.” 

As we know from history, Jackie Kennedy wasn’t just a First Lady and fashion icon. Her outward calm helped a nation grieve the loss of their President. One can only imagine what it was like from the inside, despite the very few interviews she gave during her lifetime. The film gives a glimpse into what it might have been like for her, as well as what it’s like for any of us to go through grief. It’s a gut punch of a film, but one most of us can understand all too well.

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