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.
If you haven’t read Part 1, click here.
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: At the end of season three, Matthew, who had married Mary, the eldest daughter of the family, dies unexpectedly in a car crash after returning home from the hosptial, where Mary had just given birth to their first son.
After Matthew’s death this is what various people say:
How is Mary? She must come out of it at some stage, even if just for her son’s sake.
- Myth: ‘…for her son’s sake’ is a version of the myth ‘You’ve got to be strong / be strong for other.’
- Truth: One cannot be strong for others. You can – if that’s authentically here – only be strong in yourself.
- Truth: Putting on a mask and pretending to be and feel any other thing that is here might be sensible in the moment, it is however not helpful on the long run.
Robert (Mary’s father):
The price of great love is great misery if one of you dies.
- Half truth: This is the version of the famous quote by Queen Elizabeth: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” This is however not the whole picture. There are many more and different ways to see what ‘the price’ is that we pay for love, it could also be ‘amazing memories’ or ‘a smile when I think of them’.
Edith (Mary’s sister):
He thought that death was many years away and so it should have been.
- Truth: It’s common in the case of unexpected death to be feeling that death was untimely.
Isobel (Matthew’s mother):
When your only child dies you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything really.
- False belief: Here, Isobel is stating that she does no longer feel like a mother but she always remains a mother, just like if my mother dies, I’m still a daughter.
- Truth: It is important to notice that state of desperation in which she makes those statements and see them in that perspective.
- Identification with a role: ‘You’re not anything really’ shows her strong identification with being a mother at that stage. If we identify ourselves through our roles we fail to see our inherent value as a being, despite any role.
Cora (Sybil’s mother and Matthew’s mother-in-law) saying to Isobel (Matthew’s mother):
If Sybil had been an only child, I believe I would have died.
- Comparing Grief: Cora is comparing her grief (losing one daughter of three) with that of Isobel’s (losing her only child). Even though understandable from one grieving mother to another is thoroughly unhelpful and leads to inaccurate conclusions. We cannot enter another person’s grief experience.
Mary (Matthew’s wife):
You don’t seem to understand the death my husband had on me.
Why does everyone have to keep on nagging. My husband is dead. Can’t you all understand what that means?
- Truth: People don’t understand. They can’t. See above.
In the following scene, Mary is trying to let people know that she can’t deal with things that need attending:
Matthew is dead 50 years before his time, isn’t that enough for me to deal with?
- Truth: Grief is overwhelming. People need to be reminded.
Later in series four, Mary’s way of grieving is being questioned and discussed…
Conversation between Mary and her grandmother Violet:
Violet: “Mary, you’ve gone through a hideous time. But now you must remember your son. He needs you, very much.”
Mary: “I don’t think I’m going to be a very good mother.”
Violet: “There is more than one type of good mother. The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you. You must chose either death or life.”
- Truth: Interesting conversation… Yes, the son needs his mother.
- Myth: ‘You must chose between either death or life’ implies ‘you must forget and move on’ – that’s a myth. An emotional relationship remains even when the physical relationship has ended.
Conversation between Violet (Mary’s grandmother) and Robert (Mary’s father) about Mary and her grieving:
Robert: “Mary is broken and bruised and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her save from the world.”
Violet: “No, Robert, it is our job to bring her back to the world.”
- Truth: Different people have different ideas on what a grieving person needs.
Conversation between Carson (the head butler of the Downton Abbey) and Mary, where she’s asking him for advice or returning and taking on the running of the estate, what her late husband had done before his death:
Carson: “Does this mean you’ve decided to return to the land of the living?”
Mary: “It means I know I’ve spent too long In the land of the dead.”
Carson (holding Mary, while she cries): “You cry my lady. You have a good cry. If that’s what’s needed now.
And when you’re ready, you can get to work, because you’re strong enough. Strong enough for the task.”
- Truth: That’s the absolute best sentence here: You cry my lady. You have a good cry. If that’s what’s needed now. Specifically the last sentence shows that once we understand the bereaved’s needs and allow them, that’s when real grief support is shown.
Mary, while reflecting over her healing from grief is stating such a powerful and common thought:
I have this feeling that when I laugh, read a book or hum a tune it means that I have forgotten him, just for a moment. And it’s that that I can’t bear.
Upon which someone, and I can’t remember whom it was, quotes this beautiful poem by Christina Rosetti:
Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.
Image Credit: Fanpop.com