It is a universally acknowledged truth that seeing a celebrity’s name trending is rarely a good sign: Prince on April 21, 2016; Leonard Cohen on November 7, 2016; Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018. The passing of an icon evokes an intense outpouring of grief that speaks to both our cultural obsession with celebrities and our cultural struggle with death. In the United States—a nation that avoids the subjects of death, dying, and grief as much as possible—nodding at someone dressed in purple on the train platform or playing “Respect” on the jukebox at the local dive bar feels like a transgressive recognition of a truth some people tend to shy away from in their daily lives: People die, and it is terrible.
The way most Americans deal with death is heavily reflected in the pop culture we consume: When someone in mourning doesn’t know where to turn, putting on episodes of Six Feet Under (2001–2005) or rereading Pet Sematary (1983) may feel more relatable and understandable than interacting with the people around them, who might also be in mourning or who might not be sensitive to the mourning process. Pop culture, in this way, can show us how to be sad, how to perform the rituals associated with death, and, critically, how to move on. Perhaps these directives come from the mythology surrounding Queen Victoria’s adoption of mourning garb, the collective paroxysm over the death of Princess Diana, the depictions of the death of a beloved and familiar character in a long-running television series, or the confrontation with grief in an entire genre, like horror.
“Are they going to cut the body open?” asks Anya (Emma Caulfield Ford) in “The Body,” an iconic episode in the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that cuts to the heart of what the show is really about: In a world filled with supernatural death and destruction, it’s the mundanity of a stroke that kills Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). The real horror has been unstoppable, inside the house all along. As the humans among them struggle to cope, ex–vengeance demon Anya uses her characteristic bluntness to say what everyone else, including the audience, is thinking. “Nobody will tell me [how to behave],” Anya protests when Willow (Alyson Hannigan) scolds her for failing to perform grief appropriately. Willow is furious at Anya for not knowing the rules, even as she’s struggling to figure them out for herself. “I don’t understand how this all happens,” Anya continues, sobbing. “How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore.”
This episode is a radical departure from the Buffy oeuvre: The use of music is sparse, all the characters look deeply uncomfortable, and the cinematography creates an atmosphere of tension. Death may be distressing, but it’s meted out throughout nearly every episode of the series, whether it involves guilty demons or innocent humans. In “The Body,” those who die both flash by momentarily onscreen and never reappear, allowing Buffy to move on with her patrolling. As a viewer, being confronted with grieving survivors is even more unsettling than death itself, especially over the course of an hourlong, inescapable episode; “The Body’s” voyeuristic nature is so chillingly effective that some viewers are still scarred by it close to two decades later, skipping it in their rewatches to avoid reawakening uncomfortable emotions. The numb aesthetic of “The Body” ended with the next episode, but once awakened, grief became a recurring theme across the show’s fifth and sixth seasons.
There were more deaths, including Willow’s girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) and Buffy herself. The intensity of Willow’s grief leads her to resurrect Buffy at the start of the sixth season; the same season ends in a whirlwind of deadly, vicious magic as Willow exacts revenge on the people who killed Tara. Buffy is most strikingly human when viewers are confronted not simply with death but with grief and the intensity of emotion that comes with loss, which, somewhat boldly, doesn’t fade to black after a single episode. Lingering over grief is unusual in pop culture and often viewed with distrust and eyerolls. Courtney Love still gets sneers for being stuck in her grief, defined by her relationship to Kurt Cobain, in and out of rehab, deemed “incoherent” in the New York Times.
Similarly, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail may have been critically acclaimed, but the reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon are filled with people sneering at her for using drugs and some of the other decisions outlined in the book, viewing her grief as exaggerated and performative rather than legitimate. Likewise, when a public figure posts a remembrance on social media on a loved one’s death anniversary, the number of likes and comments slowly dwindles over the years, followers losing patience with something that happened long ago; surely, the intensity of the loss should have faded by now. The raw reality of a grief that cannot be muffled after some quiet crying in the bathtub is disruptive to a world where discussions of mourning often include the phrase “moving on,” and if employers offer bereavement leave—that’s a big if—it’s only for a few days.
Society’s tolerance for grief is finite, though this does not reflect the reality of how people respond to death, according to Megan Devine, a grief counselor who advocates for an approach that “doesn’t suck.” “All of this cultural training says you’re not supposed to be sad, [that] there has to be a gift in this,” Devine tells Bitch. Grieving takes time, something a busy society does not offer, despite the fact that each death is different, each mourner is unique, and everyone processes trauma differently. Does grief make us sick, or are we sick of grief? These expectations of a short, tidy bereavement period have become so intense that they’ve contributed to a literal pathologization of grief. “Complicated grief,” also known as “prolonged grief disorder,” is used to describe cases where mourners are experiencing significant impairment more than six months after a death.
