By Alex Gonzalez
When director Katrine Philp's sister-in-law became ill, she felt despair and sadness watching her family grapple with the emotional pain. Her sister-in-law was suffering from what Philp describes as “bacteria running berserk in her body” and while she survived, Philp says her recovery was a lengthy, strenuous process.
“I watched how she was struggling with her life, while my brother and their three children were by her side, for a very, very, very long time,” Philp tells MTV News. “It was very hard for the entire family. I watched my family, and I could see their powerlessness."
Watching this struggle "planted the seed" for Philp's Beautiful Something Left Behind, from MTV Documentary Films, that follows a group of children as each of them process the death of one or both parents. The idea grew as Philp heard a story similar to the one she experienced while listening to an episode of NPR’s “This American Life” about organizations that help those grieving. That’s how she discovered Good Grief, a nonprofit providing mental health resources to bereaved children and their families based in Morristown, New Jersey.
Philp chatted with CEO Joe Primo via Skype in May 2018, long before video chatting became the new normal in the age of COVID-19. Production on the film was completed before the pandemic struck, but its release is more timely than ever, as the world emerges from a moment of collective trauma. Primo immediately fell in love with Philp’s vision, citing her “gentleness and warmth” as reasons he trusted her to film at the facility. “I think her character is so much what makes up the film and makes it as beautiful as it is,” Primo tells MTV News.
Good Grief was founded in 2004 by a group of volunteers who wanted to serve as advocates for grieving children. Today, the nonprofit offers support groups for children who have lost parents, as well as for surviving adults. Additionally, they coordinate activities for children, as Philp tenderly showcases throughout the film, like setting up headstones in a sandbox, blowing off steam in a “volcano room” where they can cry and scream when they can’t find the words to express their feelings, and saying goodbye to a teddy bear patient in a hospital room.
While it may be comforting to tell a child that their parent has gone to heaven, Good Grief takes a more direct and secular approach to explain death, allowing the child to process the fact that their parent will no longer be present physically.
“At Good Grief, we talk about death being a biological event,” Primo says. “I've heard multiple iterations where somebody will say, ‘Mommy is in heaven,’ but then a day or two later, they're standing around a coffin, in a cemetery. Everybody's crying and the child is like, ‘Wait, if Mommy's in heaven, who's in the box? Why are we here? What is this about?’ And that's because of how adults teach and talk to children about death.”
Philp’s husband, Adam Morris Philp, served as the film’s cinematographer. Over the course of a year, they visited Good Grief [from their home in Copenhagen] three times a week, talking to kids in the program. During the last four months of filming, they moved to Morristown, bringing their two children with them.
While filming, their children would remain behind the scenes, but when the cameras were off, they played with the Good Grief kids. “When you are portraying families in one of those situations, you could imagine how difficult it could be to have a film crew there,” Philp says. “I think coming there as a family and not as a crew helped a lot to gain their trust and to have them relaxed in the situation and to get close to them.”
During the production of Beautiful Something Left Behind in 2018, Philp’s father died unexpectedly. As a child, she remembers being close to him, never leaving his side. She didn’t expect she would have to process her own loss while documenting the children, giving her a new admiration for the strength of the children to be open about their own losses. Navigating that together felt therapeutic, inspiring her to tell the story from the children’s perspective.
“I think that the kids in the film show us what we need to know about grief,” Philp says. “I had the feeling that afterward, people could Google [Good Grief] and ask, ‘Are there any [similar] places near me?’ It was important for me to make this film as a journey into the grief of the children. Grief is not a linear process. It's much more like fragments. And sometimes you're happy and everything is good, and the next moment you're sad. So I wanted to also to work with the structure of the film, and be inspired by the voice of the children.”
The film captures the children in various raw states of emotional recovery. Some can’t get through group meetings without crying; others admit that they haven’t cried. In one scene, a boy who has lost both his parents sends two balloons into the sky, seemingly up to heaven to his parents. One balloon “for Mommy” gets caught in a tree, and his guardian tells him, “Mommy wanted her balloon to stay with you for a little while.”
Beautiful Something Left Behind won SXSW’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary last year, where it was originally set to premiere before the conference was canceled due to the onset of the coronavirus. The pandemic has also affected operations at Good Grief, where children and adults have not been able to have in-person meetings. According to Primo, the nonprofit immediately pivoted to a virtual platform during the early days of lockdown. For their summer camp, which is traditionally held over a week-long period in August, it held a virtual camp during the entirety of last year’s summer months.
The past year was one of loss for many people, and Philp hopes Beautiful Something Left Behind encourages viewers to talk directly about their emotions and reach out to people who are struggling. When her father died, Philp says people would avoid talking about her father as a way to be sensitive about her loss. This, however, made Philp feel more lonely.
“I think that we need to be there for each other, care for each other, and show all the compassion that we can,” Philp says. “Because when you're in grief, it is so isolating. it can be such an isolating feeling if you're not sharing it with anybody. I really hope that this film will make us all braver when we encounter people who have lost, and not be afraid of talking about our emotions and sharing our experiences.”