“Big Mouth” Accidentally Covered a Major Symptom of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Andrew’s death anxiety is far too timely.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Every night, for the past eight months, death has crossed my mind. As someone who is not religious, my brain has been going into overdrive, trying to figure out what comes next. Is it reincarnation? A heaven or hell? Different layers of purgatory? Or is it just nothing?

Some nights, the overthinking would get the best of me and I’d cry quietly, overwhelmed by the idea that none of us are here for any reason and we’re not owed anything from this world. Perhaps we are truly just born to die.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on, for the first time in my life, I’ve gone a year without seeing my parents, who have aged in front of me through Zoom, without me being able to hug them. I have recurring nightmares that I’ll never see them again, as if turning 60 is some sort of death sentence. In the age of COVID, can I be certain that it’s not?

In this isolating time, I’ve felt more in my head, refusing to acknowledge these thoughts out loud, until one day I texted my best friend, who I also have not been able to see since March.

“Hey, sorry this is such a weird question, but have you been thinking about death more this year?” I asked.

“Hey, oh my god, I thought it was just me,” she texted back.

The reality is, it’s not just either of us. In the minds of humans, death exists. It’s frightening and not something most of us can come to terms with. Even the most religious of us often still have questions and inklings that we can’t fully grasp what’s out there. What comes next? Is there anything? If my family member dies tomorrow, will I truly ever see them again? If I die tomorrow, is it just nothing?

Most often, these are the thoughts that sit in the back of our minds. They don’t consume us all day, every day. Neurologically speaking, our brains quite literally don’t want to allow us to think about confronting death. But what if death is all around us, all the time? Well, then you get the massive spike in death anxiety that we’ve experienced in 2020. And if you haven’t heard of this spike, then that makes a lot of sense; we’ve spent an entire year distracting ourselves from it, or at least trying to.

One show managed to get it right, by accident.

Since Hollywood shut down due to COVID-19, we’ve now seen a number of shows back on the air. For many of those dramas, and even some comedies, they’ve worked the pandemic into the plot. “SVU” literally brought us a killer who killed because they were upset about their roommates’ COVID habits. “Grey’s Anatomy” has the main character in a state of limbo thanks to the virus. “This Is Us” figured it was a good idea to bring in COVID since the show has always focused on “American life.”

And a lot of people really, really hate it.

In people’s complaints of COVID being on their TV screens, you often hear the words “escape from reality,” which is actually arguments for Terror Management Theory playing out before our eyes. According to Terror Management Theory, when we experience death reminders (like having to see a favorite character near death due to a very real virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone) we react in three different ways.

One: We do what we can to make ourselves feel safe. The death reminders on our TV screen might actually encourage more people to wear masks more often and wash their hands more frequently.

Two: We deny it’s happening. These are the people who watch “Grey’s Anatomy” this season and yell at the TV for making everything “political.”

Three: We look for a distraction. And here is where the problem lies. TV is often the distraction people turn to. Why do you think “Tiger King” did so well this year, and do you think it would have done as well in 2019? TV watching has significantly gone up in 2020, and it’s not just because we’re bored. It’s because we’re desperate for a distraction. But the fall TV lineup has given us anything but.

So, when we see new shows drop on Netflix, we’re eager to watch, particularly if we know it’s not supposed to have COVID in it. But one show snuck a societal symptom of the virus in without us realizing it.

Season 4 of “Big Mouth” didn’t cover COVID-19. It didn’t exist in their world. Although the season covered some other frightening issues (climate change, poverty, drug addiction), it was COVID free. But, quietly, the character of Andrew reflected a feeling that a lot of us have had all year.

Of course, in true “Big Mouth” form, the reasoning was different from what we’re experiencing, and also a little gross. When Andrew breaks his masturbation routine and his grandfather dies, his mind connects that the death happened because he broke the routine. Eventually, he tells his parents why he thinks he killed his grandfather. And their response makes things a lot worse.

“That’s not how death works,” his mother says. “Death is completely random and uncontrollable. And it lurks around every corner. Disease, murder, car accidents … Every time you close your eyes, Andrew, there’s a chance you’ll never wake up again.”

She’s right. And on paper, it shouldn’t sound so frightening. According to Terror Management Theory, when we hear these things, our brains will think it’s sad, associating death with others, all those others who died due to car accidents, murder, COVID-19. But when it’s personally applied to us, that’s when we can’t handle it.

For the first time, Andrew understands that he is going to die, and he goes through what’s known as “existential shock.” For some of us, that existential shock, feelings of panic attacks driven by being surrounded by death or almost experiencing death firsthand, arrived thanks to COVID-19. Those of us in good health, who are relatively young, are experiencing an existential shock we never had to feel before, as we’re faced with stories that COVID-19 can take the life of anyone.

The harsh reality is that there is no way to combat this death anxiety. The best Andrew could do was take calming breaths, hoping to center himself in the here and now and not spiral out of control. And that’s really the best all of us can do right now.

Psychologists who have studied the Terror Management Theory and death anxiety tells us to think about being grateful for the time we have, and to try to come to terms with the fact that we are “an infinitesimal speck of carbon-based dust born in a time and place not of my choosing here for an incredible brief amount of time before my atoms are scattered back into the cosmos.” Though they warn that doesn’t have to be a terrifying thought, for some of us, for a lot of us, it still is.

Simply repeating or thinking about that when death anxiety strikes is not going to get rid of death anxiety, particularly not in the span of one, horrible year. It takes years of practice to come to an understanding of our own unimportance. So, perhaps, all we really can do this year, when confronted with the fear that we don’t know what the next moment will bring, is to breathe. Because death is uncontrollable. It is random. And it happens to us all, no matter how afraid we are of it.

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