Grief on TV. Do They Get it Right? (Downton Abbey spoiler alert!)

**While I normally post on the topic of grief on Tuesdays (today is Friday), let’s just pretend it’s a Tuesday. March is a difficult month, lots of grief-versaries, and the days sometimes run into each other.

Since February, I’ve been rewatching Downton Abbey. It’s my fourth time through the series, and I decided that this time, I wouldn’t avoid the two episodes that hit too close for comfort. (If you’re familiar with the show, try to guess which two before you continue reading.)

I love Downtown Abbey for many reasons: escapism on one level—it’s witty, decadent, soap-operaish—and deep on another, confronting—to varying degrees of success—issues such as women’s rights, sexual identity, religious conflicts, and classism. The show even dips its toes into racism.

It also has its share of loss and grief. The family loses two family members on the Titanic, Lady Grantham suffers a miscarriage after the evil O’Brien causes her to slip on soap when she gets out of the bathtub, and poor William dies from an injury he suffered in WWI. But for me, nothing compares to the sad of season three when Sybil dies in horrible fashion due to preeclampsia, and Matthew, four episodes later, dies in a car wreck just after his wife, Mary, gives birth to their first (and consequently only) child.

After the first time I watched those episodes (I had no idea about their storylines), I promised myself I wouldn’t watch them again. They were too close to my own truth. Who would want to relive moments that are sure to trigger sadness and grief?

Me. I do. At least, 2022 Me does.

I’ve spent the better part of two years completing my memoir about my experience with grief. It wasn’t without several come-to-Jesus moments in which I faced a lot of what I thought I’d buried (pardon the pun). But if I really meant what I’ve said and written about for years, that grief is never finished*, nor can we skirt it like a detour, then I had to remember and include the sometimes difficult truth of how unexamined and neglected grief infiltrated almost every aspect of my life, and manifested in coping mechanisms that affected my mental and physical health.

I watched the Sybil and Matthew episodes, the same as I watch particular episodes of This is Us that affect me in the same way. (Read “Why I Love Rebecca Pearson.”) I don’t “enjoy” grief, but I respect it as part of my life. I also know that grief is a result of love, and when I watch griefy things, I’m also reminded of those I love.

Having said all this, everyone does their grief differently, and I respect and support anyone who finds avoidance is more helpful to their mental health and healing. So here’s my question: How do you watch shows (or other forms of media) or read or look at materials that trigger memories and feelings you don’t or would like to not feel again, but in reality you know you can’t avoid? I look forward to reading your comments.


* The movement to normalize grief is finally in its genesis. Books like Widowish, It’s OK to Laugh (Crying is Cool, Too), and It’s OK That You’re Not OK challenge the long-held, false narrative that grief has a timeline. It’s why I’m so very disappointed in the mental health community for adopting Prolonged Grief Disorder into the DSM-V. Much has been written about this. I recommend you read Megan Devine’s “There is No Such Thing as Prolonged Grief Disorder” and Modern Loss’s “How Long Should Grief Last.” I agree with both articles that grief is not pathological and it certainly doesn’t end in a year.

4 thoughts on “Grief on TV. Do They Get it Right? (Downton Abbey spoiler alert!)

  1. You asked, “How do you watch shows (or other media) that is triggering?” Well, my trigger isn’t the movies or TV, but music…I find I can’t listen to music anymore. Well, I can, but I always, eventually, end up in tears, so for now it’s best that I avoid it. Music has that stamp of “time and place” on it, and is associated with too many memories, and right now, the memories are things I can’t or do not want to go back to. Or they are people or good times I’ve lost, and that makes me sad. I haven’t reached a place of peace with it yet.

  2. Music…yes, I forgot that one, although I don’t know how I did since much of it makes me cry, too. You’re so right about the “time and place.” Music lives on in our memories of so many aspects of our lives, as you said, the ones you can’t or don’t want to go back to, or to the people and good times you miss. Thank you for sharing this. Sending gentle thoughts as you look for that peace.

  3. Oh my gosh. When I first heard of that “Prolonged Grief Disorder” I thought of you. What a bunch of crap!

    What happened to you – at that young, vulnerable time – would, in my mind, have abruptly thrust you into some kind of alternate reality. Who, at any age or experience level, is going to deal with THAT according to any kind of time line?

    Also, to me, grief borne from love could never end. How could it, other than due to Alzheimer’s or something like that. We’d be better served by these “experts” working on helping people better understand and live with grief, and especially how to mitigate the damage. And understand that it’s timeless.

    1. Thank you, Sharyn. I agree completely, that those who grieve would be better served by learning how to live with grief. It’s bad enough that they hear, “Time heals,” or “You’ll move on” by friends and family, but from the mental health community?? I can’t roll my eyes any further to the back of my head.

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