Grief in Doctor Who
One of my favorite quotes from Doctor Who is also my favorite quote about grief. In the episode School Reunion, the Doctor is offered the chance to mold reality to his will. He is offered the opportunity to manipulate the event that serves as his source of grief. As someone who suffers from trauma and survivor’s guilt, it’s no wonder he considers it. Thankfully, he is not alone, and Sarah Jane acknowledges his feelings.
“I could save everyone. I could stop the war.”The Tenth Doctor in School Reunion
“No. The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship, everything has its time. And everything ends.”Sarah Jane in School Reunion
And nobody knows thisit like the Doctor, who experiences endings time and time again. One loss is enough to hurt, but when they keep on coming, it can feel endless. Especially when you seem to outlive everyone, when you live long enough to see and experience so much. When you’re the last one left, all of that guilt can grow and grow until it’s overwhelming. Especially when you’re alone.
“Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws, but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realize the Laws of Time are mine and they will obey me!”The Tenth Doctor in The Waters of Mars
Grief can change your brain chemistry, and sometimes it’s difficult to predict what will trigger memories or feelings. Whether it be a word, or a smell, or a shirt left slung over a railing… all of those feelings can come flooding back in an instant. Grief can change you, and that’s ok. We’re always changing, and that’s not a bad thing.
“We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”The Eleventh Doctor in The Time of the Doctor
Grief is a constant companion for our beloved Doctor. We’ve seen what happens when they are consumed by it. When they try to change things, to control what shouldn’t or can’t be controlled. As much as we might wish to change things, so that we might not feel this grief, so that there might not be a cause for it… sometimes, things just end. Without warning, without reason, without sense.
“You think it’ll last forever. People and cars and concrete, but it won’t. One day it’s all gone, even the sky. My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned, like the Earth. It’s just rocks and dust. Before its time.”The Ninth Doctor in The End of the World
It is important to feel those feelings, because grief is just love with nowhere to go. With how long they’ve lived, all those bright and shining companions, it’s not just Gallifrey the Doctor has lost. Time and time again, they break the Doctor’s heart. They never know when it will end, or how, but it always does, and while the Doctor has the ability to travel in time, that’s the reality they live with.
“I could always use the Tardis to go back, arrive an hour after you guys, change the timeline. Then we’d have more time together.”The Thirteenth Doctor
“It’s ok to be sad.”Yaz
It’s not just the Doctor who lives like this, but their companions too. Some outlive their incarnations of the Doctor, sometimes tragedy befalls them, and sometimes they are separated. Things don’t often end well for those close to the Doctor. But they love the Doctor, love the adventure, love all of those experiences, relationships, and time with each other regardless of what they go through.
“Hard way to live. Being with the Doctor you don’t get to choose when it stops. Whether you leave her or she leaves you.”Captain Jack Harkness in Revolution of the Daleks
“It felt cruel. To be shown something I couldn’t have anymore. I felt like … I’d rather not have known. I’d rather not have met her. Cuz having met her, and then being without her, that’s worse. How’d you deal with that?”Yaz in Revolution of the Daleks
There’s not an easy answer, no one right way to deal with grief. You can choose to honor what you lost, who you lost, and cherish the memories you had with them. You can embrace what time you do have with your loved ones, while you have them. You can appreciate how lucky you are to have met them. Because the love and joy of being with them is worth the pain.
“You see, I can hear her saying to me, ‘Graham, we had three glorious years. What are you complaining about?’ I’m complaining because I wanted more.”Graham in The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Time is an enemy to us all, even to a Time Lord. Time was even a character the Doctor got to speak with directly. Characterized as an evil, unstoppable force. Something the Doctor has tried to control, and has navigated, and ultimately is powerless against when they face it. Each incarnation had their own reaction when their time came to an end.
The Doctors’ Final Words
“Well then, here we go — the long way round.”The First Doctor
“No, you can’t do this to me! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”The Second Doctor
“A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life there’s…”The Third Doctor
“It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for.”The Fourth Doctor
“I might regenerate. I don’t know. Feels different this time…. Adric?”The Fifth Doctor
“Ohh… carrot juice? Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!”The Sixth Doctor
“Timing malfunction! The Master, he’s out there! He’s out there… I know… I’ve got to stop… him…”The Seventh Doctor
“Physician, heal thyself.”The Eighth Doctor
“Yes… Of course, I suppose it makes sense. Wearing a bit thin. I hope the ears are a bit less conspicuous this time.”The War Doctor
“Rose… before I go, I just wanna tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!”The Ninth Doctor
“I don’t want to go!”The Tenth Doctor
“I will not forget one line of this, not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”The Eleventh Doctor
“Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind. Doctor… I let you go.”The Twelfth Doctor
“All right then, Doctor Whoever I’m about to be… Tag. You’re it.”The Thirteenth Doctor
But just as each of these incarnations had their own response, they can’t be compressed into just their final line. The Thirteenth Doctor, for example, cried out Yaz’s name as she was forced to degenerate. Then, Yaz saved her, brought her back so she might live as herself again. But that didn’t last. She was surrounded by her family, and when she woke, found she had begun regenerating.
“No. That’s not right. I need more time. I want more time!”The Thirteenth Doctor in The Power of the Doctor
It’s not the first time the Doctor had gotten a second chance with an incarnation, nor is it the first time one had lasted a short span. When they thought they would have a new lease on life, a second chance as that version of themself. The Thirteenth Doctor got maybe a day after Yaz saved her, and the Tenth Doctor (well, he had a few lives with that face) also felt he didn’t get enough.
“I could do so much more. So much more! But this is what I get. My reward. And it’s not fair!”The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time Part 2
There are differences between these two as well as similarities. Thirteen wants more time, and the Doctor wants to do more. But ultimately, in spite of their own peril, they choose to prioritize the loved one with them. The Tenth Doctor has mere moments to save his companion, and the Thirteenth Doctor spends her precious moments making time for Yaz, her hearts full of love.
“Two hearts. One happy. One sad.”The Thirteenth Doctor in Revolution of thee Daleks
Such a brief line, but such big meaning. Living with grief, mourning a loss, it can feel so great. Not in a fantastic way, but in a way that makes you feel like you don’t have room to feel anything else. But grief is complex, it’s everything you ever felt and knew and hoped and never had. It’s all of those days never lived, all those opportunities and possibilities gone like smoke in a mirror.
“Nothing’s sad until it’s over, and then everything is.”The Twelfth Doctor in Hell Bent
How we mourn
Sometimes we don’t know what we’ve lost. We mourn what could have been, what we never knew. That can linger and color things that follow, things we have, things we are reminded of or dream of. It can cast a shadow over the good times, while we’re having them, because we know nothing is forever. Sometimes, we take it out on those we love, even if we don’t understand why.
“Because every time you see them happy you remember how sad they’re going to be. And it breaks your heart. Because what’s the point in them being happy if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.”The Eleventh Doctor in The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe
Some folks find themselves self-isolating in their grief, pulling away from those they lost. Some try to forget, because the pain is too much to bear. Grief manifests in different ways, and coping mechanisms only work until they don’t. Find strength in those you love, find comfort in their presence, in knowing they’re always with you.
“I carry them with me. What they would have thought and said and done. Make them a part of who I am. So even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me.”The Thirteenth Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth