As Grief Metaphors Cross, Godzilla Is Higher than Maximum


My daughter Jess loved King Kong. We watched the films, swapped trading cards, posters, magazines, even the novel by Edgar Wallace. Godzilla was different. She never understood why her step-mother and I enjoy the movies. “Sure, Godzilla’s really big,” she laughed. “But so what?”

Grief arrives unbidden, stays as long as it will, lumbers through uncaring, leaves on a whim.

Jess had a point. Godzilla is not horrifying or even slightly creepy. The film’s warning about unchecked nuclear testing still rings true, but as with all myth, modern or ancient, we sense there is something else going on. When this allegorical behemoth lumbers through our lives, we can do little more than deal with the damage. We are helpless in the wake of its devastation. 

My daughter died in 2015. She was twenty-six. The loss is so primal that I can think of no metaphor more apt. Godzilla has arrived.

“This is a bad movie,” Roger Ebert writes of the original Godzilla (1954). “But it has earned its place in history.” The treatment by novelist Shigeru Kayama was a basic giant monster story. Writer Takeo Murata and director Ishirō Honda then reworked his outline into their morality tale of a leviathan borne of nuclear weapons testing. Later, writing a young adult novelization of the film, Kayama saw wisdom in their changes. “Atomic and hydrogen bombs,” he observes, “have taken on the form of Godzilla in this story.”

Godzilla was released two years after American occupational forces left the Japanese islands. Prior to that, creative artists labored under strict governmental controls on how they discussed nuclear weapons. The film broke a powerful cultural taboo about atomic testing. But it did more. 

Godzilla was a metaphor for the monster in the room—Japan’s national grief over war, loss, and the devastation of atomic bombs. Audiences left theaters in tears. “Godzilla is equipment for living through trauma,” writes rhetorician Shannon Stevens with the University of Nevada. “A film that explores trauma metaphorically allows viewers to revisit their past trauma simultaneously with the characters on the screen . . . but in a guided and safe way.”  

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering?”

Over the decades, Godzilla has taken many forms: some thoughtful; others silly. Yet each incarnation adds a new interpretation to this creature that seems at once mythological and modern. Why does such a callous force of nature speak to us? Perhaps because, like death and grief, Godzilla is unstoppable. 

Bereavement is permanent. There is no solution, no good news, no consolation that will return our dead to us right now. Yet we will always love them and will forever feel their absence in our lives. Grief is a natural and healthy expression of that love. It can also seem monstrous.

This paradox may be difficult for others to understand. And so we turn to metaphors.

Grief comes in waves, we say: slow, relentless, consuming, receding. This is accurate enough, but to avoid swells we need simply leave the seashore. A storm is another popular comparison. Again, with inclement weather, we might choose to evacuate or at least head indoors. Alas, there is no running or hiding from grief.

Perhaps death is analogous to losing a limb, we suggest. It will never grow back, never “heal,” per se. We must adjust and adapt to its lack. C. S. Lewis said this about the loss of his wife, adding that he would always be aware of the stump. Later he changed his mind. “I was deceived,” he writes, “because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one.” 

Psychologist and bereaved parent Catherine Sanders also sees grief as an amputation. “It is like having a part of ourselves sliced away,” she writes. “The pain is unbearable. Even when scar tissue has formed, the agony of living without that part of ourselves leaves us feeling isolated and different, awkward and unsure. There is no prosthesis.”

One staple of early Lutheran funeral poetry described parental bereavement as a gaping wound that requires timely treatment or it will fester. In 1690, Margarethe Susanna von Kuntsch’s nine-year-old daughter died; the eleventh child she had lost. She wrote that the new death was a wound that reopened her ten others, specifically comparing it to Jeremiah’s cry of Israel in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering?”

“Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons who created them.”

I facilitate bereavement support groups. We do a good bit of sharing, but ultimately words fail us. Our grief is beyond metaphors of the physical. I frequently suggest that the pain of loss may be described in literal, rather than figurative, terms: Our souls have taken harm. This is certainly true for me. True healing will be ours the moment I hold Jess in my arms again. Until then, I love her in absence. But I never feel completely alone.

Some time ago I was working under our truck, replacing a starter, when I chanced to look aside. The sunset was breathtaking, a moment like so many I have shared with Jess. It seemed that if I turned my head, I might see her beside me banging away at an errant rusted part. Suddenly, grimy and lying on my back beneath a half-repaired engine, I was weeping. These moments still sneak up on me. They force me to pause and take time to mourn. Sorrow cannot be denied, pushed to the side, ignored, or “worked through.” It is the price we pay for love. 

Grief arrives unbidden, stays as long as it will, lumbers through uncaring, leaves on a whim. It offers no pact or truce. But even in the face of such devastation, I am not helpless. I choose grief because I choose love. In mourning my daughter, I am loving her. “Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons who created them,” observes a character in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). “There are some things beyond our understanding. We must accept them and learn from them. Because these moments of crisis are also potential moments of faith.” 

As grief metaphors go, Godzilla is better than most.