Death, Dying and Grief in Pop Culture

Pop culture provides us with many insights and views into human experiences; one of the things I adore about it as a medium is the ability to explore the human condition from so many perspectives. And, in television, to return to recurrent themes that are important to the creators or characters. In the summer, I tend to go on a television rewatch because there’s not as much available, and I’ve been picking and choosing episodes over the last few weeks that depict death, dying, and grief. I know, such cheerful viewing for summer, right?

The handling of grief in society intrigues me. It’s a topic I’ve written about before because I find so much of the handling of grief puzzling. Not the way people react to death, but the way the people around them react to their reactions. As though there is a normalised response to loss, as though grief is something that only expresses in one way, or can be neatly compartmentalised. If you have learned nothing else reading here, I would hope it would be that human experiences are vast and diverse, that there is no right or wrong lived experience. And in the case of grief, which is such a vast and tangled thing, it is impossible to even begin to pretend to know how we ourselves will react to it, let alone how the people around us ‘should’ act.

Six Feet Under provided perhaps the greatest number of depictions of grief, for obvious reasons, since the show took us to a new death every week. I love these snapshots and brief portraits of grief that span many different reactions. The medium who communicates with her dead husband, the old man who wants to cheap out on the funeral but ends up sitting with his wife in the viewing room all night, the opera company that stages a production to send off one of their own. As a viewer, I never knew what response I was going to see each week and how the various characters would interact with it.

And I also loved the way the show also showed us grief in the long view. Not just in the brief nuggets of the weekly deaths, but as the Fisher family dealt with its own deaths. The opening episode was an explosion of grief and paradoxical reactions that set the tone for the rest of the story and told us so much about the characters. Nate having sex in a closet at the airport with the woman he’d become hopelessly entertwined with, Claire getting high, David getting practical. Six Feet Under took the long approach by not allowing characters to grieve and then bounce back, forcing us to follow them through their journey.

One of my favourite television episodes of all time, and depictions of grief of all time, is, of course, ‘The Body.’ It was a daring episode for Buffy. Long, weighty pauses, heavy silences, stark dialogue, and so pitch perfect to me as a viewer. I have been Willow, tearing clothes off the rack in an agony of indecision about what to wear. And perhaps the greatest part of that episode comes from Anya:

But I don’t understand, I don’t understand how this all happens, how we go through this, I mean I knew her, and now she’s…there’s just a body, and I don’t understand how come she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid! It’s mortal! and it’s stupid! And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I was thinking that well Joyce will never have fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.

If a vengeance demon with hundreds of years of experience can’t get death, how can we? This is not the first, or the last, death for Buffy; Jenny’s season two death is another one of my favourite episodes, and Tara’s death is of course a very cathartic moment for the series. But this was a particularly well handled death, because it captured the mundanity and mood swings of grieving much more than the overwrought emotions that death episodes usually bring us. It’s also a big growing up moment for Buffy not just because she needs to take control of her life, but because she is reminded that The Slayer cannot fight everything. Something that we as viewers may struggle with as well in the fact of death, the reality that it cannot be defeated in the end.

Whedon is not afraid to kill beloved characters and that was really brought home in Serenity, which has one of the best death scenes of all time, but also an excellent grieving scene. The scene with the remaining characters standing in a wasteland surrounded by altars to their dead is striking, but also quiet and sad. As a viewer it almost feels like you are intruding on a private moment. You want to tiptoe away before they see you.

What does pop culture tell us about death, dying, and grief? People complain about the gory nature of television and the endless stream of bodies on primetime, how quickly they flit in and out of existence. I complain about the fact that many characters do not seem to actually process deaths. It becomes a focal point in an episode and then disappears again. When shows like Grey’s Anatomy do try to explore death more deeply they often fumble and seem out of their depth. The episodes start to drag and viewers get bored and frustrated; just get over it, already, they think. Much as they think when they encounter actual grieving people in the real world around them. Surely you ought to be able to wrap it up by the next commercial break. Sheesh.