Think of Scandal’s first lady, Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), wallowing in her bed strewn with fried-chicken crumbs after her son’s unexpected death. Or Harry Potter, haunted by the murder of parents he never knew and prone to behavioral outbursts for years afterward. As writer Abby Johnston notes in a November 2018 article for Catapult, the enchanted Mirror of Erised, which features prominently in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is an allegory for unresolved grief. Potter longs for something he cannot have—a relationship with his parents—and is unable to move past. Nicole Alston, an expert in prolonged grief disorder at Columbia University’s Center for Complicated Grief, lost her daughter Skye in 2005, which forced her to confront a loss that she says is especially taboo in modern culture, where deaths of children and pregnancy loss are horrors we struggle to make sense of.
Alston describes complicated grief as “persistent or unrelenting,” and differentiates complicated grief by its intensity, noting that people may develop maladaptive behaviors, be filled with obsessive thoughts about the deceased, or be unable to stop yearning. “Instead of dealing in color,” Alston says, “the world is viewed in shades of gray.” Researchers have found that therapy tailored to complicated grief has an appreciable impact on patients viewed as experiencing complicated grief, though many of these studies are of limited size and scope, making them less broadly applicable. And all of them are predicated on specific views of what bereavement should look like: Many involve white, older adults who lost partners, for example, rather than a sampling of participants from broader cultural and bereavement backgrounds. The studies are also heavily rooted in the belief that grief is something to recover from rather than an experience that may exist along a continuum.
Devine disagrees with how complicated grief is conceptualized, arguing that such conceptions compound harm. “We have much prettier language to shame people with now,” she says, describing the psychiatric diagnosis as another way of policing grieving people that can make people feel like “freaks” if they don’t move on quickly enough. She identifies an intense anxiety on the part of those around the bereaved to “fix” them, and a sense of impatience when it is not possible to neatly paper over bereavement—two things that can contribute to shame over grieving “the wrong way.” These attitudes interact closely with the media we consume, which often contains what Devine describes as “transformation narratives” featuring plucky characters who experience a tragic death but find themselves happily righted by the end of the drama.
Does grief make us sick, or are we sick of grief?
“She’s in a better place now” or “everything happens for a reason” are two common American platitudes delivered to grieving loved ones—in part because the alternatives are too upsetting, and also because we read and hear these phrases throughout our lives. They are ubiquitous, even in inappropriate or downright ludicrous contexts involving unjust death—an Indigenous child killed by police; concertgoers mowed down by a gunman; a disabled elder dying during a utility company–initiated power outage when his oxygen concentrator stops working; a Black mother dying in the delivery room because medical personnel ignored her self-reported symptoms. These platitudes offer hollow comfort for most mourners, whom Devine says simply want to be heard rather than forced into silence.
Those same mourners, she notes, experience frustration when they see society grieving a dead celebrity while they’ve felt abandoned in the aftermath of a loved one’s death, exiled by people who are unsure of how to interact with them. This can be especially true of people with longer grieving processes who don’t “get better” after a casserole and a card. In a January 2010 essay for the New Yorker, journalist Meghan O’Rourke writes of the “temporal divide” between mourners and those around them, and how three months can feel like yesterday to the mourner: “If you’re not the bereaved…grief that lasts longer than a few weeks may look like self-indulgence.” This can make pop culture feel like a space for exploring grief at a comfortable distance, one where a broad spectrum of responses to death, on shows ranging from comedies to prestige dramas, are represented.
Amazon’s Fleabag takes a very authentic approach to death; its titular character, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is haunted by her best friend’s death in a way that may seem unrelatable until viewers learn that there’s more to the story than they were told: Fleabag is still mourning because she hasn’t fully confronted her role in her best friend’s untimely demise. Distinctly British humor turns a taboo topic into one that feels broachable. The scene in John Wick (2014) in which the movie’s namesake, played by Keanu Reeves, turns over in his bed because his dog has awakened feels almost ominously mundane. We know Wick has lost his wife to a terminal illness, that she gave him the dog, and that he’s stumbling through grief while trying to come to terms with a radically changed world.
His life changes in an instant when mobsters invade his home, attacking him and killing his dog—and setting off a series of bloody, vengeful efforts to track down his dog’s killer. “Don’t set him off,” warns the film’s tagline—but they do, and he whirls through a series of impressive, beautiful fight scenes, making the movie both a shoot-’em-up drama and a meditation on grief, right down to the mirroring moment at the end of the film when Wick rescues a different dog. Far from being a moment of transformation porn, it is instead a recommittal to loss and a recognition that Wick misses his wife and will always hold true to their love. Similar to John Wick is Netflix’s The Punisher, in which Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) repeatedly relives his wife’s murder in vivid flashbacks, with bright, saturated colors that differ wildly from his gloomy, dim life and jar the viewer every time.
