Healing the Shockwaves of Abortion

In the Netflix Series “The Crown” Winston Churchill Enters the Deep and Murky Waters of Male Grief and Loss

by Kevin Burke, LSW

Netflix's ten-part series The Crown premiered in November 2016.  The Crown is a lavish drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in post-war Britain. 

If you are a devotee of the HBO epic Game of Thrones, you will likely be disappointed by the scarcity of graphic sex and violence.  However, if you are a fan of compelling stories set in a fascinating historical period, excellent acting, with no expense spared for costume and sets - then take a look at The Crown. 

It is refreshing that the writers and director allow time for the stories to breathe and develop.

From the Telegraph:

Like “Downton Abbey,” this is a series you watch to see actors being given the time to act…

As the series unfolds, we begin an intimate journey with Queen Elizabeth and the man she calls “my first Prime Minister”, Winston Churchill.  The British monarchy and government are struggling to find their place in the emerging new world order rising out of the ashes of war.  As the series progresses, we witness a growing tension between the Queen and Churchill as the Prime Minister begins to advance in age and experiences a natural decline in his health and stamina. 

This dilemma reaches a head in the final episode of season one, entitled Assassins (which is not about an actual assassination.)  Interwoven into this episode, is the intriguing relationship that develops between Churchill and Modernist painter Graham Sutherland, and the role of Sutherland in helping Churchill face both his age related limitations, but also something much deeper and intimate.

The Murky Waters of Grief

In the season one finale, British Parliament has commissioned the artist Sutherland (played by actor Stephen Dillane) to paint a portrait of Churchill to celebrate his 80th birthday.  The tension and dialog between Churchill and Sutherland provides an excellent framework to look at what can be challenging territory for any man – the murky waters of grief and loss. 

Churchill is an amateur painter and at various times throughout the series we see Winston taking retreat from the pressures of his larger-than-life role in domestic and international politics, to sit by his backyard pond painting the serene landscape.   

Yet he struggles to capture the essence of the scene...as it eludes him time and time again.  The experience of painting this pond is more like a violent wrestling match for Churchill than a time of meditation and peace. 

As he sits for his portrait with artist Sutherland, with ever present cigar in hand, Churchill proclaims to the artist:

Painting a picture is like fighting a battle. A bloody battle.  In the gladiatorial fight to the death, the artist either wins or loses.

It is here that we travel deeper into the soul and psyche of the blustery Churchill, aided by an excellent performance by actor John Lithgow.  The shared vocation and love of painting, opens the door for these men to communicate on a more intimate level:

Sutherland:  I do take comfort from the fact that your own work is so honest and revealing.
Churchill:  Oh, thank you for the compliment.  Well, are there any works that you're referring to in particular?

Sutherland:  I was thinking especially of the Goldfish pond here at Chartwell.
Churchill:  The pond? Why the pond? It's just a pond.
Sutherland:  It's very much more than that. As borne out by the fact that you've returned to it again and again. More than 20 times.
Churchill:  Well, yes, because it's such a technical challenge. It eludes me.
Sutherland:  Well, perhaps you elude yourself, sir.  That's why it's more revealing than a self-portrait.
Churchill:  Oh, that's nonsense.

Sutherland has hit a nerve, and like a lot of men used to being in control of their lives and emotions, Churchill’s reflexive response is to dismiss the observation as “nonsense.” 

Winston wants to keep things on the surface and avoid the deeper emotional waters:

Churchill: It's the water, the play of light. The trickery. The fish, down below.

But Sutherland is gently relentless and he won’t let this fish escape the hook.  Like Great Britain and the Monarchy, there is something painful beneath the “tranquility and elegance” of Churchill’s pond:

Sutherland:   I think all our work is unintentionally revealing and I find it especially so with your pond.  Beneath the tranquility and the elegance and the light playing on the surface, I saw honesty and pain, terrible pain. The framing itself, indicated to me that you wanted us to see something beneath all the muted colors, deep down in the water.
Terrible despair. Hiding like a Leviathan. Like a sea monster.

Churchill:  You saw all that?

Sutherland: Yes, I did.


Churchill, needing a respite and diversion from his own interior pond, asks Sutherland:

Churchill:   May I ask you a question, Mr. Sutherland?  It's about one of your paintings. The one you call "Pastoral." With all that gnarled and twisted wood. Those great ugly dabs of black. I found something malevolent in it. Where did that come from?

Sutherland:   Well, that's very perceptive.  That was a very dark time.   My son, John, passed away, aged two months.

