The final scene of Brokeback Mountain shows the aged Ennis Del Mar walking over to the closet in his trailer and opening it. Inside, the two shirts belonging to him and his beloved Jack Twist hang next to a photograph of Brokeback Mountain, serving as mementoes of their love.
This scene has been widely praised—the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis once famously described it “as moving as anything [he] ha[s] ever seen.” Although I also find this scene moving, there is something more to these two shirts than just symbols of the love between Ennis and Jack.
We are always told to overcome the pain of loss and move on after losing a relationship. But what if some (or maybe most) of us cannot do this? What if finding peace is much more of a struggle? What if there are always two shirts hanging in our closets, hiding from others’ sight?
For me it was a hug, one I could not or am not willing to forget after all these years. Both of us were from a conservative culture in which women and men cannot touch or be touched by each other unless they are married. I lost him before we had managed to get married, and that unlawful hug became my hidden shirts in the closet.
For a long time, I assumed I was a weak person since I kept remembering him and our hug. In modern society, staying in the past is a sign of weakness. Besides, there are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) according to the very popular and effective theory by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I should have passed through all these, and yet I have not. So, I was technically a weak person. The guardian angel who set me free from torturing myself was Pauline Boss. The first time I heard about her was during the pandemic—I came across her book The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change, which taught me that living a productive life can still be possible for those crippled by loss.
In Boss’s words, ambiguous loss is “a loss that remains unclear and without official verification or immediate resolution, which may never be achieved.” She explains that it is normal to feel depressed for weeks after such a loss, but eventually we readapt to everyday life.
Still, we may occasionally feel waves of sadness (termed oscillations) and that’s perfectly normal: “While the grief may never stop completely,” Boss emphasizes, “the upside is that these times of sadness no longer dominate.”
She also introduces six guidelines for living with loss. These can be followed in any order; they don’t have to be done linearly or step by step: “finding meaning, adjusting need for mastery, reconstructing identity, normalizing ambivalence, revising attachment, and discovering new hope.” Note that applying these guidelines takes time.
Now let us take another look at the final scene of Brokeback Mountain. When his daughter comes to his trailer and invites him to her wedding, Ennis declines and makes excuses at first. But after a while, he makes up his mind and accepts the invitation. After his daughter leaves him and he is alone, he walks to the closet and the shirts. He looks at the shirts and says, “Jack, I swear.” Here, he swears not to mess up again when treating a loved one (the way he did with Jack and their relationship), and this is a new meaning he has found in his life, even if the pain never ends and the oscillations never stop.
Personally, I came to the idea that not to forget a love is not a weakness. It is the total opposite. It means that one can be strong and that despite the heartbreak they went through, they are able to love again and seize every hug and every kiss ever after.
“Daniel Day-Lewis Dedicates Award to Heath Ledger,” People, Published January 27, 2008, people.com/awards/daniel-day-lewis-dedicates-award-to-heath-ledger/
Kristen Rogers, “5 stages of grief, and how to get through them,” CNN, Updated July 28, 2022, cnn.com/2021/09/12/health/five-stages-of-grief-kubler-ross-meaning-wellness/index.html