The cast of the hit show This Is Us are used to presenting sad and complicated situations on their program. But they’ve had to deal with the same in real life, too. In 2020 the team lost one of their own, and they posted their reactions on social media for fans to take in.
This Is Us is still going strong at the time of writing. Season four ended in March 2020, and, according to Good Housekeeping, new episodes are expected to air in September that year. The show holds a special place in many hearts – not least because of its ability to deal with difficult and painful things.
Meanwhile, This Is Us is expected to finish after season six. In May 2020 showrunner Isaac Aptaker talked to the website Deadline about the significance of the show. He said, “I would hope that when we reach our ending, people think it’s a really satisfying end place that makes sense, and it feels like they’ve watched something that is a complete piece of work. Because that’s really how we’re trying to plan it.”
Aptaker went on, “We’ve had this end in mind for a long time, so we’re able to plan for it and try to make it feel like it’s a whole – as opposed to a series that’s going to go [on] endlessly.” But the show’s conclusion will probably be bittersweet for the cast after everything they’ve been through.
This Is Us has tackled death, grief, addiction, miscarriage and more during the course of its run. Fans knew right from the beginning that Jack Pearson would die at some point – but how and why was more of a mystery. In addition, the show became noted for its ability to leave viewers crying after every episode.
Viewers only found out how Pearson died in the season two episode “Super Bowl Sunday.” He saved his whole family from a massive house fire and was sent to hospital afterwards. Initially, he seemed to be totally fine, but then he suddenly died from a heart attack brought on by smoke inhalation. And his wife and children were, of course, grief-stricken.
In 2018 the website Mashable asked a clinical psychologist why so many people chose to watch such a saddening show. Kristin Wynns explained, “So many scenes have moved me to tears. But it’s often the scenes in which the characters are struggling with their relationships, their lives going off track, or with battling demons from the past that are so moving.”
Wynns went on, “As humans, we love the idea that we are not alone. Even though the plot line of This Is Us may be very different from our struggles and obstacles, we enjoy watching this show because it reminds us of so many universal truths about suffering, love, relationships and the human experience.”
The psychologist explained that shedding a tear over the fictional events of This Is Us could actually be a healthy thing. Wynns said, “Crying definitely serves an emotional purpose. It’s a release from a build-up of feelings. There is something cathartic in having a ‘good cry,’ and physiologically crying releases stress hormones or toxins from the body. So, it’s good for us!”
But what happens when a real tragedy suddenly collides with a fictional one? Well, the members of the This Is Us family unexpectedly lost one of their own during seasons four and five. The writers and actors then went onto social media to pay tribute and talk about their sadness.
In June 2020 the official Twitter account for the show’s writers posted a statement saying, “The entire [This Is Us] family was devastated to learn of Jas Waters passing. In our time together, [Waters] left her mark on us and all over the show. She was a brilliant storyteller and a force of nature. We send our deepest sympathies to her loved ones. She was one of us. RIP [Waters].”
For her part, Waters had racked up a good list of credits in the television world. Before This Is Us, she’d worked on The Breaks and Hood Adjacent with James Davis. The actress had also contributed to the 2019 film What Men Want. And several This Is Us episodes in which she starred became some of the most celebrated and acclaimed ones.
Among Waters’ credits was the episode in which Jack died. That particular showing pulled in 27 million viewers to NBC and received critical acclaim. Some people – including show creator Dan Fogelman – noted that the episode had helped them process their own feelings of grief at the death of a loved one.
Waters worked on several other episodes of This Is Us: including “The Car,” “The Wedding,” “Number One” and “That’ll Be the Day.” They’re all considered high points of the series – full of tear-jerking moments and explorations of strong emotions. So, Waters had clearly made a very strong contribution to the show.
The This Is Us cast members then posted their own messages in tribute to Waters on social media. In a reply to the original post by the writers, actress Mandy Moore wrote on Twitter, “Sending love and light to [Waters’] family and loved ones.”
Moore’s fellow cast member Chrissy Metz also turned to Twitter. She wrote, “We were graced with [Waters] on the show as a fantastic writer, but to know her and her beautiful spirit was to love her. I am praying for your beautiful transition… May it be full of love, light and peace. Thank you for the time we shared, your fearlessness and inspiration.”
Dan Fogelman wrote, “This news took my breath away. [Waters] was absolutely brilliant and had so many stories still to tell. She made an indelible mark on our show and my heart breaks for her loved ones.” And actress Susan Kelechi Watson said, “Incredibly shocked and saddened to have just received this news. Blessed light, fly with the angels.”
People not involved with This Is Us also shared stories of Waters, too. Actress Issa Rae tweeted, “I’ll never forget being so excited to get an interview [with Waters] for [the gossip blog] Necole Bitchie back when I was working on ABG. I could feel her warmth through the phone. Over the years, I got to know & appreciate her even more. She was so generous, beautiful and real. I’ll miss you, girl.”
And Kidding creator Dave Holstein wrote, “[Waters] was a one of a kind voice and so integral to our Kidding writing team. This is a devastating loss for those who knew her and lived in her light. One of my favorite lines of hers is resonating loud with me today, ‘Our scars do not mean we are broken. They are proof we are healed.’”
Many fans also commented to leave their condolences. One person wrote, “This breaks my heart. I really appreciated [Waters’] work and her voice. May she be at peace.” Another said, “This is terribly sad. This show is so good, and it is clear that everyone who works on it gives only their best. My sympathy [for] your loss.”
