When grief is portrayed on TV, it’s usually a surface storyline, a convenient pivot for the regular characters to do what they normally do around it. While I don’t expect any TV series to spend much time on dying or grief, because the shows are designed to entertain, when serious subjects are addressed, I want them to be depicted accurately. In real life, most of us want to deal with our problems honestly, and TV has the opportunity to show us how to move past our hesitations and fears.
Recently I saw a rerun of the “M.I.A.” episode of N.C.I.S. The guest character, Navy Lieutenant Laura Ellison, has ovarian cancer, and the N.C.I.S. crew is pushing to solve a murder before she dies. What its writer, Jennifer Corbett, gets right is the portrayal of the dying woman. According to Katherine Cunningham, the actress who portrays Laura, Corbett based Laura on a person she knew. For her part, Cunningham goes beyond the stock presentation of someone dying and conveys deeper emotions—the physical struggle of dealing with a terminal disease, her wry humor, concern for someone who was under her command, despair when treatments stop working, and courage in facing her reality. I didn’t realize how much Laura had drawn me in until the episode was over. Every N.C.I.S. episode that Corbett wrote touches the heart.
Besides Laura’s realistic portrayal, what I value about this episode is the interaction between Laura and Nick, one of the investigating officers. Nick has avoided hospitals and people who are dying because a girlfriend he expected to marry died young. Laura encourages Nick to face his loss and reopen his heart to others. Nick, for his part, listens to Laura’s fears and keeps her from being alone.
The series gets grief right a lot of the time. In another episode, after Vance’s wife is killed, he has to find a nanny to take care of his young children, but he’s feeling guilty about doing so because it says to him that he’s turning away from his wife and moving on, and he doesn’t feel ready to do that. Ziva counsels that only he can decide when it’s time to move on, and hiring a nanny doesn’t affect this.
We all have our favorite TV shows, and we watch them for distraction, laughter, or to be shocked. I find myself drawn to shows that speak honestly about the struggles of human existence, like M*A*S*H, Doctor Who, and Inspector Morse.
In the months after my wife died, I tuned in each week to watch Inspector Morse on the BBC because the struggle and bleakness of Morse’s life now felt like my own. In his police work, Morse dealt with the tragic side of human life, yet he believed in a few friends, good ale, classical music and crosswords, and they were enough to keep him going. He was a resilient pessimist, grumpy at times and often surly, yet I drew strength from his ability to withstand dealing with people who deliberately harmed others. I also liked his philosophical musings.
Eventually, Morse dies and the series ended. When it came back, his sidekick, Lewis, was in the lead role, but during the time the show was off the air, Lewis’s wife has died in a car accident. Not only does Lewis have to learn to do a new job without his mentor’s guidance and his wife’s support, he also has to carry on in the midst of his grief, and deal with unresolved anger at the driver who killed her.
Unlike Morse, Lewis thrives on relationships, but he struggles with the job because the counter balance of a happy home life is gone, and a hard shell begins to form around him. My fear is that he will end up bitter and alone like Morse, but his colleagues at work help him along. In later episodes, we see glimmers of happiness return as he shares moments with a new woman and a relationship develops.
What does this have to do with us? Many of us feel uneasy visiting the dying because we don’t know what to say, and we feel helpless. It’s the same situation with the grieving. If we can’t think of something positive to say, then we don’t want to go, and many of us don’t. Yet, what the dying and the grieving want most is to know that they aren’t alone in their journey, and this is the gift that Nick gives to Laura. Laura’s gift to Nick is the message that life doesn’t end with a diagnosis.