What Mary Tyler Moore Taught Me About Grief

“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”-- Lyrics from “Love Is All Around”  from the Mary Tyler Moore TV series

Legendary television icon and talented entertainer Mary Tyler Moore touched countless lives and taught all of us some very important things during her lifetime. Through her body of work and her dedication to causes such as the fight for those suffering with diabetes she passed along lessons that will stick with us through our lives whether we are consciously aware of those lessons or not.

On the Mary Tyler Moore show, her TV persona Mary Richards taught women that they could find the courage and strength to keep following their dreams of success in a career and in life. Mary also taught her loyal viewers and fans the importance and transformative power of positivity, optimism and “spunk” (even though her TV boss Lou Grant played by Ed Asner hated “spunk.”)  She taught us that being vulnerable and compassionate could be combined with an inner strength to make a real difference in the lives around her.  For one half hour each week Mary Richards made us believe that no matter how dark our lives might seem that we could smile and that “love is all around.”

Mary Tyler Moore the person gave us all an example of true courage in her personal health struggles with diabetes which eventually brought about her death from pneumonia. She also showed us her strengths and vulnerability in coping with losses including the deaths of her son Richie in 1965, her younger sister Elizabeth in 1961 and her second husband Grant Tinker in 2016.  Through her loves and losses she lived a life that expressed the lyrics “you’re gonna make it after all.”

But I want to personally thank Mary Tyler Moore for teaching me at an early age important lessons about grief. On October 25, 1975 in the memorable and hilarious episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” Mary Richards and the WJM-TV staff do their best to cope with the accidental, bizarre death of their co-worker Chuckles the Clown who hosted the station’s children’s show.

Chuckles dies in a freak accident while being the grand marshal of a parade. Dressed as Peter Peanut, one of his TV show characters, Chuckles is killed when a rogue elephant in the parade decides to shell him.  In dealing with the loss Mary Richards’ co-workers move from shock to jokes pointing out the ridiculousness of the events that took poor Chuckles the Clown’s life.

Mary is offended by the jokes at Chuckles’ expense and demands that her co-workers give the deceased co-worker the respect he should receive after death. But the tables are turned at the funeral for Chuckles, when Mary’s co-workers show somber respect and Mary struggles to stifle laughing bubbling up in her during the eulogy.  Mary’s outbursts of laughter interrupt the eulogy and upsets mourners as the minister talks about the many characters portrayed by Chuckles the clown on his kiddie show.  To see the funeral scene from "Chuckles Bites the Dust go to https://www.google.com/search?q=chuckles%20the%20clown%20funeral%20scene

What lessons can you learn from watching fictional television characters Mary Richards, Ted Baxter, Lou Grant, Sue Ann Nivens, Murray Slaughter and Georgette Baxter in dealing with the accidental death of a kiddies’ TV show clown? What do we learn about ourselves and grief as we watch Mary Richards move from disgust that the deceased is not being respected to uncontrollable laughter at a funeral as she hears honors paid to a man who portrayed such characters as Mr. Fee Fi Foh, Aunt Yoo-hoo, and Peter Peanut?  Here’s what I learned and I share with other mourners:

  • Grief emotions are unpredictable, uncontrollable and unique to the mourner. In grief, emotions just happen and they are neither good nor bad. They just are. Often others may tell us and we may tell ourselves that these emotions are unwarranted and inappropriate. The truth is we do not pick or control our grief emotions. They may be unpleasant, uncomfortable or painful. But they are not bad in of themselves. They are part of the human experience in loss. We can’t choose how we feel, but we can choose how we respond to our grief emotions. The emotions we feel, whatever they be, are part of our human experience of loss. They help us process our grief, start healing and progress in life. Don’t ever tell a mourner “You shouldn’t feel that way!” The mourner’s resulting grief emotions are unique to him/her and their unique relationship with the loved one who died.
  • Grief emotions expressed honestly are an honor for the person who has died. When I officiate funerals or memorials, I give those attending permission to feel and express whatever emotions they experience. I tell them if they feel like tearing up and crying out loud as I talk of the person honored that that is okay. Expressing sadness when remembering the loved one honors their memory and life. I also give them permission to smile or laugh when I talk about their loved one. Expressing joy or humor when remembering the loved one also honors their memory and life. Let mourners have their emotions and express them no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel or if you consider them inappropriate. Mourners need to accept their honest emotions and express them to heal.
  • Grief emotions expressed honestly and openly are healing and move us through grief. Expressing grief emotions is self-care for the huge emotional wound of loss. Without it grief is unhealthy and prolongs healing for the mourner. Avoiding grief and its emotions is actually delaying the healing that mourners hope for.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.