I went to dinner with a few friends the other night. They raved about a show — “White Lotus.” Apparently it’s great and I need — that’s need — to see it. Also, when I finish that show, I absolutely must watch “Mare of Easttown” — according to them, anyway.
I told them I would, that I was sold by their enthusiastic descriptions of the premise and the characters and the drama.
“I’ll start tonight,” I promised, and meant it.
And yet, when I got home and turned on the TV and scrolled through the options of shows, I found myself choosing a familiar show, a show my husband and I had watched from the pilot episode, a show he eventually got too sick to watch but would play in the background as his illness stole him away, a show he never got to see the end of. A show that, since he’s died, I’ve watched more times than I want to admit.
I didn’t connect re-watching that show (or any of the handful of shows I’ve now re-watched since his death) with my grief until a widow in my widow group posted that she’d just started re-watching a sitcom, too.
That was my aha moment, the moment I realized there’s more to my choice than being too lazy to type the name of a new show into the search bar.
That was the moment I realized pressing play on an old show is nostalgia. More than that, it’s comfort. It’s predictability and certainty in a way that life post-loss is not, especially life post-loss as a solo parent in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s in many ways a time machine.
The Nostalgia Reason
Nostalgia is defined first and foremost on Merriam-Webster as “the state of being homesick” or homesickness.
I learned long ago that home is more than the four walls of the place you sleep. Home is a person who makes you feel seen and safe. Home is the place where you can be, in all the ways you need to be. For the longest time, my home was my husband. When he died, I lost that home. But, if I can manage to escape into an old show of ours for a few minutes, sometimes I can almost make myself forget that home is gone.
The Comfort Reason
Apparently, I’m not alone in watching the same show because it brings me some subconscious level of comfort. Experts have weighed in. Psychologist Pamela Rutledge explained that re-watching the same, or consuming the same piece of entertainment again, helps affirm “that there is order in the world and that it ‘can create a sense of safety and comfort on a primal level.’”
One of my biggest struggles since my husband’s loss is believing that there’s any kind of order in the universe — is in feeling safe. For twenty-two minutes during an old sitcom, I do. The beginning, middle, and end proceeds, every time, in a way I recognize.
The Predictability And Certainty Reason
The first time I watched these shows, they were new. The second time, I caught a few details I missed and forgot about — maybe even an episode or two I’d slept through during the original viewing. But this many times into re-watching a series — there’s nothing new. I know all the hijinks to ensue, the love interests that bloom and wither, all the moments, big and small.
Knowing what to expect, especially in 2021, is a gift. Watching the same show again is like putting the mental load of solo parenting through a global pandemic and a climate crisis on mute. It’s not always possible to mute, of course. Sometimes, just lowering the volume for a little while is enough.
The Time Machine Reason — With a Little Grief Brain
I’ve written previously about the effect grief has had on my ability to consume new entertainment. It’s still hard for me to read a new book — though you wouldn’t know that from the pile of library books I check out with high hopes every week. (Lucky for me, the library also has an expansive list of audiobooks with new additions to the catalogue every Wednesday morning.) It’s also still hard for me to start a new TV show on my own. But old shows — those are easy. Those feel like returning to an old friend. Those feels like stepping backward into something I know.
Without a doubt, living in the past isn’t where I need to be living right now. No one should hold onto the past so tight that they have no room to live their present. But that’s not what I’m doing. In almost every way, I’m moving forward — new house, new job, new boyfriend. In so many ways, my life looks nothing like it did during the time I first watched those shows. Which is why, for a little while, I want the magic of being back in that life I once lived — because I loved that life and didn’t want to lose it. For a little while, I can be that person I was and am no longer — because I loved that person and didn’t want to lose her either.
One day I might watch “White Lotus” and “Mare of Easttown.” I truly hope I do. But post-loss, in the trenches of solo parenting, in a world mired in crises, I’m grateful to have found something that gives me a little comfort, a little certainty, a little feeling of home.