Death, Grief, and Pop Culture

Death, Grief, and Pop Culture

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death. I thought I’d have at least another 20 years to prepare for the death of a parent but instead my loss, and the loss for my entire family, came suddenly and unexpectedly. The most important lesson I’ve learned in the past year is that everyone handles the grieving process differently and its impossible to get everyone to say and do what you need in order to feel emotionally supported. For some people, they want to grieve in private and don’t want to talk about it. I had my brief time with that urge but it passed and then I desperately wanted to talk about my heartache but found that many people think its uncomfortable or impolite to ask me how I’m doing or even acknowledge the situation. In turn, I didn’t want to burden my friends and family with a constant barrage of tears. I went where I always go for comfort, television and movies, but found there is no safe place to be when you are trying to hide from grief.

Growing up I always prided myself on the fact that I never cried at movies. I would brag about it and make fun of my mom for crying at commercials. I thought crying equaled weakness and I never wanted to be perceived as an “emotional” girl. Of course, there’d been times in my life when I cried over a boy or a lost friendship but to me, crying over some piece of pop culture always felt beneath me. I’ve cried more in the last 365 days then I knew was humanly possible which, looking back on my childhood, seems like that damn was bound to break at some point.

The week after my dad died I was flipping through the TV channels and stopped at The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and watched for a few minutes just as the scene where Eowyn’s uncle (basically her father) is killed and she must say goodbye to him. I completely lost it. My husband held me as I cried and then I started laughing at how absurd it felt to be crying uncontrollably at a movie I’ve seen before and a scene that never made my eyes well up previously. If only I’d known that was just the beginning.

I’d been a big fan of the television show Parenthood. The father in the show, Zeek, always reminded me of my dad. So, in the final season (spoiler alert) when the show started dealing with Zeek’s heart issues around the same time my dad was having a procedure on his heart, I got very nervous. I thought, “Please don’t let Zeek die because it will make me nervous for my own dad.” And then my dad died before Zeek. I saved the last six or so episodes of Parenthood on my DVR for months because I wasn’t ready to watch my reality play out again on television.

Three weeks after my dad died I went and saw Interstellar over Thanksgiving weekend. I spent two and a half hours watching what is essentially a love story between a father and his daughter. A story about how love has no bounds in time or space. I cried quietly to myself throughout the ending everyone else thought was confusing or cheesy. This was my new emotional state.

In the months that Parenthood was holding a spot on my DVR, I couldn’t escape what felt like a constant onslaught of men having heart attacks on television and in movies. Fathers dying seemed to be everywhere.

When did the trope of male characters having heart attacks become such a prominent thing and how can we make it stop?

I found myself avoiding dramas at all costs. I tried sticking to mindless television and comedies to escape the theme of loss prominent in every show. I’d watch Shark Tank to withdraw from my emotions only to have one of the entrepreneurs say she was doing this for her dad who had passed away. I’d listen to Nerdist, a generally funny and lighthearted podcast, and come across episodes where host Chris Hardwick talked with guests about the death of his father. I went to see Trainwreck thinking it would be a fun lighthearted movie to take my mind off things. And then I had to sit in a dark theater with no tissues as I watched Amy Schumer’s character eulogize her dad at his funeral. I wanted to run out of the theater and cry in the bathroom but I stayed and felt a bit of comfort crying alongside the characters.

There’s a moment in Pixar’s brilliant Inside Out where the characters Joy and Sadness realize that previous memories that were once only filled with Joy had become tinted with sadness. They think this is a mistake and try to fix it, only to realize memories change based on current circumstances. This moment rang true to me in regards to the process of dealing with loss and grief. When my dad died, all the previous, once joyous memories turned blue. Moments like my wedding, which were pure joy only months earlier, became too painful to think about. I couldn’t bear to look at family photos. I had to remind myself that there can be joy without sadness but part of what makes sadness so powerful is the joy that came before. My sadness was coming from a place where joy was once so prevalent and that should be something to be grateful for. If I didn’t have such happy memories I wouldn’t be as sad about all the memories I’ll no longer get to make with my dad.

Months passed and I finally sat down and watched the final episodes of Parenthood. By this time, I knew what was going to happen to Zeek but instead of running from it I embraced it. I sat on my couch and cried along with the Braverman’s for hours. It was cathartic in a way I didn’t think possible. I still catch my breath when I’m watching something and a father dies but now I find myself embracing it much more. Sometimes I find myself seeking out a sad story so I can have an excuse to let my emotions run free.

Joe Biden recently said, “…My family has suffered a loss, and I hope there would come a time, and I’ve said this to many other families, that sooner rather than later when you think of your loved one, it brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes.” I’m not quite there yet. I still have a hard time looking at family pictures or listening to my dad’s favorite songs but now I know I can turn to myriad stories within pop culture that remind me that I’m not alone in my grief. Am I feeling angry at the loss today? Do I want to curl up in a ball and cry? Do I want to laugh in the face of this new version of my life? I know now I can find a piece of media that will match my mood and my place in the grieving process. I now know that when and how I choose to process my grief is up to me and that if I want to cry at a commercial showing a loving father and daughter it shouldn’t make me feel weak. It should make me proud to have had such a wonderful dad who still impacts my life every single day.

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5 thoughts on “Death, Grief, and Pop Culture

  1. Beautifully put, Elizabeth. Your dad passing away is an especially tough reminder, but you are absolutely right that being fortunate enough to experience joy and love is also what creates the potential for heartache and sadness. Vulnerability is terrifying, but without it, our experiences in this world end up feeling hollow and incomplete. My heart and thoughts are with you, friend.

  2. Today is such a bittersweet moment for me. I have loved and lost the love of my life but find myself laughing and smiling a little more each day. Right now I am outside cutting succulents knowing that if Ron is watching, he is laughing his ass off, knowing how much I used tohate yard work. It is now my peaceful place. Family and friends is what has gotten me through this last year and for that I am eternally grateful.

  3. Elizabeth, that was so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing that.

    Your Dad was an amazing man. I feel fortunate to have been a part of his life. We had so many fun, happy times together.

    When your Dad passed, I think everyone was in shock. So many people shared in your grief for your Dad, too, in many different ways. I must have cried nearly everyday for the first few weeks. And still do on occasion. I cried for him and for all of you.
    I have been thinking of you, your Mom, sisters & brother all day today. I hope you had some comforting happy memories of your Dad. And hope that those memories brought you some peace.

    I will always think of your Dad when I see succulents and bricks. It brings a smile to me face now and a happy memory of him.

    Love and hugs,
    Audrey & Eddie

  4. I’d been saving this in my inbox, wanting to read it, and I finally got a chance. Thank you for writing a beautiful piece. Grief is impossible and necessary at the same time, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I remember seeing that your dad had passed last year, and my heart breaking. It’s still breaking, and I think of you often – especially as my own dad copes with lung cancer.

    When we dealt with the grief of a miscarriage earlier this year, someone sent me this article. It felt like this writer was inside my brain and finally could explain how I was feeling. Wanted to share it – much of what you said reminded me of the comfort I found in reading it:

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