Never Have I Ever‘s Portrayal of Grief Makes Me Want to Apologize to Everyone—and Forgive MyselfPhoto Courtesy of Netflix TV Features Never Have I Ever
Content Warning: This piece includes mentions of death, grief, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
It was about 10 months ago when I experienced my first encounter with loss. In October 2020, my uncle passed away in a freaky accident. The devastating news, however, didn’t hit me right away. Yes, I was shocked and rendered speechless, but that was just about it. The next day, I got up feeling pretty normal and went about my day as usual. But after we spread his ashes in the ocean, I began feeling something I had never experienced before: a feeling so intense, as if someone were reaching inside my body and squeezing my heart, and the squeezing didn’t stop.
I managed to get through it, thinking that it was maybe just my delayed response to my uncle’s death or me just missing him, a father figure in my life—I was closer to my uncle than I was to my dad. When I moved 12 hours away from my parents’ home at a young age, my uncle was the closest relative I had. As weeks went on, the intense emotions, which perhaps were panic attacks, happened more often. No matter how many times I tried to brush it off and how hard I tried to distract myself from it, it always found a way to sneak back in. It got even worse when I lost another family member a few months later, followed by another again not long after that.
I was clearly not okay: constantly angry at nothing and everything, even everyone; crying every night with no clear reason; becoming depressed and feeling suicidal. Still, even after realizing my condition was worsening, and knowing the root of my problem was unresolved grief, I’ve refused to talk about it mostly because dealing with it means I have to move on afterward—something I’m not fully ready to do yet.
Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s coming-of-age dramedy on Netflix, knows these feelings very well. Their heroine, the 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is just like me: struggling to deal with the pain of losing a loved one. Her dad, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), died of a heart attack at her orchestra recital. Ever since that devastating moment, Devi has been struggling to live her life like a normal teenager. She lashes out about everything, constantly hurting everyone, unable to cope with her loss. But anytime someone tries to talk to her about it, including her therapist, she steers the conversation to something else.
Throughout the first season, we see how Devi’s reluctance to deal with her father’s death leads her to do some very repulsive things: She abandons her best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), when they need her the most; constantly gets into fights with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), who herself is experiencing the same loss; and makes insensitive comments about her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). Seeing Devi keep hurting everyone, and sabotaging her relationships with those who care about her, made me realize all the pain I might have caused to others while trying to process my own grief. Like Devi, I’ve pushed people away, even those who just want to help. I make hurtful remarks and I get angry when things do not go my way in my healing process. I’m not proud of it, and Devi’s journey throughout the show has really opened my eyes to how self-centered my actions have been in the last few months.
Season 2, albeit having a lighter tone compared to the first season, takes its portrayal of grief even deeper and makes it even more emotionally resonant. After scattering her father’s ashes in Malibu, Devi attempts to repair her relationship with her mom. She tries her best to do everything she tells her, even if it means moving back to India. Devi, of course, refuses to leave without a bang. So when she finds out that Ben (Jaren Lewison) and Paxton (Darren Barnet) are now into her, she decides to date both boys without them even knowing. Suffice to say, things do not go as smoothly as she expects. Not only does Devi end up alienating both Ben and Paxton, she also hurts her new friend Aneesa (Megan Suri) in the process.
Since Never Have I Ever is a teen rom-com, it’s easy to render Devi’s unforgivable move against Aneesa—spilling her big secret to practically the whole school—simply as an act of jealousy. And while that does play a part in Devi’s decision making, what largely fuels her is, once again, her grief. When we lose someone in our lives, it creates a big hole inside our hearts. Some leave the hole unoccupied to preserve the memories they share with their loved ones. But some others, like Devi and myself, don’t want that hole to be left empty. We crave intimacy with other people, hoping that it will help us forget about the pain that comes from our loss.
For Devi, Ben is one of those people. So when she feels that Aneesa’s presence may threaten her relationship with Ben, she impulsively tries to put a wedge between them. She lets her insecurity dictate her action and ends up hurting Aneesa who has been nothing but nice to her. This notion gets emphasized even more by Nalini’s arc this season. Like Devi, Nalini hasn’t been fully processing her grief. She refuses to talk about Mohan’s death most of the time or get proper help from therapy. Instead, she forces herself to start a new relationship with her colleague. When Devi finds out about this in the season’s excellent penultimate episode, she tries to confront her mom out of fear that she might have possibly moved on from Mohan when she’s not ready to do it yet. But the reason Nalini starts to date again is not that she’s forgotten about Mohan, rather it’s because she needs a break from the pain of losing him.
Grieving and experiencing loss can indeed be overwhelming, and sometimes we just want to escape from it, even just for a while. I understand this very well. There are times when I talk to a lot of people or get deep into dating apps just to distract myself from my grief. There are also times when those interactions become unhealthy and very codependent. Never Have I Ever has shown me that those distractions and my desire to cling to normalcy do not actually equal healing.
Instead, the healing process can only begin when we open up and acknowledge our pain. No matter how many times we try to avoid our grief, it will eventually catch us if we keep leaving it unresolved. For two seasons, Never Have I Ever has shown us the dire repercussions of unprocessed grief and untreated trauma—how it can intensify our worst traits without us even realizing it, and how loss can morph into an abandonment fear. The show may be a cheesy teen rom-com on the surface, but deep down, it’s a show that makes me understand myself. Most of all, it makes me want to apologize to everyone I hurt along the way while also forgiving myself. Devi’s journey of healing herself is far from over, and so is mine, and I’m sure there will be times when things get hard again. But with Never Have I Ever, at least I know that I’m not dealing with this alone.
Reyzando Nawara is a TV and film journalist from Indonesia. He’s mostly talking about Asian representation, foods, and mental health on Twitter. When he’s not busy watching TV and movies, or writing about them, he likes to spend his day in the kitchen, trying new recipes and mostly making sorbet.
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