Grieving is dramatic: gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, other-worldly. Because it’s dramatic, it’s inconvenient, and we shouldn’t do it. If we must, we should grieve quietly, invisibly. Our grief shouldn’t be mentioned unless someone asks us about it.
These are the messages many of us receive about the process of mourning and honoring death. But grief isn’t one size fits all. So when we experience it ourselves, it can feel much different than we imagined.
That’s how it felt to me, anyway. When my own mother passed away from an overdose in 2019, my world was turned upside down. Prior to this, my mother and I were estranged for 11 years, due to her lifelong methamphetamine addiction. This made my grief even more complex — I was not only grieving my mother’s life, but the relationship we could have had. I didn’t know anyone who had experienced grief like this, let alone anyone who would openly talk about it with me. I found myself at a loss.
During times of pain and confusion, comfort and connection can come from unexpected sources. A compassionate exchange with a shop clerk, a conversation you overhear on public transport, a few, poignant paragraphs in a book — these can become lifelines that carry you through the turmoil. And during the surreal year following my mother’s death, media became a key source of solace and understanding for me.
Most impactful was one particular episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, titled “The Body,” which aired on February 27, 2001 and is arguably the series’ best, most-acclaimed episode. In it, Buffy — played by Sarah Michelle Gellar — arrives home to find her mother, Joyce, dead on the couch.
The first time I watched “The Body,” I was young and unprepared for the episode’s frank and unflinching approach to death. I had spent five years loving Buffy’s mother Joyce, who in many ways became the mom I wished I’d had. I’d developed a deep connection to her, the way you can with long-term series characters. When Buffy lost her, I lost her too.
But about a year after my own mother passed away, I had an urge to return to the episode. For many of the preceding months, I’d struggled with feeling like I wasn’t allowed to grieve my loss, mostly due to the nature of my mother’s and my relationship and the stigma of how she passed away. I think I was drawn to “The Body” again in part because it gave me an example of what grieving could look like. And, I hoped that looking at the process would help me feel my own grief — and remind me that feeling it is allowed.
On television, death is often a cheap device, used to precipitate a change in the narrative arc, write out an actor who wants to leave, or as a ploy for ratings. Although some of these factors were in play in “The Body” — the death of Buffy’s mother, Joyce, also marked a turning point for Buffy’s maturity into adulthood — “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon seemed more interested in using the episode to show, simply, how surreal and even physically strange grief can be, in a media landscape that often focuses on the more dramatic pain and catharsis involved with mourning a loved one. “What I really wanted to capture was the extreme physicality, the extreme — the almost boredom of the very first few hours,” Whedon said in the episode’s DVD commentary. He was drawing on his first-person experiences: when he was 27, his mother died in a car accident.
The kind of time warp sensation he set out to capture was one of the first things I recognized to when I rewatched “The Body” after my mother’s death. In hearing about all-consuming grief, and in seeing depictions that showed only snippets of characters’ experiences with surviving a loved one’s death, I hadn’t considered that I’d have idle time, or what that time would feel like. But when my mother passed away, there was a certain motion to my grieving that felt extreme, and, at times, slow. I often felt like I was waiting for the next thing to be done. I was reminded of the feeling by the way “The Body” was shot: the first 13 minutes of the episode are one continuous take, following Buffy as she finds her mother, realizes she isn’t breathing, calls 911, and starts to perform CPR. The episode proceeds without background music, adding to the intensity of the experience.
Throughout the episode, the audience is guided through different types of grieving, through the other characters’ experiences. No experience is shown as being “right” or “wrong” — Whedon uses the characters to show the full range of experiences and reactions people might have to this kind of event. Watching the episode after my mom’s death, small and strange moments jolted me with a sense of recognition.
On the morning of my mother’s funeral, for instance, I obsessed over what to wear, going back and forth between a dress and black slacks, as if whatever I chose was a good or bad representation of my grief. I was so concerned with my clothing that I couldn’t focus on anything else. Did I look presentable? What was the more appropriate choice? What would people think? In the end, I wore a conservative black dress from Ann Taylor and red suede heels. Red, apple red, was my mother’s favorite color.
It’s the kind of moment you don’t expect and the kind of moment you’d never imagine telling anyone about, even when they ask how you’re doing. But in “The Body,” Willow, Buffy’s best friend, obsesses over what she should wear to the morgue to meet Buffy.
Watching “The Body” certainly didn’t “fix” my grief or give me a new understanding of my loss, but it made me feel understood, and it reassured me that an unexpected and difficult moment I went through was, maybe, not as uncommon as it had felt at the time. This is the power of representation in TV and media — and one reason it’s a shame that accurate and nuanced representations of death on screen are so few and far between.
Watching “The Body” certainly didn’t “fix” my grief or give me a new understanding of my loss, but it made me feel understood.
