I watch a lot of TV. If you can call TV watching a hobby, it’s my number one. I’ve recently watched two shows that address child loss, and I couldn’t have more different feelings about the two. We’re going to be talking about ER (circa 2005 specifically) and This is Us. If you’re not caught up on either show (I’m referring to This is Us more than ER. If you’re not caught up on something from 2005, that’s not my problem.), read no further. I warned you.
I’ll give you a little synopsis of the plot line in ER, since, even if you were a fan of ER, you probably watched this particular season over a decade ago and your memory might be a little fuzzy. In season 10 of ER, Carter is working at a hospital in Africa and gets his girlfriend, Kem, pregnant. They end up moving back to Chicago to have their baby in the U.S. Kem is pretty far along when she notices she hasn’t felt their son move in a while. Carter is concerned and they go to the hospital to get checked out. It’s at this point that my eye-rolling starts. I assumed that everything would be fine, because there’s no way they’re actually going to address something like child loss, right? This is the same show where Benton’s son was born prematurely and was totally fine. Well, I was wrong.
ER faces the reality of child loss head on. Kem has to deliver their stillborn son. Watching that episode was heartbreaking, but what happens afterwards is what really made me realize how much the writers nailed it. They don’t show Carter getting back to normal right away. They show him struggling, trying to pour himself into his work as a distraction. There’s a scene him catching up with a med student he used to work with, who shares that he has two children now. When he asks Carter if he has children, Carter has to walk away from the conversation. That kind of awkwardness, and the pain those triggers elicit, are all too familiar to me. All of these situations are real and accurate for those of us who’ve experienced the tragedy of losing a child. Kudos to ER for getting it right.
And then there’s This is Us. I had high hopes for this show, because it’s pretty much based around child loss. Rebecca and Jack are pregnant with triplets and one dies at birth. They have Kevin, Kate, and Kyle – Kyle being the one who doesn’t make it. Conveniently, there’s also a baby in the same nursery that was left by his father, so Rebecca and Jack still end up bringing home their “Big Three”. As I watched the first season, I kept expecting them to address Kyle. Those of us who’ve lost a child know that there’s no replacing the child who died, so adopting doesn’t get rid of the grief of losing Kyle, but they fail to address that at all.
In the second season, Kate gets pregnant, then miscarries a couple of episodes later. Finally, they’re going to discuss child loss! They kind of do, but they also do a really bad job of it, which actually might be more damaging than not addressing it all. Doing it wrong doesn’t do anything to correct the stigma that still surrounds pregnancy and infant loss.
When Kate is in the hospital after her miscarriage, the doctor says that the good news is that they can try again soon. This has me cringing right away, as “you can try again” is one of those things that people often say to loss parents that provides no comfort and just plain sucks. I’ll go back to the point I made earlier that children are not interchangeable. Having another does not take away the pain of losing the other. It seems kind of ridiculous that a medical professional would be shown uttering the words “good news” when consulting with a patient who is currently miscarrying.
There are a couple of moments that are slightly redeeming, mostly featuring Toby, Kate’s fiancé (and baby daddy). There’s a moment with a UPS driver, and that time he tells off Kate when she suggests that this happened to her, not him. We finally get to hear a bit about Rebecca’s grief from losing Kyle, but it’s a woeful 30 second dialogue.
The episode closes way too cheerfully with Kate and Toby discussing their desire to try again soon. This kind of narrative drives loss parents nuts. It’s an exchange we’ve had time and time again – everyone seems to want you to just happily move on with your life and have more babies. It has me wondering if This is Us actually consulted with any parents who’ve experienced miscarriage and infant loss, because their depiction in the show is so far from reality. I’m so confused by how Kate seems to be over it in about 24 hours, where the rest of us struggle with a lifetime of grief.
I can hope that This is Us will get it together eventually, address Kyle more, and actually show a little bit of ongoing grief from Kate and Toby. From what I’ve seen so far, my expectations of them getting it right aren’t high. Depicting loss isn’t enough, you need to get it right if we’re going to delete the stigma around child loss.