What Orange Is the New Black Gets Right About Grief
Warning: spoilers ahead
The last time we saw the women of Litchfield, they were coming to terms with the death of fellow inmate Poussey Washington at the hands of one of the correctional officers. Now, Season 5 of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black picks up where we left off, showing the women — and prison staff — expressing various forms of grief.
During the initial mourning period in the last episode of Season 4, where the women were forced to eat breakfast outside because Poussey’s body was still under a sheet in the cafeteria, her closest friends sat in a pavilion in the yard processing her murder. Other inmates came over with offerings of juice and commissary casseroles — unsure of what else they could or should do — to mixed reactions.
Now in Season 5, the grieving process continues. Soso, Poussey’s girlfriend, is devastated and turns to Poussey’s stash of homemade prison hooch buried outside the library to dull the pain. Taystee, Poussey’s best friend, does break down and cry on a few occasions, but is mostly shown grieving through anger and trying to take action to get justice for her friend. Another character, Red — who serves as a matriarch for a portion of the prison population — assigns tasks to each of her friends in order to keep them busy and their minds occupied.
But Poussey’s murder transcends a fictional TV prison and has had an impact on viewers too. Caroline Madden, a therapist based in California, said the plotline at the end of Season 4 of OITNB has affected many of her patients — from the unexpected tragic death of Poussey to the reaction of Correctional Officer Bayley, who killed her.
And it's not just Poussey's death that viewers are reacting to. It's also how the show handles the complexities of grief.
Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist practicing in Georgia, tells SheKnows that OITNB is “showing one of the most accurate (and thorough) representations of grief [she has] seen in a series” and that she’s impressed by the way they show grief as multifaceted rather than just “the typical angle of intense hopelessness and crying.”
According to Metzger, Taystee's anger is accurate, and Red’s strategy of staying busy is very common — especially in women who have lost a husband — as they “completely submerge themselves in any duties to keep their mind occupied and distracted from the grief.” In addition, Soso's “deepened sadness with a transition to emotional numbing and social withdrawal” is another realistic portrayal of grief.
Symptoms of grief can also include problems sleeping, trouble concentrating and diminished appetite, she adds.
“This series does an excellent job in showing that not everybody grieves the same way nor is there a time limit on grief,” Metzger explains. “It is a unique process for each individual.”
But the way OITNB shows grief isn’t just accurate, Metzger says. It can also be comforting to viewers, as it can make them realize they’re not alone in how they process grief, whether that’s anger, distraction or sadness. It can also be encouraging for the audience to watch the characters heal from this tragedy.
The show also offers a glimpse into the dynamics of relationships within prison and how they affect people’s handling of grief.
Bruce Cameron, a licensed counselor who worked as a therapist in a women’s federal prison for six years, calls the show’s portrayal of grief “realistic enough,” clarifying that different cultural backgrounds will heavily influence people’s responses to grief.
Part of Cameron’s job at the prison was to notify the inmates about deaths. The inmates would start crying when they saw him walk the yard knowing bad news may be in store for them, making him no stranger to dealing with deaths in prison.
If there is one thing Cameron wants viewers to take away from the way grief was handled on the most recent season of OITNB, it’s that relationships inside a women’s prison are extremely intense. Because part of your punishment is being taken away from your family, losing someone you became close with in prison is taken particularly hard.
“You hang onto whatever and whoever you can,” Cameron says. “Loss in prison is more intense than when you have others with you in society.”