If you have ever grieved for someone, and especially if you’re grieving now, you’re sensitive to how dying, death, and grief are portrayed on TV. Much of the time, they serve as pivots for the regular characters to do what they normally do around it. They’re not the focus of the episode and the depictions are generally superficial. Now and then a presentation offers an important view into a part of life that most of us ignore.
Recently I saw a rerun of the “M.I.A.” episode of N.C.I.S from 2017. The guest character, Laura, is dying of ovarian cancer, and the NCIS crew is pushing to solve a crime before she dies. What the writer, Jennifer Corbett, gets right is the portrayal of the dying woman. Corbett based Laura on a person she knew, according to Katherine Cunningham, the actress who portrayed Laura.
For her part, Cunningham goes beyond the stock presentation of someone dying to convey several layers of emotion ‑ the shock of dealing with a terminal disease, the dread when treatments stop working, and the courage to face her reality. Once she accepts she is going to die, she is freed to focus on living the rest of her days.
What I value the most about this episode is the interaction between Laura and Nick, one of the investigating officers. Nick has to deal his avoidance of the dying because he had a girlfriend who died young. Laura helps Nick with his struggle and gets him to speak from his heart. Nick brings Laura presence so that she’s not alone. They let themselves be vulnerable in order to help each other.
I didn’t realize how much Laura had drawn me in until the episode was over. Since it was a rerun, the odds are low that I will see it again anytime soon when I can listen more closely and find why I was so moved.
The series gets grief right a lot of the time. In another episode, after Vance’s wife is killed, he has to look for a nanny to take care of his young children, but he’s feeling guilty about doing so because it seems like he’s turning away from her and moving on. Ziva counsels him that only he can decide when it’s time to move on.
What does this have to do with us?
Laura and Nick could be any of us. If we haven’t already, one day we will know people who are dying and we will be expected to visit them in the hospital. Many of us won’t want to go because we don’t know what to say and we don’t like feeling helpless. Many of us will deflect what the dying person is saying, sugarcoat what’s happening (saying something like, “research is always finding new treatments”), and neglect to deal with their emotions, and they will die feeling alone.
Laura and Nick help each other with their struggles. When Laura dies, Nick will grieve, but he will also celebrate this person he knew for only a short time. His life opens up because he took the time to sit with the dying.
Perhaps, if you have never lost anyone, you don’t understand how hard it was for Nick to enter that hospital room. Or perhaps, if you have never been close to death, you don’t appreciate how grateful Laura was to have someone with whom she could share her fears and the small celebrations of the day.
The dying don’t expect magical cures from us. They want honesty and companionship as they journey to the point where this life ends, and what comes after begins.