How Six Feet Under helped me grieve after my brother's death
Friday marks the 15th anniversary of Six Feet Under‘s premiere. Here, EW staff editor Ariana Bacle shares how the HBO show has impacted her life.
Following a death, there’s a certain checklist of things to do for the grieving: see a therapist; join a support group; journal your feelings. No one ever says, “Watch TV.” They should.
Two years ago, a family friend called to tell me my brother was dead. I reacted as anyone would: I screamed, threw something, curled into the fetal position. And then, after the initial terror subsided, I said, out loud, “I’m trying to think of a TV show where this has happened before.” I desperately wanted a fictional character to connect with. I desperately wanted the comfort of one of those happy, tidy endings found so often on TV shows.
The Fishers were those characters. I watched Six Feet Under for the first time in fall 2013, and immediately dubbed it my favorite show despite — or perhaps because of — the pain it caused me. I breathlessly sobbed the first time I watched the third-to-last episode, where the Fisher family grieves the sudden death of Nate (Peter Krause), the eldest sibling who suffered from an unpredictable brain disease that his body ultimately succumbed to. People die on TV shows all the time, but this death felt real. It hurt, so much so that months after watching, I wrote a piece about its still-lingering impact.
However minor, most of the pain came from the Fishers’ similarities to my own life: For one, both of our families have two brothers and a little sister. But more than that, I also — like the Fishers — used to live in fear that my big brother would die. While Nate had an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, my brother battled addiction.
So when I watched that episode, I saw the Fishers’ worst fear happen, and my own worst fear, too. The show didn’t gloss over their assigned day of mourning, but instead, showed every messy, heartbreaking, hopeful step. I could feel their grief deep in my bones, so much so that I headed to the kitchen after and downed a shot of whiskey before calling my boyfriend at the time and hiccup-crying to him about the episode of TV I just watched. Almost exactly a year after seeing that episode, my brother — the one I had been scared of losing — did die.
I got through that first week after his death by imagining myself an honorary Fisher, by reminding myself that if they could get through that, so could my own family. There’s a difference between talking to someone who’s been through something similar and seeing someone go through something similar. There are the ugly parts that no one really talks about, either because it’s too immediately painful to revisit or because there isn’t enough time, an appropriate time, to share: the agony that physically brings you to your knees, the difficulty of doing the things — like going to a funeral — that are seen as routine rites of passage until you have to do them yourself. These parts, when you’re suddenly crying during a designated “not crying time” or struggling to get out of your car to go say “goodbye” to your dead brother, are the times when you feel most alone. Those are the parts Six Feet Under showed.
Television’s often seen as an escape, a way to get away from how terrible your day was. But there’s a value in TV that forces you to immerse yourself in how terrible your day was, how terrible life can be. It gives a sense of camaraderie, it reminds you that it’s okay your life isn’t as sparkly as Modern Family — hell, it’s normal.
In that episode of Six Feet Under, the one where they mourn Nate, Ruth (Frances Conroy) says, “I forget how anyone ever gets over anything.” I forget how anyone ever gets over anything. So did I: For months after my brother’s death, I lived in a complete fog that felt permanent. I still got up each morning, I still took care of myself, I still laughed, but each win — even if that win was as simple as going back to work after two weeks away — was tainted. This is how everything will be from now on, I sometimes thought to myself. This is my life now, each positive shadowed by my 29-year-old brother dying on a sunny day in September.
Part of that was because everyone loved to tell me about the benefits of closure after my brother died — a step I felt like I would never achieve. “Do this; it’s closure,” they’d say, whether it was about a funeral or a memorial service or writing a eulogy. That word, “closure,” implies that you can just get over a death, that once you see your beloved in a shiny coffin or a delicate urn, you’re good to carry on with life just as before. But you can’t get over a death, not one that rocks you to your core. You get through it. Six Feet Under didn’t just get this; it was made of this.
Almost two years after my brother’s death, that fog has mostly lifted. There will always be accomplishments, milestones that feel less whole because he’s not here to celebrate them with me. I still cry at inopportune times, like when I see a man with paint-splattered jeans — the kind my brother wore to work every day — on the subway or when my Spotify playlist shuffles to a death-centric Sufjan Stevens song. This is normal. I have Six Feet Under to thank for teaching me that, for giving me a template for grief, for being a reflection of my own mostly indescribable, completely complicated feelings.
The Six Feet Under finale is most known for its closing sequence, a minutes-long montage that sees all the drama’s main characters at the time of their eventual deaths. It’s beautiful (dated aging makeup and all) and devastating and, at the same time, wonderfully matter-of-fact. But there’s a scene a little before that one that sticks with me even more: It’s where the Fishers and company gather together at the dinner table one last time before Claire (Lauren Ambrose) heads across the country to New York. There, they tell stories — embarrassing, silly, sweet stories — about Nate.
When it comes to David’s (Michael C. Hall) turn, he remembers the one time he saw a spider crawl out from Nate’s heavily hair-sprayed head. “I didn’t say anything, because I knew how cool he was trying to be,” David says as the table laughs. “I wanted him to be that cool, I wanted him to be the coolest brother anybody had ever had.”
I have stories like that about my brother, too. Ones about him wearing a highly feminine diamond bracelet because it looked glamorous, ones about him getting in trouble with neighbors for blasting rap music from his truck, ones about his obsession with getting his hair cut. These lighthearted stories don’t cancel out his death, or my grief, or his absence in the same way that the Fishers playfully reminiscing about Nate doesn’t mean their sadness is over. These feelings can and do live together.
Soon after that scene, Claire says goodbye to her family on the steps of the funeral home before she drives away. “I want to take a picture of everyone,” Claire says through tears. Nate — a ghost, a spirit, a hallucination; it doesn’t matter — appears behind her: “You can’t take a picture of this — it’s already gone,” he says as the camera clicks. Then off she goes, driving off as the vision of Nate fades away in her rearview mirror. He might not be there physically to wish her goodbye, to stand smiling for a photo op with the rest of their family. But he’s there, reminding his baby sister that memories of him won’t disappear like his body did, that she can move forward. So she does. And if Claire can do it, did do it, then so can I.