Art is a useful tool to learn something about life. 

The television series "The Walking Dead" is an example which informs our understanding of how we cope with loss and grief. The series is about a group of survivors trying to make a life for themselves in a world of flesh eating zombies. Rick Grimes, the leader of the survivors, experiences a reaction to loss, particularly the death of his son, in a way that reflects some of the theories and techniques within Compassion Focussed Therapy. These themes become apparent when we examine his journey through the lens of the Five Stages of Grief, a model outlined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, which posits: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, 5) acceptance. 

"Ultimately, television programmes like "The Walking Dead" enact the journeys that we make in our lives, giving us greater insight into ourselves."

Rick's journey through grief in "The Walking Dead" also appears to demonstrate how our emotional regulation system function. Our emotional regulation system controls how we respond to emotions and it is divided up into three subsystems: the Threat System, the Drive System, and the Soothing System.

Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression

The negative emotions of anger, guilt, and sadness are within the Threat System. Our responses to threat are fight, flight, or freeze, and denial is freeze behaviour. When Rick, in "The Walking Dead", hears about the death of his son from a zombie bite, he cannot believe it. He denies the reality of what has happened. The first step in his journey means coming face to face with this new reality. Moving out of denial takes us to the next stage in the cycle - anger. 

Rick is consumed with anger towards Negan, the villain in Series 8 who he feels is to blame for Carl’s death. He knows that he needs to mourn his loss but he doesn’t know how to until he reads a letter from Carl. A technique in Compassion Focussed Therapy is to write a letter to ourselves from the perspective of a friend. Carl’s letter warns Rick of the danger of holding onto anger, advising him to let go of it. Rick is reluctant because his anger is in fact energising. If he lets go of it, he knows that he will feel the full force of his sadness and regrets, fearing that he would be unable to cope. However, the letter convinces him that he has to do this. He breaks down and in doing so moves onto next stage. The bargaining stage is tagged with the emotion of guilt about all of the things we could have done for the person we have lost. Rick ruminates about how he could been a “real” father and saved Carl. Upon leaving the bargaining stage and letting go of his anger, Rick becomes depressed. 

Moving forwards

The final stage in the Five Stages of Grief cycle is acceptance. The acceptance of Carl’s death is soothed by his connection with his partner, Michonne. As he begins to feel more connected with her and the other survivors, he begins to move out of the Threat System into the Soothing System. The Soothing System promotes interaction with others and helps us to feel cared for, safe, and at ease. Rick's journey does not end here; the letter from Carl encourages him to start to re-building the community around him in a way that reflects David Kessler's sixth stage that he built upon the model: finding meaning.

The Five Stages of Grief and Compassion Focussed Therapy reflect a paradigmatic reaction to loss that we may experience. Ultimately, television programmes like "The Walking Dead" enact the journeys that we make in our lives, giving us greater insight into ourselves.


Michael O'Sullivan is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist in the Derbyshire Healthcare Foundation Trust.

Buy Michael's book "A Practical Guide to Working with Depression: A cognitive behavioural approach for mental health workers"