How "Girls" Tackled The Messy, Selfish Grieving Process
Hannah responded to the death of a friend with narcissism and detachment — but that's not nearly as inhuman as everyone around her seemed to think.
The common wisdom is not to judge anyone for something as personal and specific as her grieving process, but when Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) responds to the death of her editor with a morose, "And no one even began to tell me what was next for my e-book," it's hard not to cringe.
In "Dead Inside," last night's brilliant episode of Girls, Hannah learns that her editor David Pressler-Goings (John Cameron Mitchell) has died suddenly. In self-professed shock, she shares the news with everyone around her — while also wondering what's next for her e-book memoir, which David was set to publish. For Adam (Adam Driver) — and surely for many Girls viewers — it's occasionally unbearable to watch Hannah appear to shrug off David's death, except in terms of its impact on her career. Does she not have "just one crumb of basic human compassion"?
Hannah is not, as Ray (Alex Karpovsky) goes on to suggest, a "fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment." Once again, she's simply a reflection of the all-too-human qualities so many of us struggle to suppress. When people criticize Hannah for being an unlikeable character, they're generally responding to her self-involvement. And yes, there are few things more selfish than immediately considering the practical repercussions of a person's death. But it's not sociopathic so much as uncomfortably relatable. It's a feeling nearly everyone has experienced — if not voiced out loud.
Unlike the more tactful among us, Hannah is incapable of keeping her thoughts to herself. She speaks freely, sometimes to her credit, sometimes to babble that, "I actually feel nothing. Like, I literally feel nothing. Like, maybe I'm numb, but I don't even feel numb, I feel nothing." Hannah is not, as Jessa (Jemima Kirke) articulates on Adam's behalf, "callous and disconnected" — at least, not more so than the average person — but she does have a pathological need to share all of her internal thoughts at all times. And a person's internal thoughts, more often than not, return to the simple question of, How does this affect me?
Besides, Hannah is very much a product of her generation (if not its defining voice). In the age of Twitter, we're no longer afforded time to silently grieve. The internet calls for immediate reaction, be it snark or pathos. Hannah and Adam's conflicting reactions to Gawker's insensitive report on David's death speaks to their respective familiarity with online media. Adam is horrified, labeling Gawker writers as sexless losers with a kind of archaic dismissiveness. But Hannah, fully enmeshed in internet culture, understands exactly what Gawker is doing. For a blog, snark — like Hannah's repeated questions about her e-book — is a pragmatic response to death.
Hannah can't snark about David's death — aside from her own concerns, she can't really respond at all. "It's my first death," she explains, "so I'm kind of numbed." But while shock is a very real part of the grieving process, that doesn't seem to be what's happening with Hannah. As a writer, her inability to grieve is less about discomfort with her emotions, something Hannah has never had trouble with, and more about difficulty articulating herself properly. Her numbness is akin to writer's block.
That's something Adam can't quite grasp, and in fact, might be foreign to anyone who isn't a writer. It's a type of self-involvement, to be sure, but it goes beyond that: For Hannah, life is only experienced through narrative. (In the next episode of Girls, she remains stuck on the memoir that may never get published, because those stories are her entire life.) Hannah can't grieve until she learns what story to tell. Even in her theoretical conversation with Adam over death, she admits that she thinks of his mortality only in terms of how she would be able to express it: "I think all the time about what I'd say at your funeral, about how I'd say that you were my partner and you were my lover, and how one summer you lived in the tent on a roof in Bed-Stuy and you drank rainwater."
Hannah understands the importance of feeling: Emotion is essential for a writer. When Hannah, Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann), and Laird (Jon Glaser) visit a graveyard, Caroline admits that, "Medication did make me feel less." "See, that's really not good for a writer," Hannah answers. She needs to experience everything — but she also needs to get it right. When Caroline goes on to tell Hannah a story about her fictional cousin Margaret who died, Hannah has no emotional response. Instead, she focuses on the details, asking why Margaret's dress was so small, if she was physically smaller because of her illness. As inhuman as she may seem in that moment, these are the concerns of a writer — how to encapsulate death and loss in a narrative.
And that's why, in the next scene, Hannah is regurgitating the Margaret story to Adam, telling it through tears. That it's not true doesn't matter to her, because she understands its power. (Laird, sobbing in the graveyard, notes, "Just 'cause it's fake doesn't mean I don't feel it.") Ultimately, Hannah overcomes her numbness not by feeling but by creating. "It always takes me a while to process my emotions," she says as she explains the connection that she had to David, and how grateful she was that he had faith in her as a writer. And those feelings are real, however Hannah came to express them. Despite being fiction, the story that follows is not a cop-out but a coping mechanism.
Of course, there's an aspect of meta-commentary to all of this: Girls is itself fiction. While not a documentary, its power lies in its ability to convey essential truths about human experience through its narrative. So whether or not viewers can personally identify with Hannah in her "mourning" doesn't matter, ultimately. There is resonance to be found in what her personal reaction to grief says about death — the randomness, the search for meaning, and the eternal struggle to find the right words.