Warning: spoilers for The Walking Dead ahead
With death comes grief, and with grief comes the labyrinth of emotions of the mourning process, a process that ideally helps lead to some sort of closure, and with it an ability to move forward in one’s own life. A popular breakdown of that process, the “Five Stages” theory was first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross’ work is still referenced frequently, and used by many as roadmap for navigating loss.
Of course, for those of us who watch AMC’s The Walking Dead, death comes frequently — albeit to fictional characters. Still, they’re fictional characters with whom we’ve grown familiar, watching them contend with the zombie apocalypse week after week, season after season. With the show’s midseason finale just around the corner, here are the five stages of death, explained through reactions to characters lost over the course of the show’s five-plus seasons
The first stage of grief, denial, is accompanied by an initial sense of loss that can be so overwhelming, nothing else seems to make sense, and those suffering from it often grow numb to what they see as a meaningless, distraction-filled world.
There were no shortage of theories concerning the then-uncertain fate of Glenn (Steven Yeun) after he was seen falling off a Dumpster into a massive herd of zombies as many fans hoped against hope that he would somehow still be alive, in spite of all the screaming and visible guts. But, unlike in the real world, all that denial turned out not to be misplaced: Glenn was shown returning from his apparent death in this past week’s episode.
As the denial subsides, the mind can quickly revert to anger once the reality of a loss begins to set in. This anger can be directed inwardly and at others, particularly those who are also affected by the loss. Such is the case when Rick and company spent the first half of season two on the lookout for Sophia (Madison Lintz), Carol’s daughter, who goes missing amidst the chaos of a zombie herd. While Carol (Melissa McBride) wasn’t yet near the badass fan-favorite she’s since become, her daughter made even less of an impression. This exercise in frustration lasted several episodes, with much time spent looking for such an incidental character. Then it turned out she was a zombie, and was in the barn the whole time. Hence: anger.
This stage is usually associated with some kind of guilt over a sense of helplessness, and not being able to do more. Those who experience it often go back and play out “what if” scenarios. The Walking Dead‘s Noah (Tyler James Williams) meets his death trapped him in a revolving door, surrounded by zombies after Nicholas (Michael Traynor) panics. This leaves Glenn just on the other side, unable to do anything but watch. Afterwards, Glenn experiences a tremendous amount of guilt over the likable Noah’s death. Given that it was caused largely by Nicholas’s short-sightedness and obvious blundering, it was hard for viewers to avoid replaying the scenario over and over, each time hoping for it to end differently.
The fourth phase is also the ‘darkest before dawn’ part of grieving, as the realization that death is inevitable is thought about constantly, making the day-to-day routine of life seem meaningless. The dark clouds of depression are already rolling in when Hershel (Scott Wilson) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) are brought before Rick (Andrew Lincoln) as prisoners of The Governor (David Morse). It’s pretty obvious things aren’t going to end well for everyone. Rick does his best to try and bargain with The Governor, even offering some kind of truce between the two camps. Regardless, The Governor responds simply by taking Michonne’s sword to Hershel’s neck.
The worst part: It doesn’t even kill him. Instead, Hershel spends several minutes writhing around, bleeding to death while still in handcuffs, only to be killed later by The Governor, before then turning into a zombie, only to be finished off by Michonne in the battle’s aftermath. Hershel’s oldest daughter, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), still refers to that moment as the worst day of her life, which is saying something when you’re living at the height of the zombie apocalypse. But given that Hershel often embodied goodness and justice in the Walking Dead world, it’s hard not share her feelings.
Acceptance : Lori
The final stage comes with a kind of tranquility, where those who have suffered a loss tend to look at their mortality as a gift, redirecting the priorities in their own lives. Those on the verge of death may see the world through the eyes of those who will survive them, which can help bring a sense of peace.
All of this is readily on display with the death of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), who chooses to give up her own life so her baby can live. She also gets to deliver a heartfelt goodbye to her son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), as she tells him confidently that she knows he is going to “beat this world.” While her death has an impact on Carl, it sends Rick into an tailspin, one that takes a while for him to work through. For the audience, however, it simply meant that we were in for a (nearly) Lori-free show from then on, a situation most were happy to accept.