How Showrunners Can Cope With the Grief of a Canceled Show (Guest Column)

Certified grief recovery specialist and life/executive coach Laverne McKinnon — who also runs a film and TV company with Kay Cannon — offers tips for how to cope with the loss of a show or a pilot that may have been passed over.

Let's talk about grief. After all, it is the end of pilot season. I'm intimately familiar with the subject having worked at CBS and Epix and made countless pass phone calls. And as a producer, I'll admit that I've been on the receiving end of more passes then I've given out. And if I'm really honest, there have been several times in my career where I've thought, "There must be something wrong with me because I can't move on." The grief got me stuck.

Rejection is literally a daily occurrence in this business, complicated by an expectation that one needs to have a "thick skin" or "get over it." If you don't, then you don't belong in entertainment because you're not tough enough. The rejection stories are not just about pilots that don't get greenlit — there are firings, down-sizings, missed auditions, pitches that no one buys, ideas that aren't optioned, writers replaced, actors recast, shows canceled, etc., and etc., and etc.

What's still a taboo in our industry, though, is talking about the grief that occurs in the professional realm. Grief is typically reserved for death. What we do is just entertainment, so why should we be sad?  

Acknowledging the loss and the grief that occurs in professional situations is a critical part of the human experience. We can't choose to deny aspects of our life and also expect to feel connection and belonging. And if we don't feel connection and belonging, then our communities fall apart. The stakes are that big.  

Part of the taboo around expressing grief also comes from the importance placed on perception in our industry, and our own shame if we aren't at the top of our game. We don't want to appear weak, or that we're not always winning. So we mask our feelings of loss and soldier on … but the grief hangs on like an anchor, either slowing or stopping us completely.

There's a double-edge sword at play here: The shame around the loss ("I'm a failure!") is compounded by the shame around the grief because no one else seems to share it — because no one talks about it! And the ensuing social silence amplifies the interior monologue of judgment or abandonment. You see the cycle?

What helps? Finding agency — taking action that honors our own values and preferences. In writing this piece, I'm taking agency. I want to help lift the discomfort around experiencing and talking about grief. And in talking about it openly, honestly, with compassion and vulnerability, I endeavor to create a sense of belonging. You're not alone if you're judging your reaction to the loss, struggling to find meaning in your loss, or if the meaning you've created is limiting.

Sameet Kumar, a psychologist specializing in human grief, wrote: "We grieve whenever an anchor in our understanding of our identity is lost. Picture your identity as a necklace of precious stones that comes undone and needs to be restrung. …. Grief can be understood as the process of picking up the pieces of your identity (the stones) without the help of someone you had assumed would always be there, without a relationship that was a crucial part of your life (the string)." Years ago, when I was fired from my big corporate gig, I didn't just lose my salary and benefits. I lost prestige, power, future income, community, faith, hope. And big shocker, I lost my identity, too.

Here's the thing, there's no one right way to grieve. Some people join a group, see a therapist, do art projects. Some people give themselves permission to cry. Or sequester themselves. Some people jump back into a job, others take a break. Once I returned from my self-imposed exile, I continued on as an executive and producer, and also became certified as a grief recovery specialist and life/executive coach.

My grief represents the depth of my love, care and connection to my work. That meaning took me years to figure out because I was stuck in shame, and didn't know I could talk about my losses openly and with vulnerability. So that's my new identity — no longer someone who's got something wrong with them, but someone who makes a stand for what I believe. 

Laverne McKinnon will moderate a conversation on this topic at HRTS' off-the-record, half-day conference Women of the West on May 18 at the Ebell of Los Angeles. For info and tickets, please go to hrts.org/women-of-the-west.

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