Grave Losses: Fight or Flight?

Life In Space Is Impossible

What kind of beautiful and terrifying space does Gravity tell us about? The vast reaches of outer space, to be sure. Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Gravity, is a cinematographically beautiful cliffhanger of a space odyssey. Yet, there is a compelling psychological subtext: the gravity of Dr. Ryan Stone’s unresolved grief. What does a lonely woman, with absolutely no one, do when she’s lost the only person who gave her life the least bit of meaning?  She goes into the silence of an internal space – as far away from reality as she can, and with questionable desire to return. What reverses this kind of flight?

Withdrawing Into A Silent Space From Loss

Dr. Ryan Stone likes the silence of space. We learn the emotional reason early in the film when Mission Commander Matt Kowalski asks her about home.  She replies, “At home, I drive. Anywhere, I don’t care as long as I don’t talk … I had a daughter. She was four. At school playing tag. Slipped and hit her head. That was it. Stupidest thing. I was driving when I got the call … I wake up. Go to work. And, I just drive.”

Her car: a self-containing capsule silencing any reminders of her loss. Now, we find her on a space mission, even farther from the worldly realities of her grief. This mission, we soon see, is a mission to save her life in more ways than one. What is this mission psychologically and when do we see it begin?

Dr. Stone works alone in space the way she likes it, suspended in the zero-gravity enclosure of a spacesuit, not unlike the capsule of her car. Suddenly, a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite causes a catastrophic chain reaction. A cloud of dangerous space debris is hurled at her. For Baby Boomers, intergalactic destruction brings up memories of the Cold War – and Ryan Stone is certainly in a cold war with her feelings. The debris storm begins to pelt her with traces of feelings she tries to silence: fear and need, hidden in lonely self-sufficiency.

The Scariness of Needing Help

Underneath her stony exterior (can we overlook her name is Stone?), Ryan’s in a nameless state of emergency. Thinking detachment will save her, that there is a kind of beauty in silent retreat from everything that hurts her, Ryan has cut off communication with people. But, as Gravity shows, this self-imposed loneliness becomes terrifying when she’s hurled into space, communication with “Houston” (Mission Control) is blacked out, and she finally faces her need for help:

“I’m drifting. I’m off structure. Do you copy anyone? Please copy.  Please!”  Kowalski tethers her to him – an attachment I can only assume she’s never allowed herself to want. Why? We see clues throughout the movie. There’s no one “down there” looking up, no one to mourn her if she dies. No one. She’s convinced herself she’s fine on her own. Now, she knows she isn’t. (“Pretty scary shit,” as Kowalski says.)

Childhood Trauma Makes Getting Help Harder

Inside each of us lives a child. In some less fortunate people, there’s a traumatized child, like there is in Ryan Stone. Her dad wanted a boy. We hear nothing of her mom.  We know how lonely she is, see her attempts at total self-reliance, deep and enduring despair, and a life that doesn’t feel worth living. Were there critical voices she wanted to silence?

In luckier ones, this child carries happy memories and develops into an adult full of life, curiosity, and especially, optimism — like Kowalski. When another explosion sends Kowalski away, Ryan panics. She begs, she pleads. She realizes how utterly alone she is. Kowalski, though, is Ryan’s linchpin of hope: “You’re going to make it Ryan,” he reassures her as he drifts into outer space. It takes her a while to believe him.

With Kowalski now gone, Ryan struggles to make it to the emergency airlock in the battered US space station, where she immediately sheds her protective spacesuit. She floats, naked, like an embryo. Is this doomed resignation? Or, is it the beginning of a desire to live? She tries to contact Kowalski. “Please talk to me,” she pleads. “Houston in the blind! Come in please!” She doesn’t want silence or disconnection any longer. But, she’s torn both ways. Does she really want help? After all, she’s believed there’s no reason to live. Now? She battles to get away from another debris storm. The debris of feelings she’s been running from.

What Therapy Can Offer

Let’s consider the possibility that Ryan Stone has enough fight in her to counteract her desire to fly far, far away from the emotional storms of loss and somehow ends up on my couch. I’d gently help her feel what she can’t feel alone. At times, she wouldn’t like my kind of help. Her feelings, understandably, scare her. I’d help Ryan understand, though, that her retreat from feeling gives her no foundation for managing life’s difficulties.

In therapy, she’d be pulled back and forth, in a fierce battle, between the seductive beauty and the terror of living in a feeling-less space. Yet, if she decides to embrace life – life unavoidably involves feeling. Fears we’d face together? She’d expect me to leave her, and she’d withdraw into her usual self-sufficiency. She’d inevitably worry, am I really there? Or am I coldly unavailable? In times apart, she’d even feel I’m completely gone. Trust is hard to come by. But, over time, Ryan just might come to know that facing unbearable grief is easier with someone who listens and understands.

First, she must accept her need for help. She tries. After a harrowing maneuver to reach the Chinese space station, she discovers that her emergency capsule won’t properly dislodge. Frantically, she calls out: “May Day. May Day.”  In response, she hears Chinese voices, a moment of short-lived encouragement. The silence of her despair is broken, but the voices are from Earth.

Healing & The Fight To Come Alive

Someone is singing a lullaby. In an instant, the song beckons the lonely little girl still living inside – the one who is crying out to be rescued. Does anyone hear her? Is her death wish still too strong? “Sing me to sleep. There is no oxygen,” she murmurs in defeat. “Say a prayer for me?  Or is it too late? No one ever taught me how to pray.”  Worse, really –  no one taught her to hope.

But, Kowalski isn’t far away. She hallucinates him as her oxygen-deprived mind slowly drifts away. Suddenly, she comes alert. She thinks he’s survived. And he has, as a life force, as a part of her that wants to live. He—the voice of courage inside her—challenges her death wish: “I get it. It’s nice up here. No one can hurt you. What’s the point of living? Your kid died; nothing worse than that. But, you’ve got to plant both feet on the ground. Hey, Ryan. It’s time to go home.”

Still uprooted and living in the zero-gravity of her loss, it’s not an easy decision. Yet, the only way to find her footing is to feel her grief: “Give [Sarah] a big kiss for me and tell her Mama misses her…Tell her I’m not quitting.”

Her will to live is victorious as she takes her first steps back on Earth after a fiery re-entry. In the end, Ryan Stone is rescued from her belief that retreating to a capsule of silent isolation is better than the risk of human connection and feeling. Life in the seemingly beautiful space of a flight away from loss is ultimately impossible.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.