On Death and Loss: Lessons from Downton Abbey

Once again, this week's episode of Downton Abbey is full of powerful insights about life, love and human nature. When 24 year old Lady Sybil's delivery of her first child takes a heartbreaking twist, viewers witness a telling exploration of grief and loss. Death is such a painful and taboo topic, and Sunday night's episode demonstrates the extent to which people tend to grieve differently and to process the death of a loved on in varied ways.

With the shocking death of Lady Sybil (Lady and Lord Grantham's youngest child) the upstairs and the downstairs of Dowton Abbey are paralized in a grief-stricken state of shock. Thomas the footman, Downton's purest villian who in three seasons of the show has yet to say or do anything remotely genuine or kind, sheds tears in a corner and sobs,

In my life... not many have been kind to me, and [Lady Sybil] was one of the few.

During Lady Sybil's final moments, her Irish husband and her American mother cling to her side and proclaim their profound love, while her British sisters, father and brother-in-law keep their distance and stare at her, jaws dropped, as if trapped in a mutual state of disbelief.

Immediately following her death, Sybil's brother in law, Matthew, inappropriately attempts to distract himself with business and financial matters. Meanwhile, the adoring chef, Mrs. Patmore, speaks lovingly of her memories:

She wasn't much more than a baby herself poor love. When I think how I taught her to cook. She couldn't boil and egg...yet she was so eager.

As a therapist, I hear a lot about how the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one can feel similar to an out-of-body experience in which people frequently have little or no clear memory. A client once told me that she and her sister processed the news of their father's death in dramatically different ways -- one was extremely emotional and expressive, the other was completely composed, contained and focused on taking care of business. Family and friends expressed disbelief that these two sisters could have been raised in the same family.

Another client recalled when her sister called to tell her that their father died in a car accident, and she insisted that her sister was mistaken and remprimanded her for making such a cruel joke. She was irreverent and adamant for hours that the news of her father's death was false. This client then had the exact same reaction, years later, when a friend broke the news that her college roomate was killed on Septebmer 11th. Again, she insisted that the information was false and was furious at her friend for playing a heartless joke on such a tragic day. Denial is a powerful mechanism, often most evident when people struggle to process tragedy.

When processing something as difficult as the loss of a loved one, there is obviously no specific way that people are "supposed to" grieve. Granny Violet's final words as the episode concludes are perhaps the most poignant:

When tragedies strike, we try to find someone to blame. In the absense of a suitable candidate, we usually blame ourselves... No one is to blame. Our darling Sybil has died during childbirth like so many women before her, and all we can do now is cherish her memory and cherish her child.