With the ability to beam action, adventure and romance directly into our homes, television has become an undeniable part of our cultural psyche. As we settle in to watch our favourite TV shows, we become invested in the characters and what’s going on in their lives – the good times and the bad times.
Just as happiness and laughter are a natural part of life, death and grief are too – so it’s little wonder they often feature prominently on TV. And when they do, we feel that we’re walking the path of grief with the characters we’ve come to know and love.
We’ve put together a list of our top 10 memorable goodbyes on TV. Each teaches us something about how we cope with the reality of death and face grief. Grab the tissues, settle in and remember some of TV’s saddest moments.
1. ER (2002, Season 8, Episodes 20 and 21)
Across two episodes, one of TV’s most memorable medical dramas, ER, chronicles the death of Dr Mark Green. A fan favourite since the beginning of the series, Dr Green makes the decision to voluntarily stop chemotherapy treatment for inoperable brain cancer. Refusing to spend his final days in a hospital in Chicago, he heads to Hawaii with his teenage daughter. He teaches her how to drive and how to surf, and takes the time to tell her about the important moments and events making up his life story. Among his final acts, he dictates letters for his two youngest children to open at their graduations and weddings.
We’ll all respond differently when we face death. But being able to control what we can is important. There’s a common misconception that you can’t control death. Yes, for some it comes shockingly and unexpectedly. But for others facing a final illness, there are options that can be discussed and implemented to ensure a ‘good death’. Dr Green planned his death. He took control in death, just as he took control in the emergency room. We can all learn a lesson from this.
2. Sesame Street (1983, Season 15, Episode 4)
When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr Hooper on Sesame Street, died the show used his death as an opportunity to talk about death with its audience honestly, but gently. Big Bird doesn’t quite understand the permanence of it, so he keeps looking for his beloved friend. His human friends explain that people who die don’t come back and we see Big Bird’s reactions – disbelief, denial and sadness. The show is intended for a pint-sized audience, but this episode is a blunt lesson about death and grief that can benefit viewers of any age.
Just like adults, when someone dies a child’s feelings can range from sadness to anxiety and everything in between. But because children don’t always have the words to express what they’re feeling, they need your help to understand their feelings and cope with them. Talking about these things together as openly and honestly as you can will help your child understand what’s happening.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001, Season 5, Episode 16)
In this powerful episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see Buffy walking through the front door and calling out to her mother, who’s lying on the couch. When she sees her mother motionless, she pauses, and her expression shifts. “Mum?” she says. She repeats the word more urgently. Then, quieter: “Mummy?” The episode lingers on Buffy’s reactions to the death of her mother and how grief can make us act irrationally, lash out, quiet down or feel lost.
Every moment of this episode emphasises how the inevitability of death is something we all share and that even in the life of a vampire-fighting heroine, losing your mother is one of life’s biggest struggles. Mother’s have a significant impact on all of our lives – and whether you’re young or old, single or married, a parent or not, losing your mother is one of the most emotional experiences you’ll ever go through.
4. Scandal (2014, Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
Following the murder of her teenage son, Scandal’s First Lady Mellie Grant attempts to eat and drink her feelings away while sticking to a strict wardrobe of bathrobes and ugg boots. She has a daily ritual of visiting the cemetery, where she consumes a bag of chips while leaning against her son’s headstone. As her husband, President Fitzgerald Grant, prepares to give his State of the Union address, Mellie is steadfast in her refusal to attend. Bowing to pressure from those around her, she eventually dons a cocktail dress and waves dutifully at the cameras. But the moment she’s out of the public eye, she collapses to the floor in grief. The scene captures the duality of feelings experienced by every mother who has lost a child – the need to wear a brave face in public, while grieving privately.
The loss of a child is the most devastating experience a parent can face and grief reactions can often be more intense and last longer. There is grief for the child who is gone. There is grief for hopes and dreams that will never be realised. There is grief for experiences that won’t be shared. And there is grief for lost potential. Yet, with time, most parents will find a way forward and start to find a new ‘normal’.
5. The Newsroom (2014, Season 3, Episode 6)
In an unexpected twist, bowtie loving ACN News Director Charlie Skinner dies – mid screaming match – of a heart attack on the newsroom floor. As he tries to broker peace between the ACN news team and The Newsroom’s new upstart owner, the team rebels. After airing a segment that openly attacks the new owner, accusing them of violating consumer privacy, Charlie flies into a rage. “Is this mutiny?” he screams at the team for their open insubordination, before falling to the floor. We learn later that he dies on the way to hospital. In the wake of his death, the blame game ensues. The team point fingers at each other and question who is responsible for pushing Charlie to the brink.
When someone we love dies, we can sometimes tend to blame ourselves. Is there something we should have said? Is there something we could have done? Blaming ourselves or wishing we’d done something different is natural. You may lose objectivity, fail to remember exactly how things were or forget all the things you did right. Remind yourself you did the best you could.
6. Downton Abbey (2012, Season 3, Episode 6)
Viewers were shocked when one of Downton Abbey’s main characters, Lady Sybil Branson, died from eclampsia after giving birth to a baby girl. In a heart-wrenching hour, the youngest Grantham daughter dies in a fit of seizures after her family ignores the doctor’s warnings that she may be toxemic and needs to be taken to hospital for an emergency C-section. The ripple effect of her death is felt throughout Downton and we see Lord Gratham suffering through feelings of guilt and regret.
