Teaching the Dead: Grief, Loss, and Avoidance (and Maggie)

Ever since the prison fell almost a year ago, TWD enthusiasts have had a question burning their mind –

Why hasn’t Maggie mentioned Beth at all? Or even her own father?

I’ll be honest, I’ve been quite hard on this point as well. It has baffled me why Maggie, who was so close to them both, would act as if neither one exists. I couldn’t understand why Gimple, whom I believe has dedicated entire episodes to shape and reshape characters, would let this one point fall by the wayside.

Then I saw “Self Help” – for the second time – and I got it. I mean, I actually got it.

Maggie is in a state of grief.

Sound like a copout? It’s not. Each character in the series has dealt with grieve in their own way. Rick had a break from reality in imagining his wife was still alive, Carol didn’t mention Sophia for almost two seasons, Michonne chose to walk the other way from signs that Rick and Carl were still alive in “After,” Daryl regressed to his loner “I don’t need anyone” self in “Still,” and so on. Last night, we saw another way a character dealt with grief – Abraham, after his wife and family were killed by walkers as they tried to flee what they saw was the brutality in his attempts to protect them.

It was actually Abraham who helped me see Maggie’s profound grief and her inability to deal with it. Abraham’s wife was assumingly attacked by men in the early days of the ZA (in the comic, she and the daughter are actually raped by men that Abraham charged with protecting them) and Abraham, in response, killed them with his bare hands. The brutality he showed scared his wife and kids enough to motivate them to leave his safety and wander into the streets at night (is it even wonder they were killed?). Abraham’s initial response to finding their half eaten corpses was to put a gun in his mouth, until he sees a fleeing Eugene, announcing that he is an “important man.” This stops the suicidal Abraham in his tracks and also stops his grief by giving him a reason to avoid feeling it – a purpose to drive him and keep him occupied. The title “Self Help” refers not just to Eugene’s attempt to “help himself” survive by telling a lie that would make him valuable and worth protecting, but it refers to Abraham’s helping his own grief by choosing to believe this lie. Why would a man who was well trained by the military to assess situations believe a man running like a girl in shorts and a mullet alone by walkers would hold such sensitive information? Answer: He wanted to believe. It gave him a purpose and helped him escape his profound grief. Save for the flashbacks, he has not mentioned his wife or family at all to anyone else. It’s a part of his life that no longer exists. His only reason for living is getting Eugene to Washington. In many ways, Eugene saved Abraham just as much as Abraham has been saving him, and Eugene gave him a method to “avoid” his grief and pain by giving him a goal.

Maggie, in this episode, showed me that, like Abraham, she too needs a purpose. In the early days of the fall of the prison, her goal was Glenn – find Glenn. Then, immediately afterwards, her goal was “escape the boxcar.” The church, their one moment of downtime, was the first time we saw her start to crack. She picked up the Bible and threw it down – loss of faith is another stage of grieving. She engaged in alcohol consumption, yet another way that people try to deal with their pain – self medicate. And then, the quest for DC presented itself to her – another way to avoid the death of her father and possible death of her sister. More avoidance. In fact, the mere fact that she doesn’t mention her sister’s name (or her father’s) is avoidance. To speak of them makes it too real, and Maggie, I believe, is in no condition to deal with the reality of the death of 2 of the 3 most important people to her.

And so, she avoids it. Avoids “looking” for Beth, talking about Beth, or even thinking about Beth.

Like Abraham, she is given a purpose – get Eugene to DC and cure this thing. Her near obsessive talk about “the future” and being able to finally “look ahead” proves that this is her new drive, something to further distance herself from feeling pain or grief. If you keep busy, then you are too busy to think, and too busy to feel.

The look on Maggie’s face when Eugene revealed himself said it all. Abraham was angry, Glenn was confused, Tara was sympathetic (almost expecting it), Rosita was disbelieving, but Maggie was horrified. Her hope was crushed. Her mission is gone.

I asked a fellow teacher, who happens to teach psychology, about my theory (don’t worry, she knows my TWD obsession). Her first comment was, “I assume at some point something will happen to cause this character to break. You can only avoid for so long before you are jostled into reality.”

Bingo.

Maggie isn’t alone. All of characters have “avoided” grief in some way during the run of the series. Some characters are never even mentioned for episodes after their death, if ever. Merle wasn’t mentioned again by Daryl until “Still” (he got a brief mention in the season 3 finale). Sophia wasn’t mentioned for two seasons, and during that time Daryl showed more remembrance of her than Carol (in “Say the Word” he sees the name Sophia on the day care wall). In fact, only Carl seems to really have the ability to grieve and remember, bringing up names like Andrea, Shane, Jim, and Sophia at different times during the series. Seasons 4 and so far 5, Gimple has allowed his characters a bit of time to grieve (such as Michonne admitting that she missed Andrea and Hershall), but that is different than the profound grief that Maggie will eventually have to face.

So why haven’t viewers been angry when other characters who have passed aren’t mentioned by their loved ones? Well, we know they are dead……but we also know that Beth is alive. We want Maggie to search for her but in reality, how would she do that? She only has Daryl’s account that Beth was “taken” and for all Maggie knows, Beth may well be dead and if she isn’t, the world is a big place, even a post ZA world. Daryl and Carol were lucky and just happened upon the cross car or else they would have no clues to Beth’s whereabouts either. Maggie has no idea how to find her sister, assuming she even believed Beth was alive. She’s in a no win situation.

Now that I think I get Maggie’s inability to mention her sister or even acknowledge her own grief, I think I can now see where Maggie’s arc is going. It will be all tied up with the rescue of Beth and the outcome of that rescue attempt. I think then we may see some profound guilt that Maggie has been avoiding and we may finally see Maggie grieve.

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