**Spoiler Alert: If you’re not caught up on your viewing of “This Is Us,” this article contains some references to scenes and details from Season Two. If that’s not going to kill you, read on. 😉
My friends will all tell you I am not a TV girl. I usually have a low tolerance for predictable series TV, a weak stomach for anything violent and a short attention span for sitcoms. I even hide my eyes during most of the commercials these days. If anything, we watch the food channels and the Olympics in our house.
Then I discovered “This Is Us.”
I saw a clip of the NBC network TV show on Facebook one day, and I was intrigued. I learned the show delved into some themes that touch my heart and life: grief, adoption, foster care, cancer, addiction, race and body image, to name a few. I got a two-week trial of Hulu and watched the entire first season in a few days. I couldn’t stop.
Now I have a standing Tuesday night date on the big couch in our living room with my husband Shawn. We laugh, we cry and we find ourselves venturing into deep discussions. Part of the reason this show has captivated us (and perhaps the rest of the country) is the way they continue to navigate the grief narrative. “This Is Us” has given America permission to grieve.
Whether displayed in a gallery, illuminated on a stage or unpacked on a screen, art opens our hearts to feel deeply. We experience grief, joy, anger, frustration, wonder, sympathy and more when we engage in the stories of others. “This Is Us” artfully invites us into a tangled web of stories that resonate and make us feel like they are talking about us.
In her book Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle articulates this idea: “In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”
I remember going to the movies just a few weeks after my husband’s death. A handful of my closest friends took me to see “One Hundred Foot Journey.” I bawled my eyes out.
It’s not a particularly sad movie, but I cried because I was reminded of my own broken love story. It stirred up memories for me of all the dates I had with my late husband to eat Indian food. I felt deeply the tensions between cultures and lifestyles. When the main character experienced loss, I found myself meditating on my own losses. The movie gave me unexpected space and permission to grieve.
“This is Us” is doing the same thing for many Americans today. Our people are dying of cancer. Children are being abused. Friends are parting ways. Spouses are navigating miscarriage. Women are struggling with eating disorders. Young people are facing increasing fear and anxiety because of the swirling chaos around them. Relationships are complicated and nuanced. We are all grieving something – whether it’s the literal loss of a father or the figurative loss of a dream. This show is helping us lean into these losses.
I can particularly relate to Rebecca (played by Mandy Moore), who is widowed and finds herself raising three children on her own. She later marries her late husband’s best friend. Her circumstances feel reminiscent of mine. My husband died from cancer in 2014, and I immediately found myself raising three young daughters as a solo parent. By God’s wild grace, I, too, married one of my husband’s best friends and began a new life with my girls. We are traversing a similar journey of trying to honor my late husband’s legacy and trying to create a new life with new dreams.
We watch Rebecca draw up great strength and courage after the death of her husband so she can help her three teenage children navigate their grief. At times, she pushes down her own needs and grief to tend to her family.
We see her son, Kevin (played by Justin Hartley), turn to alcohol and prescription drugs to cope with his father’s death. We witness his twin sister Kate (played by Chrissy Metz) struggling with food as she grows up. We learned in Season Two that this is partly a mask for her extreme guilt over the circumstances of her father’s death.
We also glimpse the grief of the adopted son Randall (played by Golden-Globe award-winning Sterling K. Brown). The legacy of his father (played by Milo Ventimiglia) is present with him as he matures and becomes a husband and father himself. Also in the show, Randall grapples with the cancer journey of his biological father (Ron Cephas Jones), who he is united with later in life. Randall faces a mid-life crisis that is very much informed by his grief over losing both father figures.
I appreciate that “This Is Us” presents grief in an emotionally authentic way. Viewers get a window into the ways many different characters navigate grief. Their loss affects them in different seasons of life in different ways. I remember my friend, who is a grief counselor, telling our young widows group that grief is like a ball of tangled yarn. It’s not a five-stage process that is linear. It’s not a race with a finish line; it’s a life-long journey with twists and turns and steep parts to the path.
She warned us that grief will affect our children differently in different seasons of life. As I listen to the stories of my friends who are widows and walk out my own journey, I know this to be true.
One thing that is missing from the “This Is Us” grief narrative is the element of faith. I know my own faith in a God who comforts has been the key to navigating grief and tragedy in my life. I find myself wondering what Rebecca’s narrative would look like if she turned to a faith that was more than just a faith in herself.
I’m grateful for shows like “This Is Us” helping give those who have endured loss permission to grieve. This show also helps normalize conversations around grief. We all could offer up more comfort and be more present with each other if we would just begin the conversation about grief.
As Kate says in Season 2, Episode 3, “There is a difference between wallowing and actually having a normal conversation about [grief]. There is. You know what? When I went to my weight loss camp and I saw a therapist and she asked me about dad’s death, and I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it. And you know what she told me? She told me that if I don’t learn to face my grief, that it would be like taking in a deep breath and holding that breath for the rest of my life.”
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