In This Is Us's Super Bowl Sunday episode, the show finally revealed how Jack Pearson died. But perhaps what was even more upsetting than the death of the beloved Pearson patriarch was his wife Rebecca Pearson's jarring reaction.
In a hard-to-watch scene, the doctor tells Rebecca about her husband's death while she's standing at the hospital vending machine — and she refuses to listen to what he's telling her.
"Are you out of your mind?" she asks him, while continuing to eat a candy bar, walking away and insisting that he's made a mistake. Eventually, in a gut-wrenching sequence, she finally registers the fact that he died when she walks into Jack's hospital room and sees his body laid out on the bed, and breaks down into tears.
Robin Goodman, PhD, executive director and program director of A Caring Hand, says that Rebecca's reaction of denial is a realistic and natural response that is built into us for when we're totally overwhelmed and in shock.
In fact, she says, Rebecca's reaction is more about shock than it is about denial.
"The person is overwhelmed, and it’s almost like they completely shut down," she says. "When someone is terrified, you can think about 'fight, flight, or freeze.' So, in some ways, you see all of that [in the show]; you see her yelling, screaming and fighting it, you see her freezing, and going, 'No, that’s impossible.'"
What's also realistic about her reaction is the way she immediately compartmentalizes Jack's death in order to be there for her children.
"She right away goes into autopilot, like, I have to take care of this, I have to take care of my kids. I can’t feel all of those other feelings right now, because if I do, I will not be able to function," Dr. Goodman says, adding that it's a common reaction amongst parents who lose a partner.
That said, grief is never one size fits all. While we do see Rebecca going through anger and denial — two of the traditional five stages of grief — and arguably maybe even the stage of acceptance, Dr. Goodman says that the concept of a set few stages of grieving aren't accurate when we're talking about losing a loved one. The stages of grief were actually developed to refer to what a person goes through when they're confronted with their own death, so the concept isn't really supposed to be applied to processing the deaths of others, Dr. Goodman says.
That's because grief is different for everyone — some people may never feel anger, and some people are angry forever.
"It's become a problem for people in many ways, [because] they think, I'm gonna do this and I'm gonna be done [with grieving]," she says. "Or they think, I didn’t get to the angry stage, so I'm never gonna accept that this person died."
But Dr. Goodman describes grief as an evolution, because the concept of "stages" implies that there is an end to that process. In reality, grief can often be a process that develops over time — a portrayal that she says the show nails.
"It’s not like 20 years later these characters went through all these stages and now miraculously have healed," she says. "What happens is your relationship to the person, to your grief and your feelings, change."
We see this many times in the episode and the show as a whole — the Pearsons are still grappling with Jack's death 20 years after it happened. When someone dies, Dr. Goodman says, there's never a one-way ticket to healing.
"You find another way to have a relationship with this person and have them be a part of your life — in whatever form that is — for the rest of your life," she says. "You develop some meaning about what happened. This person was important, and [you have to ask] who are they now for the rest of your life? And how does your grief evolve?"