Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grief and Gratitude

Twenty-eight years ago today, Sesame Street aired an episode unlike any they had ever done before.  Actor Will Lee, who had played the elderly grocer Mr. Hooper had passed away almost a year prior, and the show's staff was at first unsure how to deal with the issue.  They contemplated just writing his character out of the show, claiming he had retired and moved to Florida, but they understood that the children at home would be wondering when Mr. Hooper would return.  For the first time on Sesame Street, a difficult issue would had to be discussed: death.

Will Lee as "Mr. Hooper"

The writers and actors had to be very careful in approaching this subject.  They could not be too blunt, but they also did not want to sugar-coat the occurrence.  Also, due to the diverse audience of the show, they could not hint towards any religious beliefs towards death and the existence of an afterlife for fear of being biased.  This had to be the most simple presentation of a concept unfamiliar to young children.

It was decided that the episode would be broadcast on Thanksgiving.  The hope was that kids will be surrounded by many family members at this time, who could watch it with them and answer any questions they might have had.  This could also allow them to discuss the parting of any relatives which may have occurred in the child's life.

Finally, the biggest decision of all was to cover the material through the eyes of Big Bird.  Only Big Bird and the adults would discuss the issue, as he would ask many questions, some of which would be very difficult to answer.  He would go through many emotions (denial, confusion, anger, fear, and sadness) before fully understanding the situation and accepting it.

The episode in question can be found here.  This clip features all of the "street scenes" from the show, beginning with lighthearted material, then segueing into the main conversation about halfway through.  Please take the time to watch it before continuing.

The scene in question begins with Big Bird sharing some drawings that he made of his friends.  In reality, Caroll Spinney, his puppeteer, made these images.  After delivering them all, Big Bird mentions that he can't wait for Mr. Hooper to see his portrait.

He would have been proud.

There is an uncomfortable moment when Maria has to remind Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died.  "Remember?" she asks.  Apparently, they had discussed this before and the message did not sink in.  They felt they were over with the subject and could move on, but a child needs clearer explanations.  One by one, each adult gives Big Bird their support and knowledge, explaining that they too are shaken up about it, and there was no good reason for it happening other than "just because."

The show ends with an upbeat moment, celebrating the birth of a new baby in the neighborhood.  Lives are finite and many.  They end, but they also begin on a daily basis.  All is natural.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of family.  And for Big Bird, the neighbors on his street are his family.  Some take the role of his parents and educators while others, like Mr. Hooper, were like an uncle, who only supported Big Bird's endeavors and talents.

As you celebrate this holiday today, be thankful for those in your family, no matter if they are related to you or not.  These are the people who make up your life and, although you sometimes feel as if you have very little in common with them, they made you who you are today.  While you may fight, do not forget to love them.  Be grateful for them, and never forget those relatives and friends who have left you.  Some deaths are expected, while others come suddenly, but all leave a big impact on those they leave behind.  While they may have passed on, their spirits should stay alive.

All we have left are memories.

This post is dedicated to my uncle David, who passed away on November 17, 2011.  Rest in Peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment