Updated: Mar 9
During lockdown my household have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer - two episodes a night - our little nostalgic routine for dealing with the uncertainty of Covid.
As a counsellor who works with those who have been bereaved, and as someone who has experienced grief myself, I’m always interested in how media and TV represent death. As a society in the West we don’t talk about death and dying very often, so it’s interesting how mainstream culture tackles it.
Now this show is all about death - vampires defy death but lose their souls in exchange. They’re always hanging around graveyards, morgues, and Buffy herself has died once already. But largely the topic is cartoonised, a fun romp where vampires are killed, and they turn to dust - no body, no consequences to the teenager’s slaying ways.
However, we have just watched Season 5, which features an episode called ‘The Body’. Here the creators have made what I think is the best 45 minutes of television I’ve ever seen to tackle the shock of losing a loved one. (SPOILER ALERT). This is the episode where Buffy’s mum dies.
The episode is powerful, jarring, and solemn. Importantly, it doesn’t shy away from the realities of death or the shock of losing someone close.
The entire episode is shot from the perspective of Buffy, after walking in on her mum who has died of an aneurysm, possibly hours before. From the beginning we see long shots of Joyce’s dead body. It’s shocking for us as an audience, as we have come to love her as a character. It doesn’t shy away from the reality and finality of what has happened - there’s no loophole, or magic spell to bring her back (whatever her sister's wishes are in the next episode).
Joss Whedon, the series creator, describes in the DVD commentary how he never wanted to make a life-affirming message about loss, but instead to capture the "the black ashes in your mouth numbness of death" (2008), which he absolutely achieves.
Shock and the freeze response
We’re aware of Buffy’s absolute shock, in several ways. There’s no music - it's silent throughout the entire episode. It seems to be shot in real time. When the paramedics arrive you see only their torso, as Buffy tunes in and out of what he is saying reflecting the powerful effect shock can have on the body's senses.
Buffy is our superhero, and we are used to seeing her react to danger fast - the fight response - as she's been trained to do. But instincts are just that, instincts - we often have little control over them. The loss of Buffy's mum, her main attachment figure, is so terrible to her, the instinct is to freeze.
You see her hardly attempt resuscitation when prompted on the phone (something she beats herself up for after).
Unusually, compared to what we normally see in television - someone crying, desperately trying to bring someone back to life - we see Buffy focus in on small details that seem unthinkable: she takes the time to clear up her vomit (another shock response), and stands there watching the patterns bloom on the kitchen roll, while her mother lies motionless next door.
What’s happening to Buffy is her mind is dissociating, taking her away from the reality of the situation, protecting her from the soul destroying truth of the loss. What an incredible survival instinct we have!
She walks around numbly for the rest of the day, doing the tasks required of her. Firstly, telling her younger sister Dawn. Dawn’s reaction to the news was much more like what we normally see on television - collapsing in tears - but just as real. I will never forget the phone call I received about the sudden loss of my friend, and the physical feeling of my legs giving way at those few simple words.
Reality of Loss
Dawn has a harder time accepting the news, as Buffy dismisses her request to see her mum’s body. Many doctors and therapists recommend that families, including children, see the body of a loved one, in order that they can accept the death as real. It helps with moving through the understanding of the death’s permanence. But of course it should always be a choice, sometimes it can be very traumatic too.
Julia Samuels in her book Grief Works, explores how explaining death in a truthful simple way to children is important - not always all at once, but in bite-sized chunks. For ‘what children don’t know they make up, and what they make up can be more frightening than the truth’ (2017: 4). Rituals too, give shape and structure, to allow us to begin the process of acknowledging that the person is no longer physically present in our lives (2017: xx) and move through the denial and shock to a more accepting place.
The 'What if?'
Buffy’s experience of guilt and her sense of responsibility in this and the next episode, is absolutely spot on. For anyone dealing with a loss, the battle of imagining the ‘what if’ is very real. The: 'I could have', 'I should have', 'I would have'... All these questions are part of the bargaining process, a way to try and bring them back - but can take a heavy toll on those grieving, as we exaggerate and distort how much we are responsible, often unable to move past or take risks in the future.
In the episode we even see Buffy imagine a different outcome and for a moment the audience is convinced too - 'it's ok, she's made it' - only to realise it's just Buffy's fantasy - her 'what if'?
The episode makes for powerful watching, and if you’ve experienced a recent loss, may feel too close to home. It’s a brave piece of television, especially one written for a largely teenage audience. But it feels important for us to see our experience of loss reflected in a realistic way. It helps those of us who have lost to see the excruciating nature of death reflected back to us. What I often do when working with bereaved clients is help them sit with the huge range of feelings associated with a loss, to help them realise how normal and natural this process is. It helps us to accept the normalcy of the experience and give ourselves the time and space to go through the feelings, and back to living in our own time.
Get in touch if you'd like to discuss starting bereavement counselling.