Criterion Collection: The grieving process in My Life as a Dog


In April I began a personal challenge. I saw a Ted Talk by Matt Cutts, Try Something New for 30 Days. So In April I wrote a poem every day. In May I am going to see a movie I haven’t seen and blog on it. I plan to blog every day instead of randomly. I’ll blog on some new movies that I see in theaters or on Netflix, but I have the Criterion Collection on Hulu and decided to watch some things that interest me from that Collection. I started with…

May 1 My Life as a Dog

Lasse Hallstrom’s 1985 film captures 12-year-old Ingemar’s experience with grief. His perspective is a jumble because adults make decisions about his life without explaining them. And because he’s a kid and processes experiences like a kid.

His mother is terminally ill and his beloved dog has been taken away. The adult who seems to be making decisions for his mother about the boys may be a relative. Whoever he is, he gives him no details about either of them. Ingemar has been branded a troublemaker and told he is too much for his mother to handle. His relationship with his older brother is shaky at best and the two are separated and sent to live with different relatives.

Ingemar responds to a series of impressions, trying to make sense of what is happening in his world. He copes in a number of ways that are both childlike and profound.

It could have been worse. Ingemar says “you have to compare.”  So many sad things happen to him. His coping mechanism is to find something worse that has happened to someone else. Throughout the movie, which is set in the late 1950’s, he imagines what it must have been like for the Russian dog, Laika, sent into space to its death.

He keeps going back to Laika, thinking about what it was like for her alone in space. He thinks of his own dog, which was his emotional center when he lived at home with his sick mother. He sometimes even pretends he is a dog.

I should have told her everything. Throughout the movie Ingemar pictures himself on the beach with his mother, healthy and laughing. Ingemar needs more time with his mother. He hasn’t had enough experiences with her. He hasn’t been able to share his new life at his uncle’s with her. He says that she had just the right sense of humor to appreciate his experiences there. But he can’t tell her because her illness has made her too weak to care.

Loss is hard. Losing a parent at a young age is especially difficult. There is always something more to have said. There is regret that there wasn’t more time. And regret that if there can’t be more time, at least there might have been more memories.

Though the theme is grief, the film is full of humor and adolescent awkwardness. Ingemar goes to live with his uncle and aunt in a quaint community full of characters. His growing relationship with his uncle is funny and reassuring. Little joyous moments of everyday life are interspersed with poignant memories of happier times with his mother, and bouts of grief and loss. Meanwhile he is making friends in his new home with his aunt and uncle, and adapting to change.  He deals with girls, sports, and disagreements. He thinks of Laika. This is how the grieving works.

In one subplot Ingemar accompanies a local woman to pose nude for a sculptor who is doing a work of a mother and child. After Ingemar returns from seeing his mother one last time the sculpture has been completed and is set to be displayed. Eventually it is returned because the mother is “too naked.”

Something I liked in My Life as a Dog was that grief was so naked.  Instead of presenting the standard stages of grief as an organized process, Ingemar’s experiences are the non-linear impressions of a child. Something about this approach felt fresh and natural. Knowing the stages of grief may provide a sense of control, but also may oblige us to feel we must tick through them like a checklist.  

As a child who has no control over the big decisions in his life and little guidance, Ingemar processes experiences and deals with realizations as they come. He finally finds out his dog has been euthanized and his sense of loss and betrayal overcomes him. But Ingemar is loved, he is part of a community, and he is going to be okay. 

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