On Sunday, we lost a Lawson. For those who haven’t watched yet, it might not be the one you suspect. For those who did, shock, grief and solemnity are probably front of mind. Know that you aren’t alone. Long before Janine’s death, a This Life original was facing her own, very real, crisis with loss. Rachel Langer, writer of this week’s episode, lost her grandfather earlier this year. Weeks before this week’s episode aired, I had a chance to talk to her about what it’s like to write the end of a character in the midst of losing someone real.
Thoughts of needing to shake the foundations of the show by saying goodbye to Janine were percolating for a long time. During development, when script assignments are set but the “whens” and “hows” are far from solidified, Langer received the news of her grandfather suffering a major stroke. Weeks later, he passed on. “[The writer’s room] had known this was coming for quite a while but I didn’t know I was going to be the person who was bringing the script to its initial phases,” Langer said with her trademark gloom-but-not-quite-doom.
In fact, it wasn’t until the room migrated to Montreal that it become more and more obvious that she was going to have to grapple with writing Janine’s death.
Working with the other writers in eastern Canada meant she had to be hundreds of kilometres away from her family in western Canada. “I’ve never felt so out of control and pretending to be in control at the same time,” she said. Aside from daily phone calls with her husband back in Vancouver, and minute-by-minute texting with her parents, she was isolated. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t without support. “Joe was incredibly supportive the whole time [...] and wasn’t over checking in either,” she told me with a laugh.
The prospect of digging deep into her ongoing personal experience with grief only hit home when words were put to paper. “I don’t think I was totally prepared for how it was going to feel,” admitted Langer. In the spring, Langer took cues from how her family was reacting and living in grief. She herself felt anxious about what words to use around family. She saw others cope by compulsively handling the funeral and other logistics. If those ideas sound familiar, it’s because many seeped into the episode’s fabric.
Throughout the process, Langer found workable ways to cope. She listened to a lot of Volcano Choir, an offshoot of Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver. She went on long, mind-clearing walks. Long-distance, hour-long phone calls with her superstar husband, Derek. Langer was uncomfortable with the isolating effects of her coping mechanisms. That being said, she made it through, thanks in part to some superhero inner strength I’m unable to put into words.
Having a committed and talented cast didn’t hurt either. “Saying goodbye to Janet [Laine Green], who’s just lovely, is a difficult thing.” In the day to day workings of a show, people grow attached to their colleagues and characters. Langer pointed out that the emotional digging she was doing was only met, if not exceeded, by Laine Greene’s ability to physically dive into her role. Writing in Langer’s circumstances was challenging; acting the end of a character’s life, amongst a family of colleagues you’ve grown attached to over the years required a distinct amount of composure and vulnerability.
Although we were still weeks away from the airing of the episode, I could sense Langer’s anxiousness over the phone. Her family didn’t know the extent of the subject matter she was writing about. “I almost want to tell them not to watch it. It’s going to be really difficult,” she said. “At the same time, avoiding something that causes you pain isn’t necessarily great either.” Needless to say, there’s no script to follow when it comes to having your biggest vulnerabilities and anxieties broadcast on the CBC.
This Life is a show that gives us the room to feel and talk about things that we as a society don’t normally get to talk about. It opens up a dialogue. Like Langer’s journey, the show intersects with what’s really going on in the lives of people struggling with loss or impending loss. If there’s anything Langer’s learned about it, it’s this: “don’t be afraid or ashamed of what you’re going to feel.”
Next week’s the season finale. Don’t be afraid or ashamed. Feel what you have to feel.
I'm Max Morin, Junior Writer, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE.