Sitting Shiva for TV
The year is 2011. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way begins playing through my alarm clock radio, the numbers lighting up my still-dark, poster-plastered room. My puffy eyes blink awake, and as the time changes from 5:45 a.m. to 5:46 a.m., I’m sure of only one thing: I can’t go to school today.
The night before, The Vampire Diaries aired an episode in which the main character’s guardian is murdered, the fan-favorite love interest of protagonist Elena is revealed to be dying, and a heartbreaking funeral closes the hour. I had fallen asleep crying, overcome with the feeling that someone close to me had died. And come morning, my sadness was exacerbated by another emotion: confusion. How could I express to my parents (increasingly annoyed by my addiction to television) and friends (fickle and judgmental teenagers) that I was grieving someone that I had not only never met, but who had never actually existed? Overwhelmed by both anxiety and the raging hormones of high school, I had no choice but to avoid my problems entirely and stay in bed.
I had grown used to being called a crybaby by my peers for expressing intense emotion around television. Ninth grade and the start of adolescence are difficult times to navigate, and developing a reputation as oversensitive didn’t make it any easier. I wanted to be the “strong female character” in my own story, and if that meant bottling up my tears and being expressive only in private, then so be it. I came to see TV shows as my escape, and the characters as surrogate friends from whom I could learn important life lessons. To lose a character to death or a show to the fickle whims of network executives was devastating, but I did not feel safe admitting that attachment in public settings.
Perhaps the issue people take with emotional TV watchers is the scale of it all: It’s not happening in real life, so any response that affects your actual life is seen as disproportionate. But the low-stakes death of a fictional character creates precisely the right environment in which to learn about the grieving process, identify healthy ways to mourn, and grapple with mortality. As a fifteen-year-old who had yet to experience death personally, I was able to cultivate a process for mourning that I would put to use when my grandfather passed away a few years later.
After my Vampire Diaries heartbreak, I sat a form of shiva by avoiding further media consumption for a period of time. I wrote a eulogy of sorts in my journal for what I felt I had lost. I talked to an empathetic friend in our fandom, and we discussed our favorite memories. In the time since then, through a variety of heartbreaks, I have become so appreciative that the Jewish grieving rituals I’ve adopted place the focus on the celebration of life and community comfort, because I have been able to continue enjoying TV and to seek like-minded others with whom to discuss media. I am so grateful that my emotional nature allowed me this practice field in a TV landscape that offered the chance to experience a definitive ending.
I stopped watching The Vampire Diaries when I went to college in 2014. This was not because I matured out of liking it—I will always have nearly endless patience for soapy teen dramas—but because I grew tired of, well, the whole “vampire” bit. Not the trope itself, but the fact that next to no one who died on that show was truly gone. There was always a resurrection possible, a spell to be cast, some magic stone to overturn to reset the clock. As an extremely emotional viewer prone to tears and faking sick to skip school after particularly intense episodes, I became exhausted wasting my grief on a character that would surely be brought back to life just weeks later.
My worry for fans of entertainment today is that the opportunity to practice low-stakes, healthy grief is disappearing as the market floods with reboots in place of original content. While the mourning of a character is still a real possibility, I fear the expectation of return has become ubiquitous. Things come to an end, and believing they deserved more time cannot hold you back from continuing on with your own life. The clamoring for a Friends reboot or sequel, for example, concerns me. Friends ended when it was supposed to end, after an extremely successful decade on the air. And while I enjoyed it, I found El Camino, the Breaking Bad sequel film, unnecessary and distracting. A show that was so meticulously planned and executed didn’t need resuscitation. Neither did Roseanne, Will & Grace, or Twin Peaks, regardless of how well-done they were. If one of my favorite shows is canceled tomorrow, I will be stuck in limbo, wondering whether or not I should put my personal mourning ritual into action.
Death and grief are difficult to handle, but unfortunately, the only way to develop a healthy way to cope with unpleasant emotions is to feel them. By allowing ourselves to grow unashamedly and emotionally attached to media and entertainment that bring us joy, we are opening ourselves up to hurt, introspection, and emotional growth in the comfort of our living rooms. So bring on the devastating character deaths and brutal cliffhangers. I’m ready to be wrecked.
How to cite this page
Diamant, Ilana. "Sitting Shiva for TV." 3 December 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 20, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/sitting-shiva-tv>.