I always have to watch the latest episode of This Is Us on my own – because I pretty much spend the entire hour crying.
And I don’t mean a solitary tear trickling prettily down my cheek. I’m talking about opening a floodgate of wet, noisy weeping, gasping sobs, guttural wails of anguish.
It isn’t pretty. But my god, it feels good to let it out.
Since my dad died of cancer in summer 2020, I have struggled to show my grief to other people. I talk to my friends and family, I let myself cry in front of my boyfriend, but the full, ugly realities of loss, the breathless hysteria that still hits me when I remember that he is really gone… I don’t let anyone see that.
But watching This Is Us, and seeing how grief is unflinchingly presented as a vivid, inescapable part of being human, feels both freeing and incredibly refreshing amid a social culture that speaks of death only in hushed, shameful whispers.
I admit that, having lost my dad so recently, watching a show where the entire narrative is framed around the death of a father doesn’t always feel like the healthiest life choice, but I’ve been with This Is Us since the very beginning.
It was actually my dad who first got me into it, back in 2016. We even watched some early episodes together, both reveling in the heartfelt writing that managed to be moving without being cheesy, and the characters that sucked you in and made you feel like you were part of the family.
For my dad, a Black man who grew up in the care system away from his biological parents with a white foster mother, I knew Randall’s storyline spoke directly to him.
After dad died unexpectedly at just 57, it was the ongoing grief of the Pearson siblings that began to speak directly to me.
In the immediate aftermath of Jack’s sudden death – which we finally got to see at the end of season 2 – the teenage Big Three are thrown into the stunned chaos of early grief.
I saw my own struggles reflected in the way Kevin turns to alcohol to numb the pain, how Randall’s perfectionism and need to fix everything spirals into anxiety, how Kate’s self-esteem is completely eroded by her loss.
So often, in films and TV, grief is a plot device, typically used to move the story on or to allow characters to learn something about themselves. They will cry and scream, go to the funeral, and then within months, or even weeks, the plot has moved on and their grief is no longer relevant.
What This Is Us gets so right is the idea that grief is not a transient thing. It is not a stage of sadness that you move through and get over. Rather, it is something that sits with you, changes you, shapes who you are and who you will become throughout your entire life.
In the final episodes of the show, we see the siblings in their 50s, still coming to terms with the loss of their father – even as they stare down the barrel of their mother’s immanent death.
I am almost two years into my grief, and I already know that this loss is something I will carry with me forever. Just like Kevin, Kate and Randall, my relationship to my loss will change as I get older, I will continue to reassess what it means to me and how it impacts who I am and how I behave.
In some respects, this is a daunting prospect, but This Is Us also allows me to feel hopeful about the future.
The Pearson family are a clear example that it is entirely possible to grow around your grief. To build full, happy, enjoyable lives, while still holding space for what you have lost.
In the early months of my grief, I doubted that I would ever feel happy again. I worried that anything I achieved in my life – whether in my career, or in my relationship, or starting a family – would be ruined by the inescapable fact that Dad wouldn’t be here to see it.
However, watching the Pearsons grow up, get their lives together, build careers, create their own families, all while continuing to work through their grief, showed me it was possible to have both.
As a society we are bad at talking about death and loss. The fact that I have come to be so reliant on a TV show as an outlet for my grief speaks volumes about the lack of space we allow each other to talk about how we are feeling, and our inability to support each other through it – not only in those first days and weeks, but as it continues to impact your life.
I’m not sure that I am emotionally ready to say goodbye to the Pearsons as the final episode airs this week. My heart will likely break all over again when I remember that my dad will never get to see how the story ends.
But I will be forever grateful to the writers of This Is Us for helping to articulate so clearly that grief is a transformational and ongoing experience.
Losing your father doesn’t have to define you, but the complexity of loss takes a lifetime to work through – and that’s OK.