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If loss has taught us anything, it is that each of us must sit with pain in our own way.” – Mister Saru, “Anomaly”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, after countless hours spent worrying about vulnerable friends and family, Discovery Season Four is exactly what my heart needed. In particular, “Anomaly” spoke to my heart with its accurate portrayal of grief. As we
have all become acquainted with grief over the course of this pandemic, I wanted to reflect a bit on what this episode has to teach us about that complex feeling.

Historically, Star Trek’s portrayal of grief has left a good deal to be desired. Because of the nature of episodic television, which was the format for Trek until Deep Space Nine introduced serialized storytelling to the franchise, one week we would see Kirk devastated by the death of Edith Keeler or Miramanee, and the next week we would see
him perfectly fine.

Gene Roddenberry famously opposed the portrayal of grief in TNG. Whilst discussing Ronald D. Moore’s first script, “The Bonding”, he objected to the notion that young Jeremy would react to the death of his mother with grief because children of the twenty-fourth century would have more acceptance of death. Moore and Michael Piller were able to convince him that this was not realistic.

Jeremy Aster upset in “The Bonding” (CBS-Paramount)

Deep Space Nine certainly did better at portraying grief, but the focus always seemed to be upon moving beyond and transcending grief, rather than sitting with it. The latter, on the other hand, is precisely what Discovery invites us to do.

Grief is grief,” Dr. Culber says wisely, “and everyone moves through it differently.

For Book, devastated by the loss of his family and his homeworld, grief looks like shutting down. Like being unable to eat or sleep. Like being unable to respond to the love of his partner and his friends, who try to reach out to him but cannot get through.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “Grief” likens this state of frozen grief to a marble statue:

Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet;
If it could weep, it would rise and go.

Burnham trying to comfort Book (CBS-Paramount)

For Michael, devastated by the loss of Kwejian and stricken by her partner’s tearless agony, grief looks like reaching out to her oldest, dearest friend, Saru, because she needs someone to lean on, draw strength from, and gain perspective from. Saru knows what it is to sit with pain. And he sits with Michael in hers.

For Tilly, grief looks like feeling utterly disconnected, detached from everything she once felt, off balance and not understanding why. Grief can make us tongue-tied and awkward, as though we don’t know how to move through our familiar space anymore. Like Michael, Tilly has the courage to reach out and talk about what she is going through: first to Saru, and then to Hugh. Both of these trusted confidantes have wisdom to help her through. From Saru, she learns that “how we choose to spend our moments in the short time that we have matters.” From Hugh, she learns that asking for professional help isn’t so hard, once you get the words out.

And speaking of awkward and tongue-tied, it can be hard to know what to say to a person in pain, as Paul Stamets found out, the hard way – when he was assigned to a mission with Book.

Hugh reassuring Paul (CBS-Paramount)

Follow his lead,” Hugh advises his anxious partner. “What did you want people to say to you when you lost me?

But Paul has no idea what to say. There is no friendship in place, no previously established bond upon which to build a connection. What do you say to a man who has lost his family and saved yours? His friendly overtures are rebuffed, and not even the experience of surviving a crisis together can teach Book that Paul truly means well.

Stamets thanking Book (CBS-Paramount)

The only thing Paul can say is a humble thank you, and confide the absolute helplessness he felt when he nearly lost his family. It’s this vulnerability that finally forges a connection between the two men.

Grief brings up questions that are simply unanswerable. Why did I survive and my loved ones didn’t? What could I have done differently? How am I going to go on living without them? Did they know how much I love them? And perhaps healing happens, not when our questions are answered, but when we find a way to live with a broken heart.

Adira and Grey (CBS-Paramount)

Adira and Gray’s journey reminds us that the seasons of grief change. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. And yet they will always, even on the happiest days, feel the shadow of past grief over them. The death of Commander Nalas, juxtaposed with a new body for Gray, reminds Adira of what they went through when Gray died. They have a second chance at life; the life that was so tragically cut short will continue. But the body Gray will incorporate into is a mortal one. Adira has learned that having something precious means having something precious to lose. And that understanding overshadows their joy.

The most sacred words we can say to a person in grief are, “I’m here. What do you need?” Sometimes, the griever needs to be left alone. Sometimes, they need to be called out on the poor judgement they display as a result of their pain. And sometimes, they need to be held whilst they cry.

Those of us who have grieved or are grieving see ourselves in Discovery Season 4. Those of us who have stood helplessly by, watching a loved one in terrible, unbearable pain, see ourselves in Discovery Season 4. Those of us who have felt the dreadful uncertainty and terror of navigating the pandemic these past two years immediately recognize the metaphor of the unknown anomaly.

I’m a convert to Discovery, and I’m so glad I am, because it’s exactly what my heart needed.


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