Sandra Bullock’s Portrayal of Trauma and Grief in “Gravity”

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie “Gravity” yet, you may want to read this AFTER you have seen the movie.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is a portrait of how we deal with traumatic loss, and how resiliency is basic in human nature.

When we first meet Ryan Stone, she’s basically focused on her job, and the task at hand: fixing a communications board on the Hubble telescope in space. Juxtaposed to that are her fellow crew members who are like kids in a zero gravity candy shop. George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, is literally screwing around, having fun, wasting air, listening to country music the radio, bantering with Houston AND trying to break a Russian space walk record.

And there’s Ryan Stone, just doing her job. We eventually find out that Ryan Stone has lost her only daughter while playing in the school playground: a freak accident with no explanation and no meaning to Ryan Stone.

Ryan Stone is grieving. This grief is so big that it has become a huge trauma that has impacted her life on many levels. And from this trauma, her life becomes dull, shut down, isolated, and feeling all-alone.

As she grieved, her favorite moments of the day were when she would be driving in her car by herself with the radio turned off: quiet and shut off from the world. Out of grief and trauma, Ryan Stone shuts herself off from the world. She puts up an emotional barrier between herself and everyone around her. This is common in trying to deal with the pain of trauma. She just goes to work, and takes solace in the isolation of her car. She just wants to be far away from everything and everyone.

Outer space is about as far and as quiet as you can get. It is also a dramatic life changing decision, which sometimes people do when they are grieving or experienced trauma.  Leaving the planet altogether certainly fits the bill of a dramatic life changing decision. What better way of getting away from all the pain, and all of the reminders of her daughter?  You even get away from the weight of your body, released from the gravity of the earth.

But in even in space, she can’t escape the thoughts of her daughter. She wants to focus on her job, but she can’t let go of the pain, so the memory persists.  Sometimes when people grieve or experience a traumatic loss, they feel that letting go of the pain somehow dishonors the memory of the person who has passed, or somehow that letting go of the pain means letting go of the person as well. Either way, they have not healed from the loss.

Houston is concerned about Ryan Stone’s vitals. She’s showing signs of fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Although these could be symptoms of someone who is ill, or perhaps “newbie nerves,” it’s more likely it is due to her trauma.

The music, the zero gravity, the chatter, the job… it’s getting to her.  She got Matt Kowalski to turn off the music, but there was no way to stop him from telling another one of his “I have a bad feeling about this” stories. Houston can’t even shut him off.  Ryan Stone will always hear voices in her helmet. It’s never quiet. Not great if you’ve recently experience trauma, and are still grieving. But she just tries to focus on her job.

Ryan Stone’s coworkers actually know very little about her at all.  She prefers to keep it that way: professional and impersonal. Matt Kowalski doesn’t even know if she’s married, or has a boyfriend/girlfriend, or has any kids. This type of guardedness sometimes comes from grieving and trauma as well. The last thing she wants if for people to ask her about her personal life.

Throughout the movie, Ryan Stone and the crew are bombarded with one cinematic cataclysm after another. Matt Kowalski rallies Ryan Stone through it all like a Jedi.  He tells her to hold on, to hold onto anything, everything! Just hold on!

When they have a moment to breathe, Matt Kowalski tries to keep her mind off of the catastrophe, and calm her down by just having a conversation.  She opens up to him, and he learns for the first time of her loss, and the pain she is holding onto.

By opening up to him, by sharing her pain, she becomes emotionally bonded to him. He becomes her ally, a powerful resource for those suffering from trauma.  She doesn’t feel alone for the first time in years and doesn’t want to be alone anymore.

But this bond is short lived. Ryan Stone tries to stay connected, but Matt Kowalski makes the ultimate command decision, and puts the success of the mission (return the crew safely to Earth) first like a pro.

Eventually, Ryan Stone is left alone in space. Matt Kowalski’s last command to Ryan Stone was to keep going, and to learn to let go. Although she is traumatized by the loss, some part of her hopes there is time to save him.

Meanwhile, the universe continues to bombard Ryan Stone with an onslaught of unpredictable challenges, one after another.  The struggle never stops. And Ryan Stone never stops fighting back.

That is until she believes she is believes she out of all options.  She’s dead in space in an escape pod with no fuel left. And she’s alone.

This isn’t what she thought it would be like: alone and away from it all.  She still has the pain. And what’s worse is that she’s alone with the pain. Just a long, lonely wait till the end with nothing but pain.

Ryan Stone gives up.

Just then, something happens. Some part of her begins to believe or wants to believe that she is not alone, and that there are still options. A part of her wants to keep moving, keep fighting, to hold onto life, and let go of pain. Some part of her draws strength from her ally (Matt Kowalski), and her mind begins searching, grasping for everything, and anything, until she finally finds a solution.  It’s a long shot but that’s better than giving up.

But the universe isn’t done with Ryan Stone yet. The universe throws one catastrophic astrophysics conundrum after another. Even when she gets all the way back to Earth, and makes it onto land, Earth throws gravity and the weight of the Earth onto her body.

Ryan Stone just laughs. She has experienced traumatic loss. She has been beat up by the universe. And she just laughs. She chooses to hold onto life and fight for it, rather than let pain hold her down.

She is a different person now. She has emotionally evolved.

Ryan Stone find the strength to rise out of the ocean and onto her feet. She still has a long way to go, but we know she will make it… one step at a time.

This movie “Gravity” is a portrayal of the daily human struggle… the will to be alive and the desire to feel “alive.”

Ryan Stone is a beautiful example of how trauma can impact someone to such an extreme that they just end up going through the motions of their daily life. They are alive but not really “alive”.

EMDR has helped millions of people overcome traumatic events to where the person can begin to feel more engaged in their life. When people face their traumas it can feel just like what Ryan Stone went through, one thing hitting them after another, until they feel like giving up.  With EMDR therapy, the resiliency of the person arises within, and helps people transform their pain into their strengths.

If you are suffering from trauma, reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness; it actually shows great courage to do the right thing. If you are struggling, please find the strength within you to reach out, and get the help you need to rise above the pain, and to feel alive again… one step at a time.