What does Downton Abbey have to do with Grief Theories?
This article is not about Downton Abbey per se but shows examples of what we see and hear in mainstream TV shows, the things that get taught and what we come to believe about grief.
Not all the statements are ‘bad’ as you will see but some are based on assumptions. This is also how myths are created.
I was interested and started paying attention to the messages they send out about grief and grieving. So here is the collection of the things the characters said after the loss of one of their family members:
THE DOWNTON ABBEY GRIEF APPROACH
Storyline: In the first series, Sybil, the youngest child of the family dies unexpectedly. She had ran away with the chauffeur, got married and pregnant and returned to the family home (Downton Abbey) to give birth. She is well loved by the family and the staff of the house because she’s able to connect with everyone, regardless of their social ranking. She dies after child birth from the effects of pre eclampsia.
Violet (Sibyl’s grandmother), after the death of her granddaughter:
Grief makes one so terribly tired. Now that it’s over, try to get some rest.
- Truth: Grief is physically exhausting. Resting is needed.
- Assumption made: Once a person is dead and the funeral is over, ‘it’s over’. What is over?
- Myth: Grief has a timeline and is ‘over’ at some stage.
Cora (Sybil’s mother) speaking to her husband:
Is it over? When one loses a child is it ever really over?
- Truth: Wondering about and if ‘one is ever really over the loss of a child’.
- Assumption questioned: Grief is finite.
- Myth: Grief has a timeline. Grief should be over after some time.
- Truth: Who knows. We cannot foretell the future.
Tom (Sybil’s husband) answers to his brother-in-law offering help:
My wife is dead. I’m past help. But thank you.
- Assumption made: Grievers will ask for help, once they have been offered.
- Truth: Early grievers (often) cannot come up with what they need help with.
- Truth: Offering specific help is needed.
Isobel (mother of brother-in-law who has a good relationship with Tom, Sybil’s husband):
I hope you let me know if there is anything I can do, anything at all.
- Assumption made: Grievers will reach out. Often they don’t.
- Truth: Reaching out to the bereaved is important. Even better would be to offer specific help.
Spoken to someone grieving but not directly involved but who felt somehow close to the dead person:
Cheer up. A long face won’t solve anything.
- Truth: You can feel grief for someone even though they might not have been ‘close’ to you. Grief will resonate with any unresolved loss you have experienced in the past, that is why we (some of us) grieve the death of famous people like Princess Diana, Dr. Wayne Dyer, David Bowie or Robin Williams.
- Myth: ‘Cheer up’ is a version of ‘don’t feel bad/sad’.
- Truth: Trying to feel anything else than what you’re authentically feeling is an act and/or a lie. It might be sensible in a moment but in the long run it is tiring and unhealthy.
Ethel, the maid who had to give away her child due to financial hardship:
When you lose a child, there is nothing worse under the sun.
- Truth: I really cannot imagine what it would have meant for a women in the old days to have to give away a child due to financial hardship.
- Truth: Grief is individual and unique and she speaks from personal experience.
Violet (Sybil’s grandmother) is played by Maggie Smith. Her lines are spoken with such Maggie-like matter-of-fact demeanour – they are classic. I would recommend watching Downton Abbey just to see her fabulous acting and hilariously funny character (or watch her best moments here).
Here she speaks to her daughter-in-law, with whom at the time she has a difference in opinion:
I will not criticise a mother who grieves her daughter.
- Truth: Grief is unique therefore criticism of someone’s grieving style is inappropriate.
Violet (Sybil’s grandmother) says to Robert (Sybil’s father):
My dearest boy. There is no test on earth greater than the one you’ve been put through.
- Truth: Without knowing or assuming what someone has already gone through in life and even if we do, grief should never be compared. It’s unique for every griever and every loss.
Violet (Sybil’s grandmother):
You’ve created a division between my son and his wife when the only way they can conceivably bear their grief (of their daughter) is if they face it together.
- Truth: The parents’ relationship can be a great source of support after the loss of child AND equally challenged or challenging.
- Assumption made: A couple needs to grieve together.
- Truth: Each griever has to deal with their grief individually. As much as the mutual support of a couple is supportive, one cannot expect their partner to do (all) the supporting.
Violet (Sybil’s grandmother):
I keep forgetting she is gone.
- Truth: In Violet’s age, you might put this sentence down to old age. It is however common, and that has nothing to do with denial, that at times one forgets…
(If you’re like me, you love Downton Abbey… until they let your favorite character die because they won’t continue in the next season or had a falling out with the director. If you’re not a fan, just think about where else you have heard or read those kind of sentences about grief.)
Image Source: Wikia.com