5 Ways 'Never Have I Ever' Captures the Experience of Unspeakable Grief
Netflix’s newest teen rom-com series, “Never Have I Ever,” co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, doesn’t just bring you back to the nostalgic magic of a first kiss — it also brings the cringe factor of brutally awkward teenagedom. As an Indian-American woman in my late-20s, “Never Have I Ever” was only the second American TV show with a female Indian lead I’ve ever watched (the first being “The Mindy Project”). So when it auto-previewed on Netflix, I immediately queued it up to see if it would live up to my expectations.
The story centers around 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar, a high-achieving Indian American sophomore from Southern California who desperately longs to be cool, popular and date hot biracial jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Yet after tragically losing her father, Mohan, and the use of her legs for three months during her freshman year, her path to popularity is upended. Strong-willed and still avoiding dealing with her grief, she abruptly asks her crush if he would want to have no-strings-attached sex.
Yet when the time comes, it’s an act she can’t quite persuade herself into. Cruelly nicknamed “the UN” for their racial diversity, Devi lies to her two best friends. Struggling with her level of Indian-ness and finding hilarious ways to connect with the spirit of her father, Devi gets way over her head as the new school year launches her out of her comfort circle. The season traces her fractured relationships with her friends and family with a series of dramatic plot twists.
Although I’m not the same sect or religion (Tami and Hindu) as Devi’s family in “Never Have I Ever,” I was shocked when it still captured key moments of my own teenage years. An immigrant who grew up in Southern California, I’ve spent many a cultural gathering in an itchy saree being interrogated by judging aunties, had my share of “secret forbidden boyfriends” and of course felt the sting of racialized comments in a post-9/11 world. When Ben, Devi’s frenemy, mocks her for her hairy upper lip, I was transported back to my own retort to a high school bully, reminding him that at least I could grow a mustache. Also like Devi, grades lower than an A came with an explanation to my parents.
This show isn’t perfect, and I didn’t love the use of tennis star (and white man) John McEnroe as the narrator, even though my dad was also a stone-cold McEnroe fan. Her teen rebellion act was sometimes a little over-the-top, for example when she compares herself to an indentured servant, even though a smart teen like her would know that was part of the colonial reality in America and India. Though Devi’s infatuation with her crush and popularity felt a little out of my wheelhouse, her unhealed trauma showed up in her unhinged dedication to dating the hottest boy at school.
Finding this show not only captured my awkward (and yes, hairy) teenage angst, but also the unspeakable grief I felt when my own father passed away four years ago, I had to watch it and watch it again. In the narrow presentations of Indians in American culture, I had never seen a cool Indian dad, like mine, on screen. So I felt it in my chest when Devi has flashbacks of her dad telling her about McEnroe, like mine had, breaking down the rivalry of McEnroe’s spunk vs. Agassi’s class. I felt him again in the spirit of Mohan: my dad, the charming ship’s captain who loved American culture, always had a twinkle in his eye and constantly pushed me to be my best self. Whenever I was struggling to try something new or difficult, he would say, “Of course you can do it, you’re my daughter, darling.” Like Mohan, he went through his own motorcycle riding phase, was my number one fan growing up and taught me every rock song from Blondie to the Eagles. Watching some of the most poignant scenes where Devi come to terms with her loss felt as if I was watching myself years earlier.
For me, the show captured my experience with grief, particularly in five ways:
1. Sometimes we fill our days so we don’t have to sit with our grief.
Like Devi, focused on her mission to date Paxton, after my dad’s passing I over-filled my time until I had no time to think about the gaping hole in my life. I felt like the busier I was, the “happier” and more “normal” I was. But the truth was, just like Devi lashing out at her friends and family, keeping my grief and trauma pent up at all times meant it exploded out when I least expected it. I was drowning in a barrage of sadness that felt like it wouldn’t end and I didn’t want to give myself the time to feel that level of pain. I couldn’t truly be there for anyone else because I wasn’t even there for me.
2. I saw signs in everything.
While I hate to admit it, even the scenes in which Devi thinks she’s found her dad reincarnated in a kind-eyed coyote resonated with me. I flashed back to the times I would bawl while driving in my car because I thought my dad was playing “Hotel California” on the radio for me, or when I couldn’t kill a bug trapped in the water at the bottom of the shower because it felt like he was taken by the waves in the struggle against cancer. Exceptionally cringy to look back on, but in that moment it was all I could do to hold on to every memory or sign that he was still in my life.
3. Finding a way to express your grief is important.
The scene where Devi tosses away the grief journal from her therapist was a hilarious but also startling realization for me. I remembered that I was offered the same opportunity by a counselor after my dad’s passing. I nodded politely, and then reminded her that I knew my dad was dead and I didn’t really believe that he was going to be able to read my magic sadness journal. Over time, while I never did use that grief journal, I did find real ways to make space to express my grief and love for my dad through painting, art and talking about his memory with loved ones.
4. Therapy isn’t just for white people!
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma about needing therapy, and that can be compounded in immigrant communities and communities of color. Studies show that people of South Asian origin have the highest perceived barriers to mental health treatment, and are 85 per cent less likely to seek treatment for mental illness than white counterparts. I know that firsthand, and when offered the chance to get free grief counseling after his passing, I signed up for joint sessions with my mother. Mainly because I knew she, as the responsible parent, didn’t think she needed it. I think about it like air masks on an airplane; you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Living partners and spouses are represented when Nalini, Devi’s mum, talks to the counselor and allows herself to fall apart, needing that support system just as much as her kids. As a close family, the loss of my dad brought us closer together and knowing that my mum was working through her own struggle helped me feel like I could too.
5. The show emphasizes that grief isn’t a destination, it’s a long-term journey.
It’s a common saying that death of a loved one starts out like a tiny box with a tennis ball and a big button inside it, and every time the ball hits the button, you feel heart-wrenching grief. Over time that intensity of grief doesn’t dissipate, but the box gets bigger and bigger until it’s the size of a football field. Then when a memory or trigger hits your grief button you still feel devastated the same amount as before, but that button is activated less and less often as time goes on. It’s clear when Devi tries to play the harp, or tend her father’s garden, that these activities trigger deep grief inside her, and that she hasn’t yet found her way to make peace with herself and the guilt and loss she feels.
The show reminded me how much grief and pain I’m still holding years later and how feeling “seen” in this show also meant I had to sit with my grief and let it course through me. I had expected to like this show and hate this character, but now I only dislike Devi for how much she is like me, trying to find sanity after my own loss. So while only the first season is out, I’d unabashedly give this show a 5/5 rating. Thanks Mindy for giving something that made me laugh, cry and cringe. Can’t wait for next season.
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Screenshot via Netflix