How an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer helped me to grieve a loss in my family
The Body helped me normalise the way I felt VS the way I thought I should feel
I lost my grandma in the final week of September. She was 93. We’d said goodbye to her several times over the last year, convinced there was no way she’d pull through, but she always miraculously did despite catching Covid twice and being in and out of that hospital more than I’ve had hot dinners. It was the first death of a grandparent who’s seen me grow into an adult that I’ve had to go through, but I thought I was braced for it. I thought I would take it all coolly in my stride. I think I’m quite realistic and level headed when it comes to the concept of death and what it means, but when I got the call it still turned me upside down. Because of course it did, it’s coming to terms with an absolute that can’t feel truly real until it is real. I left the office and sat in the front room of my flat processing the unprocessable. And I replayed The Body from season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in my head like a memory.
It’s quite strange to find such comfort in an episode as upsetting as The Body, but when you have sought such comfort from the characters in that show for as many hours and years as I have you can find a lot of depth in even these characters bleakest moments. For context, The Body is an episode centred around the death of Buffy’s mum, Joyce. But the episode isn’t focussed on how she died or why she died, it focusses on the emptiness that hangs around the start of a grieving process. The disbelief. The vacancy of mind. The focus on minute insignificant details. The Body has always been acclaimed as an immaculate hour of television – the performances, writing and direction are arguably Buffy The Vampire Slayer at the best it ever gets. But you don’t need to be a fan of Buffy to feel this episode’s message and value. There is no melodrama here, no soaring strings and emotional music. Just a blunt and raw look at how people grieve.
‘The body is cold?’ ‘No, my mom’
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a single thing about who Buffy Summers is or what Buffy The Vampire Slayer is about. It doesn’t mater that Buffy is the heroine of a story in which she is the hero battling fictional monsters with the weight of the world on her shoulders. All that matters in the above scene is that she’s a 20 year old woman who’s reacting to losing her mother. In a show like Buffy where death and peril are a weekly occurrence, it’s important to note that Joyce’s death is of natural causes. Throughout the season, Joyce dealt with a brain tumour that gets removed and she gets the all clear. Her passing was caused by an aneurysm. It didn’t matter what anyone did and there was nothing anyone could do. It wasn’t a death Buffy could prevent or save her mother from. It’s what’s so pivotal about The Body is its broad appeal and ability to resonate with audiences beyond fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
In Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance in the scene after that phone call to 911 ends resonates with me more than ever before. The next steps are now out of her hands. All she can do is wait; a limbo period where you’re alone with the news. What are you meant to do with yourself? Buffy opens the door and she can hear children laughing and playing – their joy feels so jarring to the sorrow. My flat is across the road from a primary school, and when my grandma passed away and I’d hung up the phone from the news I could hear the playing too. I remember the next day, I went to Tesco and I vividly remember thinking how strange it was that the cashier didn’t know something awful had happened. She just thought it was another normal day.
‘We’re not supposed to move the body’
When the operator asks “the body is cold?” and Buffy is more insistent of correcting her with “no, my mom” than answering the question, it’s gut-wrenching. When Buffy catches herself calling Joyce “the body” rather than “mom”, it’s pivotal. She’s appalled at herself. “The body” is impersonal, clinical. When does a person stop being your mum and your grandma? Never. But in that moment it feels like when you no longer acknowledge them as so. There’s a big desire in Dawn to see Joyce’s body. She is so reluctant to accept the truth about her mum that she feels she needs that proof to see it, her denial to accept is too great. My family asked if we wanted to visit my grandma in the chapel of rest at the funeral directors. But for me personally, I don’t need to see her in any other way than how I remember her.
‘Can I be a grown-up?’
Willow reacts to the news by focussing her grief on what she should be wearing to the hospital. Every small detail feels monumental. Last night I spent nearly three hours crying about what to wear for the funeral. Everyone reassured me that nobody else will care, and that my grandma would think such hysterics and fuss completely ridiculous. They’re right. But it’s important because you want to get it right to make that day easier. The grieving brings insecurities to the foreground and lets you channel your emotion into your doubts upon yourself.
Anya asks all the wrong questions. She doesn’t know how to be, how to hold herself, what the right protocol is, what she should be thinking or saying and what the expectation is. I feel like this is really vital to any grieving process. There isn’t one right way you should be thinking or feeling, and once you know that it makes your head somewhat clearer. I remember a few minutes after I heard the news I was going through what would be happening to my grandma right now. Do they just wheel her off the ward? Where do they put her? How long do we wait now before the funeral. I needed to know logistics. Why? Because I need structure, order, answers. To make myself feel in control of a situation that could not be more out of your hands.
The only person who is relaxed is Tara. Tara is the least close to Buffy in the circle, the newest to the group, and when they’re sat alone it initially feels like it could be disastrous. But Tara’s silence is thoughtful, and when she tells Buffy that she lost her mother too (something Buffy didn’t know) the awkwardness between the two left together becomes comfort. When someone has been through a grief comparable to yours, it feels like a burden shared. It’s so important to discuss your grief and find that security in people you love. Buffy asks Tara if it was sudden, and Tara’s response is probably the most poignant moment of the entire hour. “It’s always sudden.” It didn’t matter that we all knew my grandma was poorly and weak in hospital and that we all knew, deep down, she wouldn’t come back out. It is always sudden.
‘Where’d she go?’
You can find a million and one episodes of television that are extremely sad where a beloved character dies. But rarely do you find an hour of television that captures so astutely the moments between your next steps and stages of that grieving process. The denial, the acceptance, the stillness and the mundane. When my grandma died, I felt weird about doing normal things for a day or so. I felt weird about laughing, or listening to pop music. I think what Buffy The Vampire Slayer does so well with The Body is make you feel like that weirdness, that here but not really here reality you’re living in, is okay. Watching it again whilst grieving felt secure. I hope, should you need it, it can help you too.