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

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

Movies & TV Shows are Taking a More Realistic Approach to Death & Grief
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Words by:

Michelle Breyer

Illustration by:

Words by:

Michelle Breyer

Illustrator:

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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 Whatsyourgrief.com:

“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

  • A Matter of Life or Death: A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.
  • Afterlife: In the afterlife Sam encounters her dead mother and tries to find a way to bring them both back to the real world.
  • All is Lost: After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.
  • A Walk to Remember: The story of two North Carolina teens, Landon Carter and Jamie Sullivan, who are thrown together after Landon gets into trouble and is made to do community service.
  • Beautiful Boy: Bill and Kate’s already strained marriage is tested when their college-age son commits a shocking act of violence that reverberates across the country.
  • Me Earl & the Dead Girl: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
  • The Sixth Sense: A distinguished child psychologist meets a frightened, confused 8-year-old boy, and is completely unprepared to face the truth of what haunts the boy.
  • Beetlejuice: The spirits of a deceased couple are harassed by an unbearable family that has moved into their home and hire a malicious spirit to drive them out.
  • Brian’s Song: Based on the real-life relationship between teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the bond established when Piccolo discovers that he is dying.
  • Dead Man Walking: A nun, while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim's families.
  • Dying Young: A nurse falls in love with a terminally ill man
  • Flatliners: Five medical students, obsessed by what lies beyond the confines of life, embark on a daring experiment: by stopping their hearts for short periods, each triggers a near-death experience - giving them a firsthand account of the afterlife.
  • Field of Dreams: An Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.
  • The Lovely Bones: Centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from purgatory. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.
  • Final Destination: After a teenager has a terrifying vision of him and his friends dying in a plane crash, he prevents the accident only to have Death hunt them down, one by one.
  • Ordinary People: The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.
  • Funny People: When seasoned comedian George Simmons learns of his terminal, inoperable health condition, his desire to form a genuine friendship causes him to take a relatively green performer under his wing as his opening act.
  • The Pallbearer: A young man's life is thrown into a loop when he is asked to be a pallbearer for the funeral of a classmate he doesn't remember, and his old high school crush temporarily returns to town.
  • Heaven Can Wait: A Los Angeles Rams quarterback, accidentally taken away from his body by an overanxious angel before he was meant to die, returns to life in the body of a recently murdered millionaire.
  • Death at a Funeral: Chaos ensues when a man tries to expose a dark secret regarding a recently deceased patriarch of a dysfunctional British family
  • Ghost: After a young man is murdered, his spirit stays behind to warn his lover of impending danger, with the help of a reluctant psychic.
  • City of Angels: An angel on Earth, a doctor unable to believe, a patient with a secret, a love story made in Heaven.
  • Meet Joe Black: Death, who takes the form of a young man, asks a media mogul to act as a guide to teach him about life on Earth, and in the process, he falls in love with his guide's daughter.
  • The Descendants: A land baron tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident.
  • Life as a House: When a man is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he takes custody of his misanthropic teenage son, for whom quality time means getting high, engaging in small-time prostitution, and avoiding his father.
  • Manchester by the Sea: A depressed uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy's father dies.
  • Ponette: A four-year-old girl tries to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother.
  • Ikuru: The film examines the struggles of a terminally ill Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning.
  • Never Let Me Go: The lives of three friends, from their early school days into young adulthood, when the reality of the world they live in comes knocking.
  • Wit: A renowned professor is forced to reassess her life when she is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer.
  • Cries & Whispers: When a woman dying of cancer in early twentieth-century Sweden is visited by her two sisters, long-repressed feelings between the siblings rise to the surface.
  • The Farewell: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body; only his left eye isn't paralyzed.
  • Ida: A novice nun about to take her vows uncovers a family secret dating back to the German occupation.
  • The Savages: A sister and brother face the realities of familial responsibility as they begin to care for their dying father.
  • Love Story: A boy and a girl from different backgrounds fall in love regardless of their upbringing, and then she is diagnosed with a terminal illness (a Classic)
  • Away from Her: A man coping with the institutionalization of his wife because of Alzheimer's disease faces an epiphany when she transfers her affections to another man, Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound mute who also is a patient at the nursing home.
  • Marley & Me: A family learns important life lessons from their adorable, but naughty and neurotic dog.
  • My Sister’s Keeper: Anna Fitzgerald looks to earn medical emancipation from her parents who until now have relied on their youngest child to help their leukemia-stricken daughter Kate remain alive.
  • Stepmom: A terminally-ill woman must deal with her ex-husband's new lover, who will be their children's stepmother.
  • Terms of Endearment: Follows three decades in the lives of widow and her daughter Emma.
  • The Mourning Forest: A care-giver at a small retirement home takes one of her patients for a drive to the country, but the two wind up stranded in a forest where they embark on an exhausting and enlightening two-day journey.
  • Mystic River: The lives of three men who were childhood friends are shattered when one of them has a family tragedy.
  • After.Life: After a car accident, a young woman caught between life and death meets a funeral director who claims to have the gift of transitioning the dead into the afterlife.
  • Tender Mercies: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.
  • What Dreams May Come: Chris Nielsen dies in an accident, and enters Heaven. But when he discovers that his beloved wife Annie has killed herself out of grief over the loss, he embarks on an afterlife adventure to reunite with her.
  • The Seventh Seal: A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.
  • Tree of Life: The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings.
  • Waking Ned Devine: hen a lottery winner dies of shock, his fellow townsfolk attempt to claim the money.
  • Wristcutters: A Love Story: A film set in a strange afterlife way station that has been reserved for people who have committed suicide.

