Bereavement in the Ordinary People

Ordinary People is a famous drama film produced in 1980 on the story of the Jarretts, an American family. The story is based around the fact that the family is highly affluent and trying to cope with two traumatizing events in their lives. While one of the teenage sons, Buck, dies in a storm accident at sea, the other event involves an attempted suicide by Conrad, another of their sons. The family is renowned for their organized interpersonal relations which is attributable to the affluent nature of the family (Guest, 1980). Buck was a man adored by man for his successful and likeable nature and is a popular athlete swimmer in his school. Buck maintains a good relationship with Conrad, his brother, with whom he swims together with Lazenby, another of their friend. The mother, Beth showed a clear preference for Buck and took pride in his achievements but their father, Calvin is generally an open-hearted man who is fair to all his sons. The response of the family after the demise of Buck is explored in this paper with an emphasis on the interventions necessary to help the family in moving on after his death (Worden, 2009).

The analysis of the family’s response to Buck’s demise cannot be done in isolation from the event before and after the death. In fact, the entire film is a chronicle of the response of the family to the death of their son. Before the death, the movie depicts the family as a complete unit headed by their father who is a tax attorney. At face value, therefore, the movie depicts the family as having a healthy and loving relationship. The couple is in particular portrayed as loving and affectionate with each other leading to suggestions that they are ideally happy. In addition, the happiness of the couple is complimented by the existence of a large circle of friends rendering their life almost perfect. Worden, (2009) argues that the social interactions within a family contribute to their overall happiness.  Through several flashbacks played in the movie, the viewer can attest to the fact that the family has a perfect son in Buck. Indeed, he is portrayed as funny and self confident as well as handsome and athletic, something that is different from his brother. Conrad in contrast is introspective and inhibited in nature to the point that his bedroom is barren and has no outstanding qualities. Perhaps, the natures of the different family members affect their response to the death of Buck.

The mother, Beth Jarrett, is perhaps the most affected by the death of Buck due to the high pride she had in her son. The entire film covers her in sadness out of the feelings of losing his favorite son. In fact, the only time that the mother is captured laughing is during her son’s younger life through flashbacks. Even these flashbacks suggest that her happiness and laugh was mostly in the company of her son pointing to a mother who truly adored her son. However, despite the enormous feelings of pain that she harbors, she chooses not to express them to anyone. Concealment of feelings and emotions especially when they reflect sadness is detrimental to one’s health (Worden, 2009) That notwithstanding, there are small glimpses of painful ordeal in response to Buck’s death. Some of the inhibition with which she responds to her son’s death can be attributed to her mother who had similar attributes (Guest, 1980). Still, there is reason to believe that Beth suffered more than Calvin despite both having been deeply struck hard by the incident. The reason for this discrepancy lies in the personality of Beth who was detached from people in general and the death of her son thus meant she lacked connection and affection. Her method of sweeping issues under the carpet can be seen in her decision not to seek professional help in dealing with the situation.

The traumatic event of losing a son is also depressing for Calvin, Buck’s father. The film portrays him as a man who loved his family in equal measure and one that is not shy of expressing of his emotions. This development is in contrast with Beth’s nature of concealing her emotions and avoiding the public’s judgment regarding the family’s trouble. To her, seeking professional help is a sign of weakness that must not be attributed with his family. Calvin on the other hand misses his son greatly and is also concerned about Conrad and his behavior. These two reasons push the man into seeking professional help for his son and later on for himself. Although he tries in helping Conrad out of the situation, his attempts are not effective until he seeks the guidance of a professional therapist. Unlike his wife, Calvin maintains his focus on the present and does not let the events of the past to affect his current livelihood. This behavior is cited as an important intervention in dealing with grief (Worden, 2009). In addition, Calvin is affected by the fact that he fails in his attempts to help his son cope with the problems he faced. Still, Conrad faces problems with his mother thus requiring the attention of Calvin but he eventually fails in his reconciliatory attempts. Consequently, he seeks the help of Dr. Berger in coping with the family problems that include the death of his son Buck.

Although bereavement is marginally covered in the film, the effects of Buck’s demise on Conrad forms a great part of the script. For some reason, Conrad seems to be the most affected of all the family members by the sudden death of his brother. Part of the reasons for this problem stems from the fact that he witnessed the death of Buck at sea during the storm. He responds to the death of Buck in pain which is readily apparent leading him to act out of the ordinary (Guest, 1980). The film narrates a scenario where he had tried to commit suicide after the death of his brother resulting in his hospitalization. It is true that he continued to blame himself for the death of his brother thus leading to his depression even after being discharged from the hospital. Consequently, the results of this response are captured in his withdrawal from friends and the lack of enjoyment in life. Despite these sad feelings, Conrad suppresses the feelings following in her mother’s example. Sometime later, however, Conrad seeks psychotherapy help from Dr. Berger after encouragement from his father. The professional helps in the confrontation and challenging of the problems facing Conrad despite the latter’s resistance. In the process, Conrad openly expresses his feelings including those of guilt. The impact of the therapy on Conrad is testament in his sudden change in life where he no longer suppressed anger and feelings. Eventually, he is effective in confronting his guilt of surviving and thus allowing himself an opportunity to enjoy life.

The family would have reacted better to the death of their son if they had used basic family intervention approaches. For instance, the family should have met with the survivors both as a unit as well as individually (Worden, 2009). This intervention is important in helping the survivors to overcome the traumatic event of witnessing the death. If this had been applied, Conrad would have reacted to the event positively and helped in the alleviation of his survivor guilt. Still, new family alliances should have been formed or the existing ones discarded. Evidently, the existing family alliances were upset following the death of Buck and a readjustment of the same was therefore necessary. This intervention would have been helpful to both Conrad and Beth because they all felt that they had lost their alliance partners.

In the family response to the death of Buck, Conrad was often made the scapegoat and especially by her mother. Accordingly, all the family problems were occasioned by him including the death of his brother. Such accusations resulted in a negative response and a change of the same would have yielded better results (Kissane et al, 2007). Another intervention would have been telling the whole story and not suppressing the fact that they had lost a family member. Disengaging from the community has similar results as cutting off one’s social links and is not encouraged in such situations. Talking to friends about the feelings that the family harbored would have resulted in much better responses to the death of Buck. Finally, the use of therapy on all family members should have been applied immediately after Buck’s death (Kissane et al, 2006). The family therapy helps in addressing the effects of mourning on the life of the family and their subsequent interactions.



Guest, J. (1980). Ordinary people. Clinton, MD: film

Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York, NY: Springer Pub. Co.

Kissane, D. W., McKenzie, M., Bloch, S., Moskowitz, C., McKenzie, D. P., & O’Neill, I. (2006). Family focused grief therapy: a randomized, controlled trial in palliative care and bereavement. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(7), 1208-1218.

Kissane, D. W., Bloch, S., & McKenzie, D. P. (2007). Family coping and bereavement outcome. Palliative medicine, 11(3), 191-201.


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