growing pains

Glee, Grief, and Teen Rites of Passage

When I was a freshman in high school, one of my classmates died. We didn’t know each other that well, but we did know each other, and his death shook me in a way I didn’t know was even possible. He was the first person my age who died, which was something that previous to that day was only an abstraction; oh, sure, I’d read a hundred books about teens with cancer (why did I love those so much?), but weeping over those characters felt sort of romantic and almost beautiful in its tender tragedy. When my classmate died, it wasn’t like that. It really, really sucked. It sucked so much. But of the experiences in my young life that made me feel different, that made me feel more grown up, that’s the one that stands out. I was like this before, and I am like this after. More than heartbreaks or graduations or the First Times for things, the death of a peer is what transformed me.

Glee … is Glee. Strengths and weaknesses abound. But whatever else it’s about, the show is about how it feels to grow up. Mostly it feels bad! Sometimes it feels good, though. Sometimes it’s empowering, sometimes we surprise ourselves. Sometimes we win. Sometimes villains get their comeuppance, but often they do not. The pursuit of fairness is frequently a letdown. Sometimes our parents disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint them. Sometimes we’re inundated with support or recognition, and sometimes we’re desperately, frighteningly alone. Being a teenager is not easy. Sometimes, our friends die.

So far, Glee has only dabbled in grief — in season two’s (weirdly decent) “Grilled Cheesus,” with a flashback to Kurt’s mother’s funeral, and later that same season with the (horrendous) “Funeral,” in which Sue’s sister dies. But the show is no stranger to momentous occasions; its high points are the episodes about coming out and the episodes about losing one’s virginity. That’s quintessential Glee, in a good way. You can wait until you’re in love, but you don’t have to. You can make out with one of your female friends and decide, “You know what, I am into ladies.” Or you can make out with one of your female friends and decide, “Actually, I am only into this one lady.” You can have sex, and it can be a really big deal, but you can also have sex and have it not be the hugest thing in the world. (Use protection, though.)

And this is why I think it’s possible and maybe even culturally valuable for Glee to acknowledge its star’s death in a substantive way and in a way that’s true to the series. More so than just about any other teen show in history, Glee has emphasized that there’s more than one way to have mutually enjoyable sexual experiences, and that every spot on the spectrum of sexual identity is equally valid. I wonder if Glee could model that same kind of patience and acceptance and compassion, but this time apply it to loss. Knowing how to mourn is not easy, especially the first time you do it. (This is one of the many reasons so many religions have so many rituals around death! The more you know.) I remember so clearly as a teenager having no idea what my grief was supposed to look like; if I felt really sad, was that greedy and inappropriate, since other people were much closer to him? If I felt pretty okay, was that appallingly callous, since it’s not like we were strangers? Was there a timetable for how long it would take until I stopped feeling weird? How much talking about it is the right amount of talking about it?

I wish I could say the only time I’ve mourned a peer was fifteen years ago, but it’s not. And I wish I could say that I don’t still look to television to help flesh out my emotional and psychosocial vocabulary, but of course I do. (I look to YA fiction, too.) Grief is incredibly alienating, and the tighter its clutches the lonelier one feels. I don’t think Glee is going to cure the world of sadness any more than I think it’s curing the world of homophobia and transphobia. But it’s helping a little. And when you’re a teenager, especially when you’re a sad teenager, and most especially when you’re a frightened and sad teenager, a little feels like a lot.

Glee, Grief, and Teen Rites of Passage