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Unbearable Grief in Rabbit Hole (2010)

Rabbit Hole’ (2010), starring Aaron Eckhart (Howie Corbett) and Nicole Kidman (Becca Corbett) in her Academy Award-nominated role, tells a story of  devastating grief and the ways we attempt to escape from such unbearable emotions.

Eight months before the film opens, Becca and Howie’s young son Danny was killed when he chased their dog into the street and a teenage driver ran him down.   As a couple, Howie and Becca have not yet come to emotional terms with the death of their only child; one of the sobering messages of this film is that there are certain kinds of loss from which one never truly recovers.

Howie seems more engaged in processing his grief than his wife.  He actively mourns their son, watching old videos, revisiting his memories and getting involved with a grief support group.  He wants to resume sexual relations with Becca and reconnect with friends: Howie’s grief, while deep, feels manageable to him.

Becca, on the other hand, can’t seem to bear her grief or anything that reminds her of Danny.  She invents excuses not to accept social invitations from their friends who also have children.  At the grief support group, she remains silent for months, then becomes hostile toward another couple trying to find solace in religion.  She rejects Howie’s sexual advances.  She has already gotten rid of the family dog and as the story unfolds, she also takes down Danny’s drawings and wants to remove other evidence of his presence in their home.  Eventually, she decides she wants to sell the house because she can’t bear the reminders, including his fingerprints on the walls.

In other words, rather than trying to bear her grief, Becca wants to avoid everything that reminds her of it because the pain feels intolerable, more than she can bear.  In the grief support group, she uses contempt, another distancer, to set herself at a remove from the other mourning couples and from her own grief.

She also expresses contempt for her mother, who lost an adult child (Becca’s brother) 11 years ago.  Because it’s difficult selectively to split-off certain unwanted feelings while holding onto others, Becca seems shut down across the emotional spectrum.  No pleasure, no pain — a kind of brittle, sterile existence in which she avoids experiences that threaten to stir up emotion of any kind.

Eventually, she finds solace by making contact with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage boy responsible for Danny’s death.  While she can’t bear to be intimate with her husband and share his grief, Jason’s obvious depression mirrors her own in a way that gives her comfort.  This relationship allows her, in the end, to tap into her grief,  to weep bitterly and profoundly for the loss of her son and truly to begin the mourning process.

Becca’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest), in the film’s most moving speech, tells how that mourning process never quite ends.  The pain never goes away, she tells Becca, though it eventually become bearable.  “It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and carry around like a brick in your pocket.  You even forget it for a while.  But then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is. … Which can be awful, but not all the time.   It’s kind of — not that you like it exactly — but it’s what you’ve got instead of your son.”

In the final scene, as the Corbetts discuss what will come next as they attempt to resume their former lives, the bereft, almost baffled look on their faces (pictured above) tells us that while life goes on, must go on, they will never truly escape their sense of loss.   Becca at last reaches for Howie’s hand, her first physically intimate gesture: they will have each other, their shared pain and memories, and all they can hope to do is get through it together.

Unbearable Grief in Rabbit Hole (2010)

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2011). Unbearable Grief in Rabbit Hole (2010). Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 1 Mar 2011
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