In June 2020 the actress Reese Witherspoon revealed that she’d also known Waters. The star wrote on Twitter, “My heart is with the family and friends of Jas Waters. [She] was an incredibly kind woman and a truly brilliant talent. My team at Hello Sunshine was honored to collaborate with her. I send my deepest sympathies and condolences to everyone whose lives she touched.”
The cause of Waters’ death was announced the day after Witherspoon’s message. She had taken her own life, reports said. And Waters’ last tweet hinted that something was perhaps wrong. On May 8 she had written, “Some s**t just changes you.”
People left comments beneath Waters’ last tweet, and one read, “I am so sad to hear of your passing. You were so talented and such an inspiration to so many people. I pray for your spirit to give the people you love the strength needed to cope with this.” Of course, Waters’ family were also very much affected.
Waters’ father Joseph spoke to the Daily Mail newspaper on June 15 and paid tribute to his daughter. He said, “Long before she was Jas Fly or any kind of Hollywood writer, she was my little girl who has always been an articulate brilliant person, who will not only be missed by all of these people who know her, but by myself and the rest of my family.”
Joseph went on, “I’ve always known that greatness awaited her for the most part. [Waters] always loved to write. Myself and most of my children are writers, we express ourselves very well with a pen. She just took hers to a whole different level. [My daughter] loved life, she had a great personality and liked to laugh.”
“[Waters] had a great sense of humor and always did well in school, [she] always had a bunch of friends… I’m just shocked about the end here,” Joseph added. “I don’t understand it. Her whole family is devastated… My daughter was a brilliant, articulate, beautiful young woman who didn’t deserve this at all.”
There were other reactions to Waters’ death, and many of them became part of a wider conversation about mental health. On June 16 writer Maia Niguel Hoskin discussed the subject in an article for Forbes. She wrote, “Last week, This Is Us and Kidding writer Jas Waters’ suicide left her fans and colleagues stunned and with heavy hearts. Currently, as the leading cause of death in the U.S., the country’s struggle with suicide seems to be that of a losing battle.”
Hoskin continued, “Between 1999 and 2017 there was a 9 percent increase in suicides among blacks. [This puts] the black community at 11.4 percent of suicides compared to 28.2 percent of whites – while only making up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population. Although popular television shows like FX’s Dave and HBO’s Insecure have touched on topics such as bipolar disorder and depression, mental health continues to be highly stigmatized in the black community.”
For its part, This Is Us has also touched on the subject of mental health. Season four of the show dealt heavily with the anxiety experienced by Sterling K. Brown’s character Randall. In January 2020 he spoke to Good Housekeeping about mental health issues that he had dealt with both onscreen and off.
Brown explained, “I remember the tremendous amount of pressure that I placed on myself in high school in terms of trying to exceed great expectations. And the pursuit of perfection, right? And how that is an incredibly motivating thing, but it can also be quite a debilitating thing if you think that perfection is, indeed, something that is attainable.”
The star went on, “I’m not immune to having placed a great deal of pressure on myself to be something for not just me but for everybody else – the expectations of family, of community, you feel people supporting and wanting to see you win. And so, you’re doing it for you, but you’re also doing it for them and you feel as if you can let everybody down if things don’t work out the way that you want them to.”
“I have quite a few members of my family, people who are close to me, who live with anxiety, a few family members who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a couple family members who are diagnosed with schizophrenia,” Brown continued. “I see how frequently they twist themselves into knots to try to live by societal norms of what people expect – in terms of what is ‘acceptable behavior.’”
Brown was then asked about the impact of putting Randall’s anxiety issues on screen. He responded, “There are people who have mental illness but are able to have productive lives, [who] are able to have families, because sometimes you need to be able to see it in order to know that it is a possibility for yourself.”
“There are smooth spots in life, and then a hiccup will come along, and it will set off a reaction internally, and then you see someone have to pick up the pieces and figure out how to move forward,” Brown concluded. “We fool ourselves into thinking life is sort of this linear path. But it’s really very circuitous, if you will… but hopefully it will move forward.”
And the article written by Maia Niguel Hoskin about Waters’ death made a similar conclusion to Brown’s. At the end, she wrote, “Therapists and psychologists are reporting a slight increase in black clients – but change comes slowly. As the number of blacks who pursue higher education continues to increase, mental health stigma continues to lessen.”
Hoskin concluded her article, “Black women are more likely to seek help compared to black men and millennials, and [generation Z’ers] are more likely to consult a therapist compared to baby boomers. Although the downward dog will not cure generalized anxiety disorder, at least the conversation is being had.”
Meanwhile, the This Is Us cast have been contributing to the discussion of mental health via their show. In June 2019 Mandy Moore told the website HuffPost, “It’s important to continue to try to take away some of the stigma around mental health issues. I hope that by talking about it on this big television show, that people can see it’s not something that should be stigmatized.”
Moore went on, “The show is letting people see that everybody from every walk of life could potentially be feeling the same way that you are or suffering from this in some form or another. You’re not an anomaly, and you’re not alone. [Mental health issues] can take different shapes, forms and sizes on different people, but it is conquerable.”
And Sterling K. Brown had something else to say about mental health in March 2020. Talking to Variety magazine about This Is Us, the actor said “Many black men and women in particular have said thank you for demystifying the idea that therapy is something that is an anathema to us, something that our community needs to see.”
Brown added, “Because I think the power of media is, once you see somebody else do it, then it sort of makes it a little bit easier for you to envision yourself taking that step on a personal level.” Waters’ death is a terrible tragedy, but her legacy lives on in This Is Us and its important messages.