“It’s safe to say that death and grief related to it are almost entirely absent from Western pop culture. Popular movies and TV series rarely include realistic scenes of grief and bereavement,” says Raffaello Antonino, PhD, a psychologist and the clinical director and founder of Therapy Central. When death and grief are portrayed, it’s often unrealistically, he adds. “That’s arguably due to our culture,” Dr. Antonino says, referring to our culture’s tendency to shy away from discussing death, in order to avoid the “anticipatory dread” that comes with it: “After all, the media tends to provide content (movies, TV shows, etc.) mirroring the values of the society which will consume it.”
But maybe this idea that people don’t want to think too much about death and grief is incorrect. “You know, [the episode] did a lot of stuff I didn’t mean for it to do,” Joss once told Metro in an interview about “The Body.” “In the sense of, I just wanted to tell a story about grief, in particular its dull eccentricities. I didn’t want any lessons, I didn’t want any catharsis. And then, so many people were able to deal with their own grief because they watched it and I was so shocked by that.”
Another TV show that helped me walk through my mother’s death was The Midnight Gospel, a Netflix adult-cartoon series by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell. The show follows a space caster named Clancy Gilroy who travels through planets within a simulator, while he interviews guests he has for his space cast.
In season one, episode eight, titled ‘Mouse of Silver’, Trussell interviews his own mother, Deneen Fendig. The episode starts funny, sweet, and sentimental, before the conversation turns to Fendig’s ongoing battle with cancer. It’s quickly revealed that she’s been told she only has six months to live. What follows is an honest, touching, and thought-provoking conversation about mortality and accepting that losing those we love is a given.
When I discovered this episode, it was May 12, 2020 — a few days before my mother’s birthday, and about 18 months since she passed away. The world was in the throes of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. I’d chosen the episode for its name alone, expecting a light and fun watch, and ended up silently sobbing on my couch.
During the conversation, Fendig talks about the fallacy of trying to avoid conversations about one’s own and one’s loved ones’ mortality. At one point, Trussell asks if she’d given any advice to people dealing with death right now.
“I would tell them to cry when they need to cry. And to turn toward this thing that’s called death. Turn toward it. And even if you’re afraid to turn toward it, turn toward it. It won’t hurt you. And see what it has to teach you. It’s a tremendous teacher, free of charge,” his mother says.
“Well, I love you very much, obviously,” Trussell says.
“I love you too,” she says. “And, Duncan, that kind of love isn’t going anywhere. That’s another thing you find. That I may leave this plane of existence sooner rather than later . . . but the love isn’t going anywhere. I’m as certain of that as I am of anything.”
I’d never heard anyone speak like that before, and it showed me a new way of grieving, or thinking about grieving — a way of accepting that the love doesn’t go away, even though the one you love is gone.
These are just two small examples of the power that realistic depictions of loss, grieving, and dying hold, and I can’t help but wish I’d been exposed to more of these depictions both before and after losing my mom. “The value of shows and other media that do justice to the experience of death and grief could be transformational at a societal and cultural level,” Dr. Antonino says. “They would help us perhaps even better prepare for the inevitability of death, and in turn, reverse the cycle of avoidance that keeps us over-sensitized towards such a fact of life.”
It showed me a new way of grieving, or thinking about grieving — a way of accepting that the love doesn’t go away, even though the one you love is gone.
Seeing “The Body” and “Midnight Silver” not only helped me feel less alone in my grief but allowed me to look at death through a different lens. I gained more acceptance and was able to let go of some of my fear. As Dr. Antoninio explains: “While grieving is a collective and unavoidable process, and some people may rather react to it in wildly different ways, it can only be resolved by reflection and communication with others. These can help us understand, normalize and eventually accept the harsh reality of death.”
I’ve rewatched “The Body” several times since my mother died, and each time, I see new bits and pieces of my own grief in each character and scene. The shock of seeing Joyce’s pale, lifeless body on the floor. Seeing Buffy notice that life was still happening around her. Seeing her go to the morgue to make arrangements. Seeing Willow obsess over what to wear. Seeing Buffy have to comfort her sister. Seeing the way each character feels grief differently, and the same, all at once.
“Generally speaking, Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t really deal with death and bereavement,” Dr. Antonino points out. “Buffy kills all sorts of creatures in practically each and every episode. Still, these deaths have nothing to do with real grief and loss.” But in “The Body,” just like in real life, Buffy isn’t able to fight a demon to bring her mother back to life. Instead, she must surrender to it, just like any of us have to. I think that’s why the episode feels so special: it’s not magic, it’s real. It can happen to any of us. It will happen to all of us. And that’s the point.
“[Death] doesn’t give you anything,” Whedon says in the interview with Metro, “Death is the thing that Buffy cannot fight, it renders her meaningless. And the episode feels like a reminder of that human experience. I think [The Body] is probably the best thing I’ve done and the best thing I will ever do.”
Seeing a representation of grieving in pop culture makes me feel less alone. I am not the only daughter who has ever lost her mother, and I am not the only one to grieve. Grief is all around us. It is living and breathing, whether we want it to or not. This is what we can learn. The experience of grief is that of love, living on.
If you or someone you know is in need of substance-related treatment or counseling, you can reach the Substance and Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) on its Treatment Referral Routing Service helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).