Regret and wishing you had done something different is natural after the death of a loved one. We can lose objectivity, fail to remember how exactly things were and forget all the things you did right. It shows us that we need to remind ourselves that we did the best we could and we need to be open to forgiving ourselves in order to move forward. In this episode, we see how important it is to work through our feelings of guilt and regret.
7. The West Wing (2006, Season 7, Episodes 17 and 18)
Dealing with the death of a cast member can be tricky for a show. Such was the case for The West Wing when John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, passed away. The series addressed the actor’s death several episodes before Leo would die on the show (via a direct address by series star Martin Sheen), as there were several already filmed episodes that were yet to go to air. Eventually, though, the series caught up to reality. In the running to become Vice President, on election night Leo retreats to his hotel room to take a nap before the results come in. He’s later found unconscious (offscreen) and rushed to hospital, where he’s later pronounced dead. Leo’s death comes 90 minutes before the polls close in the tightly fought election race.
Though Leo is not seen onscreen, his presence is felt through these two episodes, and indeed through to the end of the series when his daughter presents the outgoing President Jed Bartlet with a gift that she found in her father’s possessions. We’re reminded that while a loved one may be gone physically, they will always be with us. They live on in our memories and will never be forgotten.
8. Glee (2013, Season 5, Episode 3)
This episode of the musical powerhouse series Glee, pays tribute to the late Cory Monteith. With the death of Cory, came the death of his character Finn Hudson. Instead of a predictable funeral scene, we experience Finn’s loss through gaping holes in the lives of his family, friends and teachers. We witness a hysterical breakdown from the emotionally guarded head cheerleader Santana. Glee Club director Mr Shuester exhibits an uncharacteristic inability to express his feelings. Finn’s stepbrother, Kurt, vacillates between denial and acceptance. And his mother completely breaks down while packing up his bedroom. We witness the full gamut of emotions that accompany death and grief.
But it’s music that sits at the centre of this moving episode. From Broadway musical Rent’s “Seasons of love” to The Pretenders’ “I’ll stand by you”, music lets both the characters and the cast honestly show their grief. At one point, Finn’s girlfriend, Rachel (Monteith’s real-life girlfriend, Lea Michelle), performs a moving rendition of Adele’s “Make me feel your love” as tears stream down her face. The episode shows us the important role music plays in the grief and healing process.
9. The Good Wife (2014, Season 5, Episode 16)
The aftermath of Will Gardner’s shocking death on legal drama The Good Wife leaves everyone in a state of disbelief. For Alicia, the episode is spent listening to one final voicemail from Will and trying to figure out what he was going to tell her just moments before his death. For Kalinda, it’s about getting an answer to “why” this happened. And for Diane, it’s about figuring out what life – and the law firm – looks like without her business partner.
The loss of self-identity is something that many of us don’t expect after the loss of a loved one. We don’t realise that we’ll be mourning the loss of the self we used to be with our partner, parent, sibling or friend. A changed person emerges from grief. While you won’t be the same, you will be stronger. Life goes on and so will you. Give yourself time.
10. A Country Practice (1985)
A Country Practice is one of the most adored Australian TV dramas of all time. In the highest rating episode of the series lengthy 12-year run, beloved farmer Molly Jones dies from leukaemia. After being diagnosed, receiving treatment and battling the terminal illness, Molly retires to her garden to watch her husband and young daughter flying a kite. We watch through her eyes as she takes in the happy scene and the screen starts to go dark. Her husband looks over to her, sees she is slipping away and starts running towards her, yelling out a desperate “Molly!”
Death isn’t always a sudden and unexpected event. It can be a process that begins with a life-threatening diagnosis, proceeds through treatment and ends eventually in death. This process means that both the terminally ill person and the family are confronted with the need to ‘live with death’ for a prolonged period of time. Anticipatory grief is not just about accepting the future death. It’s also about coming to terms with the many losses already occurring in the lead up to death. And just like any grieving process, anticipatory grief is an individual process and it’s a natural part of adjusting to living with loss.
And for good measure, here’s a bonus episode we couldn’t bear to leave out …
11. Six Feet Under (2005, Season 5, Episode 10)
The Fisher’s are a family who know death – they run a funeral home, after all. But that doesn’t prepare them for when Nate suddenly dies from a brain haemorrhage. His brother, David, especially struggles and his despair culminates during the burial, where his crumbling face perfectly portrays the depth of his sadness. There’s little dialogue, but David’s body language is all it needs to be heartbreaking.
Grief is a central character in Six Feet Under. Every episode of this dark comedy begins with the death of someone whose service will be arranged by Fisher & Sons. This is a family who works with death every day, but seeing how they deal with the death of one of their own paints them in a new light. No one is immune from death and grief – and the Fisher’s are no exception.
In the midst of all-consuming emotion, David receives comfort and support from those around him. He is able to openly express his grief. And he finally acknowledges the reality of his brother’s death in his heart. The burial sequence shows us why funerals are important and why they are a essential part of the healing process.
Over to you
Is there a TV scene or episode about death and coping with grief that you find particularly memorable? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.