How “This Is Us” is helping me grieve my biological father
It’s been eight years since I searched for my biological father, and soon after, discovered he had died. Yet I’ve spent the bulk of that time denying the truth of his absence. When I was nine years old, I learned that my biological father was not the man I’d been growing up with and calling dad. Through years of varied therapies, there has always been something not quite right — something infinitely missing. A massive chasm only my biological father could heal, if he’d had the chance. When I reflect on my life, it always circles back to him. It doesn’t matter how far I’ve come, what I’ve accomplished, or what I’ve gained. His absence is an evergreen reminder that there is a big piece of me wandering without an identity, forced to navigate a world where I — a half Puerto Rican, married mother of two — simply don’t fit.
Then I started watching This Is Us, and everything changed.
A couple weeks back, during a dark time, I’d once again become fixated on the emptiness of who I am. I think about my father a lot; I focus on the sparse memories I have of him, floating in and out of my life as a bystander, not an active participant. It dictates the kind of mother, wife, and woman I’ll be on any given day. Even in my adult life, I fight the same micro-aggressions that made me feel small throughout childhood (because they weren’t inflicted on my white brother). Growing up, the insecurities that stemmed from those comments were boldly perched on my shoulder. I never felt like a full person and couldn’t explain why. Some days, I still can’t.
On a day when thoughts of my father consumed me, pulling me into a spiraling depression, I binge-watched the entire first season of This Is Us in one fell swoop.
I’m so glad I did.
***SPOILERS AHEAD for anyone who hasn’t yet taken the cathartic leap***
The show deals with lots of subjects I can relate to (anxiety, forgiveness, weight, Jack and Rebecca’s complicated marriage that’s similar to my own). I watched detailed character traits I see in my own household (when Jack holds young Randall’s face as an anxious boy and says “breathe”). I was immediately sucker-punched by the portrayal of Randall Pearson (played by the incomparable Sterling K. Brown), and his biological father, William (played by Ron Cephas Jones).
The pilot reveals Randall searching for — and confronting — his biological father, who he learns is dying from terminal cancer. The last time I saw my father (one of the few memories I have of him), he was battling the cancer that would eventually kill him. Only, he didn’t tell me. No one told me. I relive the memory of him standing in our living room that night, his laugh an infinite imprint in my mind. I saw, in him, the missing pieces of me. But when we parted ways, I didn’t hear from him again.
He vanished like the ghost I always felt him to be.
I didn’t look for my father again until I married years later and had a child of my own. But it was too late. He passed four years before I found any trace of him.
The pilot episode of This Is Us became a memory that I adopted to replace my own.
I didn’t get the chance to confront my father. To ask him all my questions that needed answers, to yell at him, to forgive. So instead, I pretended that Randall and William were my father and me. A bittersweet portrayal of what could’ve been, if only.
As I clung to every episode, I lived vicariously, watching this complicated relationship unfold and, mostly, heal. Every conversation those characters had was one I’d imagined having with my own father. I laughed with them. I forgave with them. William passed, looking into Randall’s eyes and revealing a flashback of William’s mom singing “You Are My Sunshine” to him as a baby — the very song I sing to my sweet son every night. After that scene, all the pain in my heart spilled out into the open with them. I watched those moments on my knees, sobbing into the open air as if my own father was in front of me, dying, too — a moment, a final goodbye, I wasn’t fortunate enough to have.
Without fail, each episode felt as though the brilliant writers poked inside my memories and broken heart, and directed the very scenes I needed to see in order to confront the pain I’ve been holding onto for so long. Pain caused by why my father wasn’t part of my life, the resulting complicated relationship I had with my mother, how different I always felt from my brother. How the absence of that man — and who I am because of his absence — added to my anxiety disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to the point of a breakdown, like Randall.
It’s uncanny to witness a sort-of parallel life, however fictional, unfold in a way that’s helping me cope with all the things I’ve buried.
I never thought a television show could see me. For the first time in my life, I feel heard; my existence validated. It’s something I’ve spent a lifetime writing about, thinking of, obsessing over — yet I still fail to verbalize my experience the way This Is Us has. The show is changing the way I view my past, present, and future. It’s helping me see what might have been, and how to move forward despite all the things that try to hold me back. It shows me that I am imperfect, and how — despite that — I can love myself and be loved in my imperfect marriage. I can forgive those who’ve caused me pain, and move forward.
I don’t have (or need) dozens of pictures of my father because when I look in the mirror, I see him. And I don’t have to remain stuck in my grief because, as angry as I am that he left this world before I could see him again, it’s okay to find peace with everything that happened. Just as Randall found peace with William, his painful past, and the emptiness he felt due to an entire life of identity issues.
I’m now able to do something I’ve never done before. To the brilliant writers, cast, and crew of This Is Us, this is me — finally letting go. Thank you.