Why McDreamy’s Death Matters: Real Tears for an Unreal Person
by Dr. Donna Roberts
He’s not a real person. And yet we grieve. We cry. We flail on the floor. We fantasize it may all just be a dream. We swear that life won’t be the same without McDreamy.
McDreamy is, of course, the brilliant, albeit fictional, neurosurgeon in the long-running ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. We met him ten years ago in the pilot episode, and he wooed us early on with his trademark “It’s a beautiful day to save a life” (swoon, swoon). Undoubtedly, in the magical world of Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital, there are many characters to emulate and love—tough, smart and gritty Dr. Miranda Bailey, the pint-sized powerhouse who can stop interns in their tracks with just a look; sage, stoic but slightly vulnerable Dr. Richard Weber, who always seems to dispatch just the right grain of wisdom along with his medical acumen; and even the complicated, sometimes morose, but ever-competent Meredith. Surely we’d mourn the loss of each one. But McDreamy? Really? How could they take him away from us?
In the words of US Weekly, “There aren’t enough tissues in Seattle to handle all the tears that came during the two-hour Grey’s Anatomy episode that followed Derek Shepherd’s death.”
“There aren’t enough tissues in Seattle to handle all the tears that came during the two-hour Grey’s Anatomy episode that followed Derek Shepherd’s death.”
How does that happen after spending, at best, one hour a week—with summers and major holidays off—with him? How does that happen when he’s never really been there for us when we actually needed him? He hasn’t wiped any of our tears or held our hand when we needed it. In short, he has been fundamentally absent and self-absorbed, a character trait we wouldn’t tolerate in other friends and lovers.
TV series, like books, weave their way into popular culture and often take on cult-like followings. Whether you will admit it or not, I suspect that at one time or another (only once, in the distant past, of course, before you were enlightened and your tastes matured—say perhaps last Thursday night) you forfeited some kind of real human interaction because it was “that night of the week.” Or, if in all your technological sophistication you have recorded it for later consumption, you have ignored the phone, doorbell and pots over-boiling on the stove because you were bingeing. No, not you? Never? Well then, I guess this is about your neighbor or your girlfriend’s cousin. You can relate to this intellectually, then.
It’s not the first time writers have broken our hearts by killing off a main character we have come to know and love. There’s William Wallace in Braveheart, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Thelma & Louise, and of course, Romeo and Juliet, to name just a few. And just like that, life is not the same. It’s really all about character development—the holy grail of sorts. The little bit black box. A little je ne sais quoi.A lot of magic. If you have it mastered, the story can unfold like real life, which, of course, is what we are ultimately aiming for. Art imitating life imitating art imitating life. We forget that the characters are fictional and we create emotional bonds. We love them. We hate them. We love to hate them. But most importantly we feel some way about them—some way that is just like how we feel about the more real characters in our more real lives. We want to be Weber’s student or Bailey’s sidekick. And for the time period of suspended reality we can be. We are.
We forget that the characters are fictional and we create emotional bonds. We love them. We hate them. We love to hate them … The characters don’t have to be real for the emotions to be.
Psych Pstuff’s Summary
While strictly speaking, emotional attachment to fiction borders on delusion, we exercise a whole range of human emotions in a relatively safe context. The characters don’t have to be real for the emotions to be. It can be cathartic and even healing to work out your own emotions about an issue as small as petty jealousy or as big as death in an arena where you can hit the “off’ button. A space where you don’t always know and don’t control what’s coming, but you have the opportunity to step away if it is too intense—to, as Ellis Grey would say, stop that “carousel that never stops turning.”
As children we all loved stories, and many of us had imaginary friends—characters in narratives who worked out the issues that were important to us without placing us squarely in the hot seat. It gives us the ability to wrestle with complex and abstract constructs (mortality, ethics, the human condition) in concrete terms while still having the safety net of controlled disengagement.
The human brain is wired to want specific not abstract, so processing McDreamy’s death is in fact more real than just contemplating death in the philosophical sense. To fans, the loss of McDreamy is real, not hypothetical. Intellectual discussions about death make us think. McDreamy’s death made us feel. Both can be considered understanding, but in very different ways.
To fans, the loss of McDreamy is real, not hypothetical.
The human brain is wired to want sequential, not random. The whole process of brain development is about making connections. Learning is about forming associations. We want, in effect, a narrative, a story, a plot, albeit with twists and turns.
It’s just that when those twists and turns turn, as Meredith was once accused of being, “dark and twisty,” that we can find ourselves in a puddle of real tears all for the love of an un-real person.