Trauma is a harsh truth. Everyone we know will die; we ourselves will die. Things break, relationships fracture, the unthinkable happens. We’re only left with the feelings and images that accompany these traumatic events, but those experiences are not bound by time. Instead, they become part of the fabric of who we are.
Some argue we are confined to our personal tragedies—as C. S. Lewis’ Aslan says “No one is told any story but their own”—but This is Us offers us a different view of this idea. The show invites us into the myriad narratives of its characters’ lives, and in so doing brings us into each other’s stories.
It is human nature to oversimplify in order to make sense of life, and so when we hear someone is struggling with addiction, disability, loss or some other hardship we construct an idea of what that means, and unless we have lived through that hardship ourselves, that idea is often far from reality. This is Us takes us inside a wide range of trauma from miscarriage to heart attack to addiction to bullying, and helps us learn the nuances of these experiences.
The devil is in the details when walking through grief and recovering from trauma. Our minds can’t contain all the pain and confusion of loss, so we grab onto bits and pieces and they become the symbols for our grief. Toby throws out the broken curtain rod that Kate pulled down while miscarrying, and he works to ensure an infant bathtub will not be delivered after she returns home from the hospital. These innocent objects are now heavy with hurt for Kate, and Toby wants to spare her as much as possible. Likewise, Kate’s inability to adopt a puppy holds more pain than meets the eye after we find out how her father died. These tangible details can also bring comfort: Kevin and Rebecca have necklaces that remind them of the person Jack was.
These are the bits of our brothers’ and sisters’ narratives that we miss unless we live through the hard parts together.
We cannot understand what triggers, hurts and heals if we aren’t connected enough to steward each other’s stories well. Going through trauma can forge much deeper connections than those experienced during easy times. All too often we believe everything that comes from trauma is negative, but trauma can also bring treasures if we are willing to look for them. Toby and Miguel recognize this when they voice they are on the outside looking in at the Pearson clan, because journeying through the loss of Jack bonded Rebecca and her children in a unique way. We often don’t recognize the importance of certain moments until we view them through the lens of tragedy: the last minutes with someone we love or before an accident or before a diagnosis.
This is Us weaves trauma, happiness and the mundane as tightly as real life does. We travel with its characters through the joys of family and the depths of heartbreak. Each traumatic event trickles into the rest of our experience, and this ripple effect spreads into others’ lives as well. William’s decision to leave Randall at the fire station results in Jack and Rebecca leaving the hospital with three infants even after losing one of their triplets during birth. Trauma can gift us with gratitude, perspective and community. The only way we can know the highs and lows of these stories is to be present and listen.
Oftentimes an aspect of trauma is the need for privacy, and an inability to share what has been experienced. In the season three premiere, Rebecca asked some unassuming questions on her first date with Jack, and his downplayed one liners amid the horror reel in his head rings true. There is no way to express what actually happened in a surface level social encounter. Rebecca will come to understand the trauma her husband lived through during Vietnam, but only after they have lived many ordinary and extraordinary moments together. It is the same with Kate empathizing with Kevin’s addiction, or the way the show depicts Randall’s anxiety and Kate’s struggles with body image, pregnancy loss and infertility. Kevin is able to bring a laugh from Jack to Rebecca on the anniversary of Jack’s death, and Toby shows his love and admiration for Kate through countless kind and silly words and deeds. When people are hurting on the show, those who know and love them press in.
Not every situation on This is Us is completely authentic, but the show nudges us in the direction of learning, understanding and empathy. Often we don’t realize we hold stereotypes about certain traumatic events until we come face to face with the details of living within that difficult situation. We may not know what we expect from the Pearson family story, but what becomes apparent is that when stories ring true they are filled with nuances as complex as the humans living them out. We learn that loss and joy can go hand in hand, that the nuances of trauma are often not what we would imagine and that above all we must press in to steward each other’s stories well in love.
We cannot steward well without seeing and being seen. Since trauma and grief are such vulnerable states, we must tread lightly and compassionately, being near enough to discover the weight of each other’s stories and what needs they carry. This is Us might seem like a television show geared to keep us on the edge of our seat and crying, but it has also become a social tutor instructing us in how the cycles of trauma continue to affect life for generations to come. We learn from the Pearsons that when we hold space for the reality of each other’s journeys we can find ways to help each other heal, feel less alone and find joy amidst the pain.
Sharon is a writer, photographer and educator, living in Southern California. You can find more of her work on Instagram @sharonmckeeman and at www.sharonmckeeman.com.