How “The Golden Girls” Allowed Me to Grieve for my Grandfather
Watching the classic sitcom finally allowed me to experience the feelings I’d kept bottled up.
I remember the first time that I cried about the death of my grandfather. I was watching an episode of The Golden Girls and, when I reached a certain point, I found myself weeping, the sort of deep, racking sobs that only come along once in a while. Admittedly, I am and have always been a crier, but most of the time it’s the sort of sniffling that you do when something mildly moves you. Only very rarely do I have those moments when I absolutely surrender control to my embodied emotions.
This was, needless to say, one of those times. It was in fact the first time since his passing that I’d really been confronted with the enormity of what I’d lost. I’d been very lucky that no one close to my had passed since I was six years old, when my other grandfather had passed away, and so this death hit me particularly hard. He’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years before his death, but even so his passing had come on suddenly. On the day after New Year’s, my grandma called us saying that my grandfather wasn’t feeling at all well. Given that, despite the Alzheimer’s, he was still as strong as an ox, and given that we Appalachians are notoriously resistant to going to the doctor unless it’s truly dire, we all knew that it must be something serious indeed.
Four days later, he was gone.
I’m still not sure whether it is more difficult to lose someone suddenly or to a long, lingering illness. In the case of the former, you don’t have a chance to prepare, to make the mental adjustments necessary to imagine a life without that person. In the latter, you have to endure their suffering, but at the least you can begin to prepare yourself as much as possible. For me, at least, losing him so suddenly was such a blow that for a time my mind just refused to really accept it, not in the way that I needed in order to move on.
True, I choked up a bit at the funeral while I was delivering the eulogy, but I managed to keep it together. In the days that followed, I found myself feeling deeply and profoundly sad, but for some reason I wasn’t able to cry. I’m not sure why that is, though looking back on it I think that there was something about the enormity of it that kept me emotionally stymied.
Then, I watched The Golden Girls.
Of course, by this point in my adult life The Golden Girls was a fundamental part of who I was as a person. Before it was released on DVD and before it was streaming on Hulu, if you wanted to watch it you had to be lucky enough to have cable and to have Lifetime. Thankfully, my roommate at the time had both of those things, and so there was many a time that I’d settle in on a Sunday afternoon or a weekday night and watch as many episodes as happened to be airing at that particular moment. Though I was old enough to remember it being on the air during its original run, it was really when it ran on Lifetime during my high school and college years that it truly became a fundamental part of my popular culture diet, and it was soon a staple. Through good times and bad, I knew that I could count on the show to see me through it.
When I first saw what episode was on, I had an inkling of what was in store for me emotionally. It was one in the final season, in which Blanche hears that her beloved grandmother’s plantation is going to be demolished. Desperate to save those old memories, she goes there and chains herself to the bed, until her grandmother’s presence visits her and tells her that it’s okay to finally move on. While most of the episode is played for laughs, there’s also a sort of profoundness to it. It is, in essence, about letting go of the past, about moving on and truly accepting the passing of the things that we love and care about.
I’d probably seen this episode dozens of times by now, and yet this time, it seemed to hit me with an intensity I’d never experienced. I think I managed to keep it together, until Blanche comes down the steps, holding her grandmother’s wind-chimes and announcing that she’s now okay with living.Then, she pauses on the threshold and, before she walks out, we hear the sound of her childish laughter.
I’m sure to some that might sound more than a little trite and hackneyed, and maybe it is. But at the time, there was something so sweet, so piercing, so poignant about that laughter that I suddenly found myself remembering all of my own special memories that I had of my grandfather. Of him tying a bandana around my head and putting wooden spoons in so I could be a bull (he even put chairs around the living room to make a pen for me); of him raking leaves for me to play in; of him taking me for tractor rides. Before I knew it, I was sobbing, overcome with a profound sense of truly shattering grief.
In the years since, I’ve returned to that episode, and while it has never hit me with quite the same level of intensity since then, there’s still a little bit of me that feels that rush of grief whenever I watch it. These subsequent rewatches have also allowed me to see why it is that show like The Golden Girls, despite the fact that it’s a comedy, returns to the issue of death and again. From the beginning of the series, we’re aware of how close death is to these women, whether it’s in the form of a health scare (Sophia thinks she’s having a heart attack in season one) or the passing of a loved one (Dorothy’s brother Phil passes away, as does Blanche’s father, Big Daddy).
At a narrative level, this makes sense. After all, these are women in their 50s, 60s, and 80s, and so it’s inevitable that a lot of their friends and family would begin to pass away. The brilliance of The Golden Girls is that it encourages us to see that death is a natural part of life. As sad as the women are over the passing of their loved ones, they don’t belabor the grieving process. In fact, death for these characters is a reminder of the importance of introspection, of taking stock of their own lives and how they live. When, for example, Sophia’s son Phil — who is a crossdresser — dies, she has to confront the reality that she isolated herself from because she was tormented by thought that she was responsible for his desire to wear women’s clothes. To this day, it is one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the entire series, and Sophia’s anguished cry at the end, an outburst of motherly grief, is piercing. Likewise, Blanche must confront her own grief when she isn’t present at her father’s death due to her own selfishness.
So, when I watched that episode with Blanche and her grandmother’s mansion, I couldn’t help but think about my own past, about all of the things I’d lost, particularly since so much of his mind had slipped away by the time of his death. When I cried, it wasn’t just for the fact that my grandfather was gone; it was that so many years had been taken away by a terrible disease that literally destroyed his mind.
In typical Susan Harris, the show frequently intersperse laughs with the tears. Even in this episode, which caused me so many tears, I also found myself laughing and that, it turns out, was just what I needed.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me why I still watch the show, when I could probably recite each and every episode from memory. At the time, I simply laughed and said something inconsequential about how it just isn’t the same to recite the episode to yourself.
The real reason is both simpler and more complicated than that. On one level, I truly feel that these are characters that I know and love, characters who have seen me through some of the best and the most difficult parts of my life. On a deeper level, there are still more and more things that I notice, even after having seen every episode dozens of times. I now pay more attention to the nuances of performance and delivery, and I constantly find new ways of thinking about the show (some of which I hope to share here).
That, to my mind, is the magic of a truly classic series like The Golden Girls. I will never forget, even after 15 years, the power of the series to unlock those parts of my feelings that remained out of my reach until I sat down and started watching the escapades of these four fantastic women.