Churchill:   Oh, my. I am sorry.
Sutherland:   Yes. Thank you.


Sutherland’s vulnerability creates the possibility for Churchill to put aside his outer garment of power and control, and open up about his own experience of loss.

Sutherland asks Churchill about his children:

Sutherland:  You have five, yes?

Churchill:  Four. Marigold was the fifth.  She left us at age two years, nine months. Septicemia.
Sutherland:  I'm so sorry. I had no idea.
Churchill:   We settled on the name Marigold, on account of her wonderful golden curls.  The most extraordinary color.  Regretfully, but though perhaps mercifully, I was not present when she died.  When I came home, Clemmie [Churchill’s wife] roared like a wounded animal.

This journey with Sutherland now provides a moment of great grace and insight for Churchill:

Churchill: We bought Chartwell a year after Marigold died.
That was when I put in the pond…Here.

Churchill pauses, as his face is moved with deep emotion and an expression of restrained tears as he connects the repeated act of painting the pond and the grief he never expressed with the loss of his daughter Marigold.

Churchill previously saw his paintings of the pond within the familiar construct of a great battle.  This makes sense given his role as the iconic bastion of perseverance and strength for the British people during the great Battle of Britain when the nation was terrorized by repeated Nazi air strikes.  

  As he wrestled with his repeated painting of the pond, Churchill like many men was creatively using a concrete and physically engaging vehicle to channel his emotions of anger, frustration, pain and loss.  Yet without a greater awareness of what was driving his interior battle, Churchill remained without peace, and without closure –in his painting of the pond - and closure with his daughter’s death. 

Staying at the Surface of the Pond – The High Price of Displaced Grief

Newsweek magazine featured a February, 2007 cover story entitled “Men and Depression.” [1] The article revealed that men suffer much higher rates of depression than previously thought.

Over time this can take a toll on a man’s health and relationships:

Although depression is emotionally crippling and has numerous medical implications—some of them deadly—many men fail to recognize the symptoms. Instead of talking about their feelings, men may mask them with alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, [pornography] anger or by becoming workaholics. And even when they do realize they have a problem, men often view asking for help as an admission of weakness, a betrayal of their male identities…

Michael Addis, chair of psychology at Cark University shares an insight that can help us understand why a prominent figure like Churchill’s initially struggled to be vulnerable with the artist Sutherland:

"Our definition of a successful man in this culture does not include being depressed, down or sad.  In many ways it's the exact opposite. A successful man is always up, positive, in charge and in control of his emotions. " [2]

As a professional counselor, I have seen how the inability or lack of an opportunity to honor and grieve a very painful or traumatic loss, can impact a man’s emotional and physical health, and his relationships.   Events such as childhood divorce, sexual and physical abuse, the neglect/rejection of a parent, and job loss can inflict some very deep wounds on the heart and souls of men.  

I was surprised to discover early in my counseling work with men, that abortion, like Churchill’s loss of his daughter Marigold, can also be a very complicated and confusing experience of loss for some men.  Men can carry a heavy burden of regret, shame and guilt that continues to impact their life and relationships. 

This has been confirmed by the largest study on men and abortion by sociologist Arthur Shostak.  (Shostak was himself part of an abortion decision and accompanied his partner to the abortion center.)  His research revealed that men frequently think about the child that would have been born.  Many men revealed guilt, confusion and openly grieved during the interview process. [3]

The grieving process is unique for each person, and there are differences in how men and women express and process emotions.   But it is life giving and essential for men to be open to that experience.   Without a safe place and the necessary support to share about such deep wounds, like Churchill, men will avoid looking deeper into that murky pond.  

Some men will find significant relief in just being able to share with a counselor or friend, a caring person who understands their loss, or in a men’s prayer group some of their feelings and struggles. (Men who have been part of an abortion decision and procedure can find help here and also here.)

Always the Prime Minister

Churchill was surely blessed in his private life and relationships by any insight and emotional release facilitated by the story of his exchange with Sutherland and the journey to his own interior pond.

 However, Churchill was not about to allow such vulnerability in his public life. 

 Churchill and his wife Clementine were not pleased with artist Sutherland’s very revealing portrait of the great Winston, with all his age appropriate emotional and physical vulnerabilities on display.  There would be none of that!

The couple made sure the painting never saw the light of day, and after building a large bonfire, ceremoniously burned it.  


[1] Scelfo, J. (2007, February 25). Men and Depression: New Treatments. Newsweek.

[2] Ibid

[3] Shostak, Arthur.  Men and Abortion: Lessons, Losses and Love .  Praeger, 1984.