Following William’s passing in “Memphis,” I admit I dreaded tuning into this week’s episode of This Is Us. I’ve gotten used to the weekly flow of tears brought on by these beautiful characters and the situations they’re navigating, but I had prepared myself for an episode of the depressing variety. I imagined Randall slumped over on his late father’s bed, unable to breathe through his tears; I pictured Kate falling to pieces at the graveyard, remembering her own father’s untimely death; and I thought of Randall’s usually cheerful daughters, Tess (Eris Baker) and Annie (Faithe Herman), weeping into their pillows, desperately missing their grandfather. But “What Now?” handles William’s death with such grace and soul that the love and incredible honesty of it all ultimately trumps the intense feeling of sadness at having lost one of the series’ most inspiring characters.
Growing up, my parents gave me the freedom to decide whether I wanted to become a Christian, a Buddhist or just… me. I wasn’t forced to take religious studies at school like 97% of my classmates, and I wasn’t expected to go to church for special occasions, even when other family members did. But at a certain age, I started developing an interest in what my cousins and classmates were up to at their evangelical children’s group, so I rocked up a couple of times, ready to absorb some nice stories and help out in the community garden. It was all right, but I didn’t feel any personal connection to the stories or the people in them, like the others seemed to. This became even more evident when I attended my first funeral at age eleven. I listened to the priest’s sermon and all I could think was, “Who is this guy talking about?” There was nothing personal said about the deceased; no part of his monologue celebrated the person she was or the life she lived. I was baffled by the coldness and tragedy of it all. Where was this connection the people beside me spoke of with such pride?
William did not want his family—particularly his granddaughters—to suffer through the traditional, impersonal setting of a wake. He didn’t want them to have to listen to a stranger fill in the blanks of a pre-existing script with his name; he wanted his passing to bring the family together through shared memories and personal tributes. That’s why he left his final business to Tess and Annie, whom he trusted to make this day one filled with smiles—even through a veil of tears. The fancy catering team and white doves (because “there are no black doves”) Beth has organized are discarded in favor of rainbow-colored balloons, confetti and a breakfast spread (grandpa’s favorite!) fit for kings. Most apt of all, the girls organize a range of colorful old-man hats for everyone to wear on the morning walk William cherished so much. As strange as it may seem to those who rigidly adhere to institutionalized customs, all these little details truly and dearly honor William and the man he was—“a soft armrest for weary souls to lean on.”
Even though it turns into a “fun-eral,” the rawness can be felt throughout, particularly in Beth’s arc. Ever supportive of her husband, she’s spent the longest time putting her own sorrow aside to focus on helping her family cope. And as stay-at-home mom, she’s carried the biggest weight in terms of caring for William, witnessing his health in rapid decline—and though the Pearsons appreciate all she’s done, they don’t seem to be aware of just how deep her bond with William had become. Fortunately, Randall recognizes that she never got a proper goodbye and offers her the mic when it’s time to make a toast to William. Her words sum him up perfectly: The guy sure was “endearing as hell.”
Kate, too, has a hard time controlling her emotions. After the intense camp and therapy experience, so many things are bubbling up in her she can’t help but excuse herself after Beth’s heartfelt speech. Randall understands what she’s going through, but he lets her know it’s time to release all those bottled-up feelings, and to embrace the people who love her—especially Toby. Thanks to her brother’s encouragement, she finally opens up to Toby about her father’s death, with one devastating statement: “It’s my fault. I’m the reason that he’s dead.” Based on the flashbacks of a teenaged Kate (Hannah Zeile) and the overwhelming empathy she feels for Randall, I believe we are going to get to know a whole new side of her in the new season to come.
Instead of focusing entirely on the void implied by the title, “What Now?” is a celebration of William’s life and the people in it. It highlights just how many lives he touched and continues to influence from afar. The local postman; the Vicodin-addicted young athlete at AA; his own son, Randall: They’ve all had the fortune to take a bit of William with them.
And this, in my opinion, is what funerals and wakes should be all about—a moment to pay homage to a life and everything and everyone it was made up of, an opportunity to get to know a person even better through the memories of others, and, most importantly, a time to celebrate everything that made that person who he was. Our send-off for my grandma was a colorful one, too. Not one person wore black. Instead, the congregation watched nervously as a hoard of seeming hippies spilled out of their cars and into the church’s booths in a myriad of colors. My grandma was not a bleak person, nor was William—and I am so grateful their “fun-erals” reflected that.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.