Some might argue that Castle is experiencing complicated grief, that there is something wrong with him that requires treatment to help him stop clinging to a traumatic event and experiencing stilted social relationships and work life as a result. But perhaps Castle’s response to his wife being shot in front of him in their bedroom is actually more reasonable than he’s given credit for. The theme of grief, complicated and otherwise, lends itself particularly well to the horror genre, where death is frequent and mourners and the deceased alike may be unable to let go. The trope of the ghost who lingers over unfinished business, as in the movie The Sixth Sense (1999) or in the novel Anna Dressed in Blood (2012) along with any number of iterations of The Ring, speaks to the idea of ghosts as bereaved figures mourning their lost lives or protecting still-living loved ones. Other iterations of horror feature families haunted by their dead and unable to mourn because they are traumatized by the constant and very real object of their grief. Still others, like The Babadook (2014), depict characters who are attempting to live with grief when outside horror intervenes.
The internet has also become a place of nontraditional mourning; essayists who might once have curated collections of their work about grief—such as The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir about losing her husband John Gregory Dunne—instead revisit the topic again and again online. “Grief is a Jumble Word,” Ken Otterbourg’s wrenching February 2018 Longreads essay about the months after the death of his partner, JoAnne Vernon, captures what some might think of as complicated grief with deftness and sensitivity. “I want to remember, but there is so much I want to forget,” he writes about the sadness that pervades his life. “Not to pretend it didn’t happen. Not to stop the hurt for good. But for a few minutes perhaps even an hour not be able to remember all of what made me sad.” The internet isn’t simply a venue for exploring grief; it is in itself a platform for mourning.
In “Modern Grief,” an April 2016 article for the Walrus, mourner Nancy Westaway writes about chasing digital ghosts. “I have now been living with one foot in the past, rereading traces of a journey that ended on April 28, 2014,” she writes about watching her husband slowly fade from the world. “Estate business involves officially erasing your beloved,” she writes, but his inbox is forever. Writer (and Bitch contributor) Rachel Vorona Cote wrote, in a May 2019 Longreads piece about the ongoing effects of her mother’s death, that, “I cannot seem to stop trying to write about mom on social media.” She made posting memories of her mom a part of her personal mourning ritual, which speaks to something Devine sees in her own clients. “We’re asking to be acknowledged in the things that hurt, that life is different now,” she says. So much of mourning throughout history, Devine notes, is about wanting to be heard and finding a way to declare a state of bereavement. Yet modern mourning is very much about the opposite, making people like Cote stand out with their refusal to stop talking about the dead.
No culture grieves perfectly, argues Devine, though many do engage in practices that provide more room for people to grieve, offering opportunities to mark important anniversaries and encouraging more open conversation. In Jewish communities, traditions around death and dying can include a period of sitting shiva, with members of the bereaved family deliberately taking time to mourn, followed by periodic prayers throughout the following year with which to further reflect on their loss. Mexico’s Día de Muertos (the subject of much appropriation in the United States) and tomb-sweeping day in Chinese communities are also examples of distinct cultural rituals that commemorate and honor the dead. Devine also points to “beautiful” Buddhist rites around grief, though she also fears cultural appropriation’s potential there.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has become famous for the practices of the Torajan people, who keep deceased family members in their homes for weeks, months, or even years as they wait for the right time for a burial. A variety of cultures also have rites that involve exhumation and interaction with the dead; while some find the idea of handling exhumed bodies revolting, the underlying grief and emotional processing behind these practices may be even more disturbing, as it is an intensely frank interaction with death. These cultural distinctions exist in the United States as well, where mourning is far from uniform. Alston notes that Black funeral traditions in the United States are markedly different from white ones; she had in fact just returned from a homegoing shortly before we spoke.
Homegoing celebrations, which can extend for hours or days and include singing, food, tributes to the dead, and other ceremonial events to mark a passing, came to the wider attention of the white community in 2012 when Whitney Houston’s homegoing was broadcast on national television, and again in 2018 when Aretha Franklin’s six-hour homegoing was televised and streamed online. Their funerals introduced those who aren’t Black American to a rich historic tradition of death that radically differs from the perfunctory ceremonies seen in many white communities. Rooted in a history of slavery, Black funeral traditions are also present in Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s OWN drama, which began almost immediately with a death and its aftermath. Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 memoir Men We Reaped also takes on the racialized nature of death, dying, and mourning in a text that Roxane Gay said “doesn’t do enough to rise above the grief”; perhaps this was because the book itself was part of Ward’s grief process, an attempt to engage it rather than terminate it.
Every mourner mourns differently; the societal failing to acknowledge that experiences of grief can vary has created a world in which we too often see grief as an illness. But a new generation of pop culture may be reshaping that conversation. On TV shows like Netflix’s Dead to Me, where characters upend these limited assumptions by carrying grief with them, there’s a fundamental confrontation with the way grief is supposed to be, as opposed to how it is—the show is a standout that points to new depictions of grief that have large stakes for mourners in the real world. Grief is not an illness, mourners are not broken, and media that portray something beyond a perfunctory period of mourning followed by an immediate recovery provide a vital sense of validation and offer a way forward.