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‘Never Have I Ever’ is the only show that gets grief right

I lost both my parents, and while I know my life will never be same, this show reminds me I can still move on.

Some of my favourite memories are laying on the couch with blankets and ice cream and watching television shows with my mom. When Never Have I Ever premiered in 2020, my mom and I watched all 10 episodes in a matter of days. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, the show centres around Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a teenager navigating friendships, romance, and school in the months following the sudden death of her father. It's the perfect show to watch with your mom because it explores family dynamics in a way that isn’t so serious.

In 2013, when I was a senior in high school, I lost my dad. My grieving strategy after he passed away was to largely not talk or even think about the pain I was feeling. And through end-of-high school activities, college, and my early career, my plan worked.

When my mom and I watched the Netflix show, seven years after my dad's death, we were seeking a feel-good series to serve as a distraction from the pandemic and the realities of life during it—not a show that would tackle grief and look into a mother-daughter relationship after the loss of a father. I normally try to stay away from art that imitates my life, but to my surprise, the overlap made me feel understood.

Devi is often seen as “crazy,” self-centred, or “too much” as she approaches life in her grief. I can relate: I lost my sense of self in the pursuit of trying to be normal despite everything and feeling anything but. I was able to get through my day-to-day for the most part—I would overcompensate, overshare, and overwork myself with the goal of distraction—but as soon as I was by myself, the realization hit me. My dad is gone. And I can pretend I’m fine, but I’m not really. When you lose someone—especially a parent—nothing can be the same, no matter how much you wish it was.

Watching Never Have I Ever with my mom made us laugh while we reflected on our shared loss. What I loved about the show was the way it depicted how powerful and dominating grief is. It’s moving through life as normally as possible, all while the loss is an undercurrent in everything you do. Devi had temporary paralysis because of her stress; I dealt with debilitating panic attacks. Devi saw her dad in a coyote; I thought my dad was visiting me when I would see birds. Devi tried to distract herself by setting a mission to get a boyfriend and have sex (which, same), but the grief still manifested.

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In the first season, which takes place in the months following her father’s passing, Devi thinks her mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is not struggling because she doesn’t outwardly display her emotions. My mom was the Nalini to my “crazy” Devi. She kept it together for our family and didn’t want to burden me with her own grief.

Never Have I Ever allowed my mom and me to get a deeper insight and understanding into what we each went through losing a husband and a dad. And that understanding helped me, even more, when I lost my mom in January of this year. Losing my dad was a nightmare, but losing my mom was inconceivable, my very worst fear, the one that felt impossible until it happened. My mom was always there for me while I was grieving my dad, but now I don't have the number one person in my life. This time, in my grief, I feel alone.

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But I don't want it to feel that way. I used to avoid shows that made me reflect on my own experience, but now I actively seek them out. I don’t want to hide from my grief—I want to tackle it head-on. When I started season 3 of Never Have I Ever, I was worried it wouldn’t feel so relatable anymore; Devi is further removed from her grief while I was once again in the beginning stages. But no matter how far you are from loss, the grief can still hit strongly. I cried along with Devi as she had flashbacks about her dad, but I had excitement and hope for better days for myself when she displayed moments of growth, too.

Dr Nathian Shae Rodriguez, associate director of journalism and media studies at San Diego State, said this is exactly why people use TV, movies, and books to cope, whether as catharsis, diversion, or a way to escape. Shows like Never Have I Ever are important because, while fictional, they represent grief in a real and personal way.

“Grief is something that’s never talked about, that’s pushed under the rug, in a lot of different cultural contexts to begin with,” Dr Rodriguez said. “By putting it front and centre in shows, in television, in music, in whatever mediated ways we can, it tells us that it’s important, and it’s something that we need to talk about. It’s part of life, it’s something that’s every day for a lot of people.”

In fact, that's exactly why Mindy Kaling created the show, according to an interview with Marie Claire. “Losing my mom and then wanting to talk about it in a way that is not as sad as the experience of going through it, but being able to be like, ‘If you went through anything like this, you could watch this and feel seen’—I think that was the goal.”

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In season 3, Devi has a session with her therapist after rediscovering her dad’s tennis racket. She says she “let myself get so caught up having fun with Des (Anirudh Pisharody), I forgot to be the sad girl who lost her dad.”

Her therapist (Niecy Nash) tells her, “What I’m hearing is you’ve been happier lately, and experiencing less frequent waves of grief. That means you’re healing and getting to be a kid again, and that doesn’t mean you love your dad any less.”

From hanging up her dad’s tennis racquet in her bedroom to choosing to stay at Sherman Oaks for her senior year to be closer to her mom, the decisions Devi makes are rooted and guided by the love her dad had for her. I hang up my dad’s artwork around my house, and I spend time every week singing, reading, and writing, as my mom told me to never stop doing. Like Devi, every decision I make is guided by the love from my parents—and that can never be taken away.

Rodriguez said Never Have I Ever shows that “there are ways to cope and there are ways to move past it... There are brighter days ahead, and grief is something we have to deal with and have to process.”

Never Have I Ever is, at its surface, a comedy. But dig a little deeper, and it's a letter to anyone who lost their dad in high school, anyone who lost their mom in their 20s, and anyone who has experienced overwhelming grief at too young of an age. It's a promise that while shit is hard, and it will continue to be hard, it can also be really good. Really good. That's what I'm living for.