Living & Dying in Hollywood: How Movies & TV are Taking a More Realistic Approach to Death & Grief

05 Dec 2019 - Michelle Breyer


In a recent episode of the NBC hospital drama New Amsterdam, a pregnant mother learns that her unborn child no longer has a heartbeat, and she must give birth to her daughter.

The mom is shocked and devastated by the loss, and initially doesn’t want to look at her deceased daughter, Sophie, much less hold her.

The doctor knows that bonding with her baby will be important to her grieving process. So over the course of the episode, the doctor allows her to stay in the room longer to give her time to come to terms with her Sophie’s death, and to say goodbye to her. He rolls in a white bassinet called a “CuddleCot” – a special crib that keeps stillborn babies cool to allow the parents to spend more time with the child. At the end of the episode, the mother gets out of bed and looks gingerly into the bassinette, hesitantly picking up Sophie. We see her lovingly cradling her baby as she gazes out the window.

This is no happy ending, and we know this will be only the beginning of the grieving process.

But it’s a much more realistic portrayal of what parents experience when their baby is stillborn than has typically been shown on TV.

“When it comes to perinatal bereavement, too often the loss is reflected, but not the emotions and grief that happen afterward,” says Annie Horton, who lost her son, Isaiah, when she was 22 weeks pregnant.

When done well, movies and television shows about death, dying, and grief can help us deal with what is one of the scariest, least-understood, inevitable human experiences.

They can provide a way to become more informed about the human experience, help us address our fears about death and enable us to explore our own feelings about it while becoming more empathetic.

“Pop culture can function as a mechanism to help individuals deal with the impacts of death and dying,” writes Keith F. Durkin in “Death, Dying, and the Dead in Popular Culture.”

But too often, Hollywood has avoided, sugar coated and sanitized death and grief. Characters die in one episode and are buried, grieved and forgotten by the next.

Now, however, increasingly the entertainment industry is facing death head on, with all of the grittiness, heartbreak and, yes, humor, that come with it. From documentaries to TV shows, we are seeing a wave of powerful and innovative movies and TV shows about death, dying and grief.

One of the most powerful examples of this new, unconventional approach to death and dying is HBO’s Alternative Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America.

The 2019 documentary tells six stories of people nearing death and of family members of the recently deceased who have chosen non-traditional end-of-life options and remembrances, from celebrations of life, living wakes, green burials and more.

It takes an unflinching look at death, exploring what it means to be dying and how people choose to find meaning and to celebrate life at the end of their lives.

“As the baby boomer generation approaches death, more and more people are rethinking the ways end of life is recognized and are deciding to take control of what will happen when they die,” according to HBO’s web site. “The documentary spotlights a subject some might rather avoid and presents it in a positive and thought-provoking manner – featuring stories of empowerment instead of avoidance.”

“Alternate Endings is not a doom-and-gloom film,” Lloyd Sederer, medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, wrote in a recent Psychology Today article.

“Instead, it is a film more about life than death. It is about taking death head-on and arriving at it on your own terms and by means that can meet each person’s values and needs. It is a film about choice, dignity and human connectedness and community. And it is, as well, surely about the conviction so many of us hold that death is but one moment in the endless, continuity of life. Which means never dying but always being reborn. That’s what makes for the undercurrent of joy running throughout this brave documentary about dying in America.”

“Grief cannot be portrayed in a one-hour TV segment,” says Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.

“We must portray grief in ways that challenge the cultural norm of ‘three days off work and then keep busy and put it behind you,’” Wolfelt says. “When portrayed in ways that acknowledge that grief requires convalescence, this can model the authentic nature of grief.”

Hank Stuever, a television critic for the Washington Post, is encouraged by several of the new TV dramas that are taking an unflinching look at death and grief.

“I think a lot of TV has been pretty unimaginative about the death of a character,” says Hank Stuever, television critic for the Washington Post. “It’s too often about sudden death: fatal car wrecks, someone getting shot, etc. The funerals are all traditional TV funerals – they buy a casket and bury the person. You rarely see the characters going through the fairly intense process of planning a funeral, going through their belongings and the crippling grief. Things are glossed over in an episode or two.”

High on his list of new TV shows is Facebook’s Sorry for Your Loss, a devastating drama about Leigh, a young widow played by Elizabeth Olson, who is trying to live in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. Those around her are uncomfortable with her grief and want her to move on.

“What makes Sorry for Your Loss so good is that it understands grief isn’t a neat arc with a beginning and an end,” says Vox TV critic Emily Todd VanderWerff.

“It’s a process of atomization. An incident happens and your whole body feels like it’s engulfed in the flames of a nuclear blast. But with every passing day, it dissipates a little more and a little more. You’re able to do more, to get out of bed, to resume your life. But you always live with the residue of what happened. Your body is now radioactive, no matter how much the most immediately deadly elements dull with time. You learn how to live with grief; you don’t learn how to defeat it.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of the complicated and lengthy process of grief is This is Us, NBC’s popular drama which focuses on the effect of one man’s death on his wife and children. Although the character, Jack, died in 1998, the family is still grieving him in present day. Rather than addressing grief in one episode, it permeates every episode.

“This Is Us more accurately portrays the genuine emotion and the hard work of mourning,” says Wolfelt, who cites it among the best in the new crop of TV shows addressing grief and death.

Death and grief don’t always have to be a serious matter to have an impact. In the Netflix dramedy Dead to Me, Christina Applegate portrays a widow searching for the hit-and-run driver who killed her husband as she deals with the grief of losing him. It can be both hilarious and heartbreaking as she deals with the crippling loss.

“(Applegate) taps the deep well of sadness fueling all of Jen’s rage, and she handles the widow’s wide spectrum of grief — whether sobbing into a pillow while on the toilet or finding her husband’s last glass of water and taking a sorrowful sip — with equal care,” writes Entertainment Weekly.

One of the shows that first brought death to the forefront was HBO’s critically acclaimed “Six Feet Under,” a deeply moving look at life, death and family told through the eyes of Fisher & Sons funeral home. Running for five seasons, each episode began with a death, and the show was at times funny and at others painfully depressing. It won a Peabody Award for “its unsettling yet powerfully humane explorations of life and death.”

When approached sensitively and accurately, entertainment can be painful to watch. But it can promote a healthier and more realistic attitude about what it means to die.

And that means keeping it real, say the writers of the blog

“When our only experience with death goes no further than what we’ve seen in the movies, and you, Hollywood, only show us these pretty deaths, we assume this is what death always looks like,” they write in a recent blog post. “We think that we’ll have a meaningful moment with our loved one and then they will peacefully fall asleep, ‘Terms of Endearment’ style. We assume if death always looks like this on the big screen, then this must be what’s normal.

“So, Hollywood, here is my request: if you are going to show death, show the whole spectrum.

Show the things that might help us understand death isn’t always pretty, so we can be (even just a little) better prepared and feel (even just a little) less alone when we go through it with a loved one.

“Help us out here, don’t distort our reality of an experience we will all face. Take some of those perfect Hollywood deaths and make them a little less perfect.”

Based on some recent offerings, Hollywood is, increasing, heading that advice.

Movies About Death & Grief

Documentaries About Death & Grief

TV Shows About Death & Grief

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