Why Teen TV Shows Are So Good At Dealing With Death

·9 min read

Content warning: This piece contains references to suicide and death.

It all started with a tennis racket. Just minutes before making out with her hunky new Indian boyfriend, Never Have I Ever’s Devi Vishwakumar is confronted with one of the less sexy topics in life: death, specifically her father’s death. During Game Night, after a drunken attendee angrily hits a tennis racket against bins in Devi’s garage, she startlingly realizes that it belonged to her father, who died from a heart attack while at Devi’s orchestra concert. But what’s even more upsetting is that she completely forgot the racket existed. Devi crumbles at the notion that she’s been so caught up in her personal life — her new boyfriend, getting good grades, and trying to get laid (the reason behind Game Night) — she hadn’t thought about her dad’s death in a while.

“That was a very real moment,” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays Devi, tells Refinery29. “It can feel awesome that you’re moving on, but it can also feel like you’re losing something. … There’s a little bit of comfort in a known sadness that you inherently feel when thinking about that event.” After grappling with her father’s death for three seasons, Devi finds herself at a crossroads: one road leading to anxiety and panic and one less traveled leading toward something she hasn’t felt since in a long time: happiness. And choosing something unknown, or at least unfamiliar, is daunting.

Devi is no longer “the sad girl whose dad died,” as she later tells her therapist, and chances are that Devi’s mascara-streaked face and rattling breaths are the same ones that have been felt by countless viewers at some point in their lives. This moment demonstrates one of Never Have I Ever’s greatest strengths: its ability to capture grief in a realistic and nuanced way and its service to young viewers dealing with unexpected death in their own lives.

But it’s not the only show that has done this. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, One Tree Hill, Stranger Things, The Vampire Diaries, Veronica Mars, Pretty Little Liars, Degrassi, 13 Reasons Why, The 100, Teen Wolf, and The OC. are a large number of TV series about and aimed toward teens grapple with loss and death, many of which center around the loss of a parent and how it motivates their characters growth or motivations. It’s not just the death of parents though. In 2013, Glee explored the aftermath of school jock-turned-leading choir man Finn Hudson’s death, a heart-wrenching episode that not only showed the series’ characters coping with his passing, but also honored fans mourning star Cory Monteith, who died in July 2013 of a drug overdose.

More recently, the adaptation of Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty gave viewers a similarly heart wrenching moment, shortly after teen brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher find out their mom has terminal cancer. As the brothers, eyes red-rimmed and crying, plead with their mom to “just try” a cancer treatment trial for them, you can’t help but cry along with them. And it turns out there’s a very good reason for that. Teen shows excel at depicting grief not just because of the writing or the actors (although great writing and award-worthy performances obviously help), but in large part due to the period of time in the characters’ lives that we’re watching. Chalk it up to burgeoning hormones or the fear of growing up, but your teen years are rife with scary firsts and big emotions that can almost feel insurmountable. “You are already navigating so many psychological, physical, educational and relational shifts and changes [as a teenager] that knowing how to manage your grief is complex,” Emma Kenny, a UK-based TV psychologist, says.

This is especially true when it comes to the loss of a caregiver, or someone like a parent, often the source of grief in these shows (or every single Disney princess movie). “For kids in particular, losing a loved one, especially a parent, is probably one of the most common and biggest fears that children have,” agrees Julie Kaplow of the Hackett Center for Mental Health. While processing loss can be and is difficult for people at any age, one of the big components of grief with young people is an existential or identity distress, which can be prompted with the death of a parent, Kaplow says. “For teenagers in particular, there’s a real focus on a future without the person there. One of the key aspects of grieving as a teen is figuring out ways to live the life that they think the deceased person would want them to live or live in a way that would’ve made the deceased person proud of them or somehow carrying on the legacy of the deceased.”

“It can feel awesome that you’re moving on, but it can also feel like you’re losing something. … There’s a little bit of comfort in a known sadness that you inherently feel when thinking about that event.”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan

We see this numerous times with Devi, whose mom Nalini often refers to how Devi behaved before her father passed away, that she was easier to manage or wasn’t as mischievous. In The Summer I Turned Pretty, heartthrob Conrad Fisher buckles under the weight and pressure of his mom’s impending death, as he tries — and struggles — to be a good son during her last summer. Even Lucas Scott, our problematic fave heartthrob from One Tree Hill, used the death of his uncle Keith, who was shot by Lucas’ father aka Keith’s own brother, as a guiding light throughout the rest of the series. The looming question of What Would Keith Do? is always on Lucas’ mind.

This expectation would already be tough enough to handle for anyone, but coupled with the often unwavering need to not want to feel like the odd one out, it can be a difficult terrain to navigate. “Teens want to be accepted, and their friendships are incredibly important to them, and often they don’t want to appear different, meaning that they suppress how they truly feel as they fear being rejected,” Kenny says. To those on the outside, it might seem like these characters are “getting over” their grief by resuming their normal lives, like going back to school the day after a death. As we’ve seen in shows like Degrassi and movies like 2022’s The Fallout, this can have detrimental effects. In The Fallout, Vada uses drugs as a way to cope after a school shooting, before ultimately seeking help for her PTSD. When her boyfriend Campbell dies by suicide in Degrassi, Maya Matlin returns to school and her cello practices. She pretends that nothing happened, fearful of being associated with — or blamed — for his death.

Regardless of why viewers tune in, we’re pretty much hardwired to be drawn to them — because chances are we’ve experienced loss in one way or another. One in five US children under the age of 18 will experience the loss of someone close to them, according to nonprofit Experience Camps. “Bereavement and the death of a loved one is a universal experience,” Kaplow says. “It’s one of those tragedies or adverse life events that all of us will experience at some point.”

Which isn’t to say that great writing and a nuanced understanding of grief ends once you become an adult. Grief doesn’t end at a certain age, after all. But there’s something about putting this type of experience in the context of teen years — and shows about teens — that makes it feel like so much more powerful. Part of that might also be the fact that we don’t typically expect to see these experiences in these teen show settings. Series like Riverdale, The Summer I Turned Pretty, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, are often thought of as “fluff;” lighter fare that’s meant to deal with trivial hardships like your crush asking someone else out (or in the case of Riverdale, multiple serial killers taking over the town). Or maybe, more than that, it’s because in a lot of instances, viewers specifically turn to these shows as an escape from the stresses and sometimes actual horrors of their lives. Which makes facing them head on feel like a punch to the gut.

Thankfully, there can be a silver lining to this grief. For all the flack teen TV gets, these shows can help viewers deal with their own grief or feelings around death IRL by reaffirming to those teens that they’re not alone. And perhaps more importantly, that their feelings are valid. “Most people are looking for permission to express their feelings, and watching people’s emotional stories play out on screen lends itself to this,” Kenny says. “For people who have personally endured losses and found themselves feeling as if no one understands how it feels, the catharsis of watching a character they love go through something similar can be very powerful.”

And for those who have yet to experience the loss of someone close to them, seeing others’ process death on screen can be helpful, too. “Experiencing emotions through another human’s lens, and being able to step into their feelings without actually suffering the loss, is a psychological form of rehearsal,” Kenny says. While you may think you’re sobbing along with the Fisher boys at the foreboding thought of life without their mother Susannah, the truth is that you’re probably preparing for your own real losses.

But just as in real life, grief on television isn’t stagnant. After dealing with death, our TV faves work through their emotions and come out on the other side because that’s the way grief works. “We truly are going through the stages of grief in Never Have I Ever,” Ramakrishnan says. “We’re showing that [grief] goes and flows sometimes. It’s not a straight line.”

And that’s okay.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

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