A Conversation About Grieving with Director Shawn Snyder

I talked to Shawn Snyder, director and co-writer of the new feature film "To Dust," about making the movie, grieving for his mother, and much more. I wanted to share some of his thoughts, because he had some great insights on death and grieving. Here's what Snyder had to say…

On the Jewish timeline for mourning

I come from a Reformed Jewish background, which certainly isn't a Hasidic background, and yet there is this baked-in approach to grief. It's timelines and guideposts. And I've always found this Jewish way of grief and mourning to be incredibly profound. While it's ancient, it's incredibly intuitive in terms of a psychological understanding of grief. It's very life-affirming in the face of loss, and it sort of understands that there needs to be this allowed-for period of extreme externalized grief before it tries to guide the mourner back to the land of the living.

There's this period called aninut. It's in the 24 hours between death and burial, where there is this understanding that you are not held responsible for your feelings, your actions, that you don't have to follow any of the rules of Judaism. You can't do the things that you're not allowed to do, but you don't have to do the things that you're usually required to do. And it's this understanding that, like, you are in another place, you're disembodied.

On how grief evolves

You know, my grief persists 10 years on, and it's not something that I feel strange about. I don't feel depressive. I don't want to repress it, or purge it, or exorcise it. It's something that I appreciate, the way in which it evolves and stays with me, insofar as that helps keeps my relationship to my mom evolving in its own way, and it keeps my own existential compass pointed in the right direction.

We all have to find our own way through, and our own personal meaning, in the cycle that demands that we keep going without the people who we love.

On wanting to understand how the decomposition process works

I've never really felt comfort at my mom's grave. I've only ever been aware of the biological entity that was once my mom. And it's not where I find her. I've probably visited five times in 10 years and I just always feel awkward. 

In the aftermath of her passing, I had these very human thoughts, that I think that we all have. They're dark, and they're macabre, and they're morbid, and they're obsessive. They're sort of, you know, your imagination unleashed because we don't understand what happens to a body.

[You're not supposed to talk about that, but] if you admit to those thoughts, especially from the depths of grief, everybody just tends to say, "No, you don't need to think about that now." You're just discouraged from those thoughts, and so you feel very alone in them, and you feel very strange, and you repress them, as I repressed them. And when you repress things, they just come back with a vengeance. 

I don't think, as individuals, and as a culture, and as a society, that we have a very healthy relationship with death. I don't know what that actually looks like, but I know that ours isn't. We individually and we societally repress it. Even religions that want to sort of look at it honestly, like this idea from dust to dust is a very poetic way of masking over the gruesome mechanisms through which that happens. 

The way that the movie came together was that I was taking those thoughts that I was having and kind of grafting them onto the Jewish timeline for mourning, which is very defined. So, okay, it's seven days. We've just finished Shiva. This is where I'm at emotionally. What does my mom's body look like? Okay, it's been 30 days, etc., etc. 

I realized that if one were to go crazy with that thought, and to actually engage it, and to dig deep, that you would have a scientific question on your hands. And then, you'd be putting science in conversation with religion, and both of those in conversation with grief and human experience, and that it would make for a very interesting conversation.

I realized that, if somebody has these thoughts, if somebody wants to go there, they should be allowed to without feeling strange. And if you go there, and you can stare this in its face, perhaps there is sort of this spiritual beauty on the other side of it, and sort of a mysticism in the science. 

There's a lot of nuanced ways that that's true, but just essentially, even boiling it down to the sense that matter is finite and we become other things, and should that process be allowed to proceed unencumbered, there is a beauty there.

On the folkloric creature the dybbuk

[I was interested in] finding the nuanced understanding of the dybbuk versus just the pop cultural one, which is that it's a malevolent spirit that needs to be exorcised. I watched this 1937 film, "The Dybbuk." It cast the idea of the dybbuk in a new light. And I boil it down to this: a dybbuk could possibly be benevolent, and a host is potentially willing. When those two things merge together, that's beautiful and necessary. 

I came to understand that that was just this beautiful metaphor for grief. Do you need to purge your grief, or do you need to let it live inside you? If the dybbuk is a metaphor for grief, or if it's, more explicitly, the person who's been lost, do you heal when you exorcise them or do you actually heal when they are allowed to healthily, and properly, and organically embed inside you? And then, you become that person's continued expression in the world or, perhaps, metaphysical eyes on the world.

In terms of thinking about grief, and healing, and ways in which this movie led to my own revelations about it… It's the stuff of horrific folklore, and yet there's something really beautiful and profound. I mean, if I had a Greek chorus of my ancestors inside me, I don't think that would be the worst thing, necessarily.

On helping grievers via his art

Here's a videophile metaphor that's a bit wonky. We were talking a lot about Val Lewton, who was this producer at RKO in the 1930s. And he got sort of holed up in the B horror department. They basically said, "You can make whatever movie you want. It just has to have these titles on it."

They're titles like "Return of the Cat People" and "The Isle of the Dead." He did a movie called "The Body Snatchers," which was about grave robbing for science. And in this movie that he made, "The Return of the Cat People," he was like, "I'm going to take these concepts and allow it to become poetry or meditations on the human experience." And that becomes this movie about child psychology. It went on to be taught in developmental psychology classes, perhaps even in some classes to this day.

I hope that this movie might become some form of grief therapy or some form of catharsis, or healing, or starting a conversation. Our Q&As around the country have been so touching and beautiful, and they often evolve into this confessional with people talking about their own experiences of grief.

My favorite one was this woman at [the Tribeca Film Festival] who's Southern Baptist from Louisiana. She said, "Look, I came up here for the weekend. I just saw Matthew Broderick's name. I don't know anything about the Hasidic community, but I thought I'd come see the movie. But I lost my mom three years ago and I can't tell you how much this feels, in an uncanny way, like my story about me mourning my mom."

And I hope that this movie could potentially evolve into that. I've spoken with grief counselors who've watched it and they've said, "It understands the psychology of it."