Unless you have been taking an Internet sabbatical this past week, you know that Dr. McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy is “McGone,” and Grey’s fans are not happy about it. Loyal viewers of the medical soap have endured eleven years of emotional ups and downs, with fan favorites being killed off in a wide variety of ways—plane crashes, mass shootings, bus accidents, and actual illness. Other characters have been written off less violently, but regardless of the method, a certain tolerance for the revolving door of doctors grew among fans. This tolerance reached its limit with this past Thursday’s episode, when the long-hoped-for happy ending for Derek Shepherd and Meredith Grey was snatched away by a car accident on a beautiful day.
Derek’s death was the ultimate betrayal for viewers who have invested years of attention and support to the show. Patrick Dempsey, whose blue eyes and unnaturally beautiful head of hair captured the hearts of women everywhere on the series premiere, had only recently signed a new two-year contract, and his character had finally snapped out of his selfish, un-McDreamy-like phase and returned to Seattle as his usual charming self. Things were finally looking up.
Fan reactions to the episode ran the gamut from sad to shocked to downright angry, with a memorable Someecard making the rounds on the Web, imploring: “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been emotionally victimized by Shonda Rhimes.” In interviews this past week, Dempsey seemed to be among those that were taken by surprise by the plot twist, telling Entertainment Weekly, “It just sort of evolved . . .It’s just kind of happened. It really was something that was kind of surprising that unfolded, and it just naturally came to be.” Actress Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith Grey, a character who has become a magnet for large-scale tragedy, released her own statement Monday to fans via Twitter. “I have always said what keeps me going is the fans. Knowing we move you and inspire you. There are so many people out there who have suffered tremendous loss and tragedy. Husbands and wives of soldiers, victims of senseless violence, and parents who have lost children. People who get up each day and do what feels like is the impossible. So it is for these people and in the spirit of resilience I am honored and excited to tell the story of how Meredith goes on in the face of what feels like the impossible. I hope you will all join me on her journey.”
Playing armchair psychologist for a moment, I understand how easy it is to get wrapped up in TV shows and the emotional roller coasters of the characters, especially with a long-running show such as Grey’s Anatomy. The escapist nature of prime-time drama allows a break from the ups and downs of our actual lives. If something good happens to a character we relate to, it gives us hope. When something bad happens, we empathize with the situation but can distance ourselves with the solace that it isn’t real. But when something unexpected happens, it can trigger a reminder that we can’t always control what is going on around us. We can’t control the plot twists of a TV show, and we can’t always control the plot twists in our own lives. It can be jarring.
If the character of Meredith Grey can teach us anything, it is about the value of adaptability. While she doesn’t always have what one might see as the appropriate emotional response to difficult situations, she has certainly gotten a lot of practice rolling with the punches. Her perfect new boyfriend is married. Her famous doctor mother has early-onset Alzheimer’s. She meets not one but two half-sisters once they are all grown up. She gets married on a Post-it note when she gives up her perfect wedding to her friend with cancer. She thinks she can’t get pregnant, adopts an adorable baby, and then gets pregnant. She survives a bomb in a body, a ferry boat drowning, a mass shooting, and a plane crash. Her best friend and support system moves to Switzerland. And now, when she finally feels settled and happy, she suddenly becomes a widowed single mother. Oh, Meredith. She has had a journey indeed.
While I have not yet been called upon to summon a Meredith Grey–level of adaptability (for which I am eternally thankful), my own life has certainly taken me in unexpected directions that required a certain resilience and will to move forward that would hopefully do our beleaguered TV heroine proud.
My best friend from college was killed in a boating accident two years after graduation. Prior to the accident, our friendship had been damaged due to a misunderstanding that I never got the opportunity to make right. We hadn’t actually spoken since graduation. Her friendship had meant everything to me during school—as Grey’s would say, she was my “person,” the one I could celebrate with, vent to, lean on, and laugh with. We shared a love of theater, silliness, and countless moments listening to Bob Dylan while having a drink on the back porch. And despite the fact that I had been living without that friendship and support for a while, the news of her death threw me in a way I had never even thought to anticipate.
Moving forward from that loss taught me a lot of lessons that I think our friends at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital could relate to. I was in Chicago at the time, pursuing a career in theater and keeping alive the notion that this friend and I would take over the theater world together some day. It took me awhile to be able to reimagine that dream without her in it, but in the time I took off following her death, multiple factors ended up pointing me toward a new angle of teaching theater. This devastating time in my life ultimately became the ground zero on which seeds were planted that grew into my current career in arts education—a career that I now love. It fulfills me in a way I didn’t know possible, and I hope the joy I have found in it honors the memory of my friend.
This time of hardship also helped me grow in my personal life. I now make a conscious effort to make my friendships a top priority in my life, no matter how many years go by and how many miles separate me from people. It’s important to apologize when it's called for and to forgive people when it is asked for. It is never as easy to craft intelligent, well-thought-out apologies in real life as it is on TV, but I now know how important it is to try. I will now do better to accept responsibility for when I mess up and ask for forgiveness while I still can. Friends are your best allies when life turns you upside down, and I know (as Meredith knows) that this is not something to take for granted.
At the same time, I know it is important to not beat ourselves up for mistakes. Everyone makes them. And while I am still prone to the stubbornness that kept me from making amends all those years ago, I am now better able to know when to dig in and when to try a new approach. The humility it takes to try a new approach is worth it in the end, as is speaking up for what you really want.
So, if nothing else, watching Meredith Grey move forward from the latest twist that Shonda Rhimes chose to throw at her—and us—is a good reminder about the importance of being able to adapt. Even the most type A, in-control people will not be able to control every aspect of their lives, nor should they try to. Twists and surprises, while they can be painful, offer us the opportunity to grow, experience unexpected joys, and discover the true depths of our strength.
When life goes down these unanticipated paths, it is OK to be thrown. It is OK to mourn the loss of what was expected. But it’s also possible to move forward and, in moving forward, to experience unexpected gifts that buffer the sadness.