Just over a year ago, I was one of the millions who watched the heavily promoted “Super Bowl Sunday” episode of NBC’s “This Is Us.” The episode revealed, at long last, how the Pearson family’s beloved patriarch, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), had died.
The tissue boxes were undoubtedly close at hand across America as Jack valiantly rescued his family from a raging house fire. In the end, he was felled by a heart attack — the result of smoke inhalation. It was a pivotal and long-awaited episode, but it was particularly significant for me.
I had lost my own father just two months earlier. He hadn’t died in the aftermath of a dramatic blaze, but the result was the same. One minute, my dad was there — he had always, unfailingly, been there — and the next, he wasn’t.
And there was a painful parallel in Jack’s unexpected cause of death, which turned out to be a “widowmaker” — one of the most dangerous types of heart attack. It was the same ghastly term an ashen-faced doctor used while telling me and my sister that our 54-year-old father had died.
The Pearson home went up in flames because, of all things, a faulty Crock-Pot. But somewhere beneath the melodrama, I found unexpected catharsis in watching this fictional family grapple with an unthinkable loss that so closely mirrored my own.
Cliches abound about grief being a process, a journey, a marathon, not a sprint. But that’s why “This Is Us” felt so authentic, and a reflection of my loss in near real-time: The Pearsons’ grief isn’t the subject of multi-episode arcs; it’s stitched into the fabric of the show.
“My mom died 10 years ago, unexpectedly. It’s the hinge upon which my life swings,” “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman tweeted just after the pivotal episode aired. “Jack’s death is the Pearson hinge.”
"Super Bowl Sunday" left me raw enough that it took me more than a month to watch the next episode, which featured flashbacks of Jack's wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and her children at his funeral. "The Car" is a staggering portrait of grief — the exhaustion, the questions, the what-ifs — and its ability to tear families apart.
By the time I got around to watching it, I had come to terms with the fact that my dad was gone. But I hadn't managed to silence the what-ifs. What if I'd gone to see him the day before instead of just talking to him on the phone? What if he had been taken to another hospital, the one roughly eight miles down the road, that specialized in cardiovascular care?
And I couldn’t yet silence my biggest questions, the ones that made my heart drop whenever they came to mind, which was at least once a day: Did my dad know he was going to die? Was he scared?
Fogelman always knew that Jack’s death “was going to be a central defining moment” for the show, he said in an interview. But he doesn’t necessarily view it as grief — at least not the kind of unbearable sadness that leaves room for little else.
The question at the heart of the show, Fogelman said, is “What happens to a person or a group of people when they lose the key instrumental figure in their lives?”
My father and I talked just hours before he died. He was the person I would call if I needed anything — advice, help with a home improvement project, a good laugh.
Losing him is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It’s also inextricably linked to the best.
I was 37 weeks pregnant the morning I woke up to a hysterical call from my sister and a flurry of missed texts from my aunt, who would only tell me that my father was in the hospital and that I needed to get there as soon as possible. Thirteen days later, I gave birth to a beautiful girl with dark brown eyes, a head full of hair and a Pop-Pop she would never meet.
I had not expected to see my loss reflected so poignantly on television, which I watched listlessly in the early days of a maternity leave that had been hijacked by emotional trauma. Later that year, I would also find threads of my experience in “Sorry For Your Loss,” a thoughtful Facebook Watch drama about a young woman mourning the unexpected death of her husband, and the third season of CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” which managed to deeply explore a similar loss amid zany telenovela-inspired plotlines.
But “This Is Us” most closely resembled what I was going through. And the show has continued to bring me comfort as the Pearsons move forward — and look back.
Of course, “This Is Us” isn’t just about grief. And “The Car” isn’t just about Jack’s funeral: The episode explores the weight of the Pearsons’ loss through a Jeep Wagoneer that a determined Jack buys for his family. In one flashback, Jack helms the station wagon while teasing Rebecca for being scared to drive across a bridge.
But by the end of the episode, Jack is gone. Rebecca, having spent the day mourning, steels herself behind the wheel and charges the Wagoneer across the bridge.
And in a way, I, too, made it across that bridge.