Stages of Grief in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

My roommate and I are seriously hooked on the series The Walking Dead.  Personally, I have more of a connection to it than any show since 24, which is strange because I don’t often enjoy television enough to become invested.  This show, however, is different.  On top of the action and drama, the writers do an incredible job of drawing out the complex psychological and sociological implications of living in a zombie apocalypse.  It sounds like a joke, but let me explain.

Early on in the series, my roommate pointed out how strange it was that people didn’t want to kill their loved ones who had become zombies, even if the act were self-defense.  Many of them had seen their family members die, only to reanimate as a mindless, bloodthirsty creature. Then he realized that the stages of grief could not apply in such a dissonant world.  When someone dies, but they sort of come back, at least bodily, what do we do with that?

Psychologists generally accept that when we lose someone we care about, we go through certain stages, at least if we are to get over the tragedy.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance mark the path often taken to process the situation.  With this in mind, it’s intriguing to see how the characters in the show respond to loss.

Many times, we meet someone who is stuck in denial.  They refuse to believe that their loved one is gone, that they do not inhabit the shell their body has become, lively though it is.  Some of the most disturbing scenes arise from this mental block.  Characters go to extreme lengths to preserve their now-zombie kin and friends, even in the face of evidence that the one they love no longer exists.  Woven through the story are subtle questions about what constitutes life, what defines an individual, and whether the spirit lives on apart from the body.  I love when anyone encourages reflection on these issues in today’s culture.

Interestingly, some characters progress beyond denial when confronted with evidence, but in a world so fraught with danger, they often jump straight to depression or acceptance.  The former have every reason to despair given the bleak state of the world, particularly after a personal loss.  The latter hurdle the middle steps almost as if an adaptation to the new mode of life, survival at all costs.  Even in scenarios where acquaintances die in a manner where they don’t become zombies themselves, the best case is that those grieving can catch their breath long enough to quickly process before the next threat to their safety arises.  Over and over again, the groups we follow have to cope with grief of both kinds.

A select few so far have remained in the anger stage, lashing out at anything and anyone in an attempt to regain power in a landscape where all are largely powerless.  This almost always becomes their demise, as their rage leads them to take more and more risks.  Aggression is a means of control, and as control slips away, the cycle generates even more anger.  From that perspective, it may seem that these characters regress to more primitive ways of thinking, not even operating on a level which has to process the emotions involved in loss.  In that case, do they begin to lose their humanity altogether?

The excellent writing causes the viewer to wonder, “Why do some go one way and some another?  And what would I do if I were in that situation?”  To me, that is what makes each episode worth watching.  It’s a show about zombies, yes, but it’s even more a show about people, what differentiates us, and how we would respond to such incredible stress, both as individuals and as groups.

You can catch The Walking Dead on AMC, Amazon, or Netflix.

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