Documentaries About Death & Grief

  • A Certain Kind of Death: Unblinking and unsettling, this documentary lays bare a mysterious process that goes on all around us – what happens to people who die with no next of kin.
  • The Bridge: The Golden Gate Bridge is often the place where suicides occur. This documentary crew spent a year filming The Bridge, and the result is a moving examination of the lives of those who chose to end their own lives.
  • Life Itself: A documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.
  • Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend’s ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.
  • Dying at Grace: Director Allan King documents the final months of five terminally ill cancer patients at the Toronto Grace Health Centre. AmazonYouTube
  • Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality: Explores the ongoing research of a group of social psychologists studying the effects of ‘death anxiety,’ a possible root cause of many of our behaviors on a psychological, spiritual, and cultural level.
  • Gates of Heaven: From famed documentarian Errol Morris, and examination of the devotions, emotions and at times, obsessions exhibited by animal lovers when a pet cemetery is moved to a new location.
  • How to Die in Oregon: In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Since then, more than 500 Oregonians have taken their mortality into their own hands. In this documentary, filmmaker Peter Richardson gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether to end their lives by lethal overdose. At the heart of the film are the patients themselves, their families and friends, as they grapple with the legal option they are allowed in Oregon.
  • Time of Death: Cameras will follow brave, terminally ill individuals as they live out their final days, supported by family, friends, healthcare teams and hospice workers, who gently help guide the process.
  • Into the Abyss: In this fascinating exploration of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, master filmmaker Werner Herzog probes the human psyche to explore why people kill and why a state kills. Through intimate conversations with those involved, including 28-year-old death row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die within eight days of appearing on-screen), Herzog achieves what he describes as a gaze into the abyss of the human soul.
  • Lightning Over Water: Director Nicholas Ray is eager to complete a final film before his imminent death from cancer. Wim Wenders is working on his own film Hammett (1982) in Hollywood, but flies to New York to help Ray realize his final wish.
  • The Suicide Tourist: Do we have the right to end our lives if life itself becomes unbearable, or we are terminally ill? With unique access to Dignitas, the Swiss non-profit that has helped over one thousand people die, filmmaker John Zaritsky offers a revealing look at two couples facing the most difficult decision of their lives and lets us see as one Chicago native makes the trip to Switzerland for what will become the last day of his life.

TV Shows About Death & Grief

  • Dead to Me: A series about a powerful friendship that blossoms between a tightly wound widow and a free spirit with a shocking secret.
  • Forever: The series asks the question "Marriage is already a long time — but what if it actually literally lasted forever? Would it be what you expected?
  • 13 Reasons Why: Follows a teenager in his quest to uncover the story behind his classmate and crush, Hannah, and her decision to end her life.
  • The Good Place: Four people and their otherworldly frenemy struggle in the afterlife to define what it means to be good.
  • Pushing Daisies: A pie-maker, with the power to bring dead people back to life, solves murder mysteries with his alive-again childhood sweetheart, a cynical private investigator, and a lovesick waitress.
  • Autopsy: Autopsy is a television series of HBO's America Undercover documentary series. Dr. Michael Baden, a real-life forensic pathologist, is the primary analyst, and has been personally involved in many of the cases that are reviewed.
  • Russian Doll: A cynical young woman in New York City keeps dying and returning to the party that's being thrown in her honor on that same evening. She tries to find a way out of this strange time loop.
  • Family Plots: The show centered on the relationships between the employees, for instance Chuck Wissmiller and his three daughters - all of whom worked together at the mortuary during the show's run.
  • This is Us: Everyone has a family. And every family has a story. The show follows the Pearson family across the decades.
  • New Amsterdam: A medical drama which addresses topics of death and grief.
  • Sorry for Your Life: The sudden death of her husband upends and transforms every relationship in Leigh Shaw's life. It also forces her to realize there was a lot about her husband that she didn't know.
  • Les Revenant: Small mountain community which is rocked to its core when several local people who are presumed dead suddenly reappear at their homes. Despite having passed away some years earlier, these ghostly characters appear in human form, they have not aged, and they are completely unaware of their own fatality. Determined to reclaim their lives and start over, they slowly come to realize that they are not the only ones to have been brought back from the dead.
  • Six Feet Under: A chronicle of the lives of a dysfunctional family who runs an independent funeral home in Los Angeles.

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