How Do We Process Grief? An Interview with Director Katrine Philp of “An Elephant in the Room”


By: Amanda Guarragi 

In our lives there are moments that we will remember forever and all of those key moments, shape us into the people we are today. Majority of us tend to stick to the happy memories, in order to outweigh any pain or trauma that we have encountered. Currently, we are all living through the COVID -19 pandemic and people are grieving all over the world. People are paranoid, anxious, scared and are feeling immense loss.

As adults, we understand how everything works. We try to understand the choices the government makes and we adapt to what is happening around us. However, the ones who will be affected by this the most are the children. It is hard to explain any of this to them. Yes they understand to a certain degree, but for kids who are in elementary school and are constantly active, how are they handling any of this? It also raises the question of how children handle the loss of a loved one. What concepts do they understand? How do they even begin to process any of that? Right now there are children grieving the loss of their mother/father, their siblings or their grandparents.

In the middle of March, I watched a documentary called An Elephant in the Room. Katrine Philp directs the documentary feature and it was supposed to premiere at SXSW film festival. An Elephant in the Room focuses on a holistic way of dealing with grief at a centre called “Good Grief” in New Jersey. Philp shares the stories of six children and their companions who have lost their parents. It shows many different approaches in handling grief and acts as a catharsis for everyone involved, including the viewer.

It’s a subject that not many people touch upon because of how painful these stories can be, especially if those stories involve a child’s point of view. Philp had her own experience involving her brother and his family. At one point they almost lost her sister-in-law and she saw the trauma her brother and three children went through during that period of time. “She miraculously survived, but it left marks – and I started getting interested in making a film about how children experience grief.” When she began research on her film, she didn’t know that her own father would fall sick and also pass on, “Feeling my own grief while filming the families during their own made complete sense. I fully understood what the families were going through and the challenges they faced.” Sometimes sharing the pain and these stories help people connect more and feel like they aren’t alone in feeling what they are feeling.

When it comes to children processing anything, it’s always interesting to have these discussions with them, touching upon difficult subject matters. How do these children process these emotions? What are they absorbing and how is it affecting them? So how does one even begin to have a conversation with children about grief? Well, Katrine Philp weighs in on her process and how she approached the children during filming,

“Shooting in a sensitive situation with grieving children and their families for this documentary, we had to be fairly discrete. The children were going through some very deep emotions and it was important for me to be close to them, but not to overwhelm them with an extra pressure. Filming children is different than filming adults, especially when they are challenged by sadness. The children are more impulsive and can go from feeling very sad one moment to being happy and playing two minutes later. It was very common and kind of difficult to film. The cinematographer was always chasing the moment. Some days we couldn’t use any of the footage that we shot and other days magic happened and we captured a lot of fantastic scenes. We had to film a lot, be patient, and wait for the moments to appear. Our method in the interviews was to get them started and then not interrupt them and ask a lot of questions. I just wanted it to come naturally from them and in every pause they had, I waited and then they just kept talking. So patience was key.”

The children in the documentary had lost their mother, father or even both and their guardian took care of them. There were moments in the feature, which were extremely emotional because of how the children openly discussed how they were feeling. Thankfully these children were not alone, not only did they have their guardian helping them through this difficult time; they attended counseling at “Good Grief” in New Jersey. “Good Grief CEO, Joe Primo invited us to come and film and after the first day of filming I was sure that there was a film to be discovered at Good Grief. “ Philp and her team were able to connect with the families and they started filming, both at Good Grief and their homes.

The stories of the children were so incredibly moving and to see them talk to other children about their new families or how they are feeling, really put so much into perspective. It made me realize that it’s okay to feel the way you are feeling and still be able to have an open conversation with people who are willing to listen. Philp began to film these children at Good Grief and their stories kind of candidly developed on screen for her, “When you start filming it is often very clear who would be good characters in a film, so instead of looking at their stories, because every one of them is heartbreaking, we started filming the ones that we kept filming, in a life situation like this, not all families are ready to invite a film crew home and we totally respected that.” Philp was also very conscious to choose families that she felt were capable of having her team around, filming on and off during the year.

An Elephant in the Room will take you on an emotional journey with these young children and will make you reminisce on how you processed your own grief. “Good Grief” is an organization that deserves more recognition for what they are doing because they are giving children a safe space to express their pain. Children are affected by everything and need to be guided during difficult times. To all those suffering around the world during this time, please remember your feelings are valid and there are many sources of expression for everyone experiencing any type of loss, trauma or mental anguish. We must work together and help each other overcome tragedy on a global scale at this current time.

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