“If I don’t learn to face my grief, it would be like taking a deep breath and holding that breath for the rest of my life.” — Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz), in “This is Us”
I’ve been riveted to the NBC show “This is Us,” and I’m almost relieved season two is over so I can finally put my tissues away and exhale. For anyone who has ever been grieving — which is all of us — this show is not only cathartic, but takes courage to watch, explore and acknowledge the impact of loss. What I’m so aware of is how unspoken this is in our grief-phobic society.
As a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, grief and loss, it’s exciting to witness the first television series to accurately depict the intricate web of grief and the transformations that follows, both positive and negative. And because the writers of “This is Us” aren’t afraid to show us the many facets of grief, we aren’t afraid to look.
The show is bookended by two deaths in the close-knit and loving Pearson family, one occurring in the delivery room and the other following a tragic fire in the Pearson’s home 17 years later, though there are other meaningful losses in the series.
In the first episode of Season One, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are expecting triplets. After the delivery, Dr. K (Gerald McRaney) informs a shocked Jack that one of the babies died. A grief-stricken Jack listens as Dr. K shares his personal story of losing his wife recently to cancer, and of the death of their first baby in the delivery room more than 50 years earlier. The loss of his first child inspired him to become a doctor. He tells Jack “one day you will look back and see that you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”
Moments later, Jack makes a decision to adopt an abandoned black baby a fireman brought to the hospital, and this decision changes the Pearson family forever.
This beautiful, tender, and sometimes tragic family story is mostly told in flashbacks, and we get to witness the three siblings’ lives 20 years after their father dies, to see how his absence in their lives and memory of his death still haunts them. Through their own personal struggles, they show us how grief has shaped and informed who they’ve become as adults. The experiences of each sibling, Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) remind us we all have different ways of coping with loss. It also shows how grief is not linear and has no timetable.
In the infamous Season Two Super Bowl episode, Jack is finally safe in the hospital after going back into his family’s burning home to save the family dog. Rebecca goes to the vending machine to get a candy bar. In slow motion, as she’s choosing from a mostly empty vending machine, you see the chaos of the hospital staff behind her, rushing into her husband’s room. When she finally turns around, the doctor is there to inform her Jack has died from a heart attack. Unable to take in the news, she crunches into her candy bar with denial.
Instantly, I am brought back to my own husband’s shocking death when I was just 36 years old, when his doctors came down the hospital corridor with the same look on their faces, to tell me my husband Jim was dead, also from a heart attack. Like Rebecca, I didn’t want to believe it. When Rebecca goes into Jack’s hospital room and sees him laying motionless on the bed, when she is handed the plastic bag with Jack’s wallet and other belongings, my body weakens and my legs tremble again like they did when I was handed a similar plastic bag — and I weep for her and also for myself so many years ago.
That’s the thing about grief and sharing our grief stories. We remember that grief is so personal, but it’s also universal.
The show exposes the darker side of how the characters manage their grief — through addictions, guilt and anger — and in doing this, we are able to admit to our own struggles and see our own selves in these complex characters.
It also shows the other side of grief, the gifts that can come from loss, when Dr. K., with great compassion, shares his story to give Jack hope. He does the same with Rebecca after Jack dies, giving her a glimmer of hope in the darkness. I love how strongly the themes of the continuing bonds of love and how our loved ones live on in us thread throughout the series. Love doesn’t die.
A good story reaches out and reminds us of our own experiences and our own struggles and triumphs, and “This is Us” delivers that in spades. By witnessing the lives of another family in grief, we are given permission to look at our own struggles, to forgive ourselves our transgressions and also forgive those we love.
I’m grateful to NBC and all the writers for bringing grief out of the shadows and into the light with “This is Us” — for reminding us that grief is about all of us. These beautiful episodes will help us start so many conversations about grief, and by watching this show, whatever breath we are holding onto in our lungs, we can finally begin to exhale.
“This is Us” is who we are and this is the way we feel. Grief stories matter, and sharing them helps all of us heal.