Note: Spoilers for the February 5, 2018 episode of ‘This Is Us’ are ahead.
Like most This Is Us fans, I cry (multiple times) during every episode. But last night’s episode that aired after the Super Bowl … well, that had me straight-up ugly crying.
After nearly two seasons, viewers finally learned the cause of death for Jack: a heart attack, brought on by smoke inhalation. After that infamous Crock-Pot ignites a fire that spreads throughout the house, Jack heroically ushers Rebecca, Randall, and Kate outside to safety, but runs back in to save Kate’s dog and family mementos. But his act, as courageous and heartwarming as it was, turns out to be fatal when he later goes into cardiac arrest at the hospital.
It stung not only to watch the final moments of such a beloved character play out on screen, but to witness the beginning stages of grief rip through the Pearson family. And yet, midway through the episode as I reached for another tissue, I realized my ugly crying was about more than the loss of Jack — it was for my own loss, as well.
Just like Kevin, Kate and Randall, I lost my father unexpectedly from a heart attack. I was only 14 years old.
And so, as the “Big Three” wept onscreen, my tears came flooding back in a big way, too.
The circumstances were different, of course, but the show’s fictional tale rings true for me on many levels. For Jack, it was smoke from a fire. For my own dad, it was smoke from cigarettes. Despite being a smoker, regular check-ups did not detect my father’s heart disease.
On February 28, 1995, my mother returned home from work to find my father lifeless. The 911 dispatcher instructed her on how to perform CPR, but she was too late. Just minutes too late actually, as our neighbor heard him cough about 15 minutes earlier and a recorded football game indicated an exact time.
My father died of a silent heart attack at 46 years old, but there is nothing silent about this kind of loss. As Randall describes during an impromptu “eulogy” for his daughter’s lizard Mr. Giggles, sudden loss is sharp, painful, and very loud in one’s head.
Each week, viewers watch the Pearson family struggle with milestones and everyday life, knowing that Jack is not there. And I can’t tell you how deeply I get that. For me, there would be no father-daughter wedding dance and no seeing my father embrace his grandchild. And the same can be said for Kate, Kevin, and Randall.
They say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But This Is Us reminds us that acceptance doesn’t mean that grief disappears — and that’s OK. The struggle remains real, though I believe it gets easier.
Wiping away my tears last night, I felt a deep connection to the characters. Not only because I understand how a parent’s death affects your life forever, but also because I finally saw the meaning of the show’s title in a whole new light. This Is Us is not just one family’s journey; it’s about how all of our journeys — all of our stories — are connected. And how each circumstance shapes us, for better or worse.
Of all the show’s characters, I find myself connecting to Kate the most. When she started to lose it over the VCR eating the tape of her dad, I couldn’t help but think of one of my most recent dad-related meltdowns. I wear a ring that belonged to my father and one evening, I chipped its star sapphire. I bawled on the floor while searching for the missing piece. Luckily, my husband — who had probably never seen me cry like that — found it and brought it to a jeweler, who was able to restore it. He came to the rescue, just like Toby did with the videotape.
As This Is Us shows us week after week, the loss of a parent can have lasting and profound effects on a person’s life in a myriad of ways. I can admit that even after all these years, I still have an irrational fear of pending loss. I’m so in love with my husband — just like Jack and Rebecca, and just like my own parents — that I live in constant fear of something happening to him. Still, signs from above, like the laughs Jack sends Rebecca each year, do help. For me, they include seeing my dad’s police badge number on the clock or hearing his favorite song. We all have our things.
And just as grief impacts everyone differently, I could relate to the sentiment and sadness each character felt. Randall proclaimed that he wanted to be half the dad his father was; I hope the same for myself as a mother. Meanwhile, Kevin yearns to make his father proud and I’ve been there, too. For nearly a decade, I worked for the American Heart Association in honor of my father, and it wasn’t just a job to me. I needed to impact life-saving research and cardiovascular disease awareness. My father’s life — or rather, the loss of it — would not be in vain, and I was determined to make a difference for him. And I can’t wait to see what Kevin decides to do in honor of his father.
Sure, some may say This Is Us is only television, but this show means something. And maybe that something is the knowing that we’re not alone.