The absence of SPOILER's death in Sex Education makes the weight of teenage grief more impactful
The focus is not on Erin's passing, but the impact it has on Maeve.
The fourth and final season of Sex Education has its fair share of emotional moments, though none quite as poignant as Erin's death.
At the end of episode 3, Maeve (Emma Mackay) rushes back from the US, when she learns that her mum has gone into hospital after an overdose. Despite her urgency to get home, neither Maeve nor Sean (Edward Bluemel) seems to process the extremity of this incident, as this isn't the first time Erin (Anne-Marie Duff) has been hospitalised.
After an agonisingly long wait, the siblings are called through, though within seconds all hope of an emotional reunion is lost. Maeve's face drops. She sees the sofa and the devastating truth dawns on her – her mum has died.
Maeve's reaction to the empty room, as opposed to a hospital bed, is a tragic yet realistic view of missing the death of a loved one, and we feel so deeply for Maeve in that moment.
As Sean frantically asks to see his mum, Maeve's ears ring out as she settles into her shock. Erin, though a regular fixture throughout all four seasons, has passed in and out of the narrative, a mirror of her inconsistent relationship with her daughter.
But despite Erin's death being the first and only loss we've seen in the entirety of the show's run, what's most arresting is the absence of death itself. Maeve doesn't get the chance for a final goodbye, or resolution with her mum. Instead, the focus is not on Erin's passing, but the impact it has on Maeve. It's a reminder of the cruel nature of death and the humbling fragility of life.
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Sex Education also captures teenage grief specifically, particularly just how overwhelming it is, from organising a parent's funeral to delivering a eulogy and coming to terms with the loss of such a seminal figure – something I was able to relate as someone who lost my dad when I was sixteen.
It also captures the impossibility of processing such a colossal development at such a young age. In response to her mum's death, Maeve puts up a front, to hold herself together, as she has no idea how to deal with the weight of this adult grief.
She retreats into her shell, remaining in the waiting room to prolong her time in a space that is still connected, in some way, to her mum. If she leaves this purgatory, she has to accept the reality that her mum is dead and enter an uncertain next chapter, with its new demands and responsibilities, without her.
Maeve's decision to focus on a crossword above all else in that moment might appear unusual to some, but she's trying to keep her emotions at bay, an instinct I remember vividly after my dad died. The hardest part about leaving the hospice was stepping out of the room where his body was being kept and knowing that that was the last time we'd be together in this life.
It formed a definitive divide: life with dad and life after dad.
I also fell into survival mode. I went home, put on my uniform and aimlessly went through the motions to go to my first GCSE exam.
Maeve doesn't cry after she leaves the hospital, speaking matter-of-factly about her mum's death with Aimee and Otis. She remains in shock and focuses on the practical side – planning the funeral and breaking the news to her younger sister.
It's one of the best examinations of teenage grief. It doesn't attempt to rationalise or romanticise the experience. By contrast, it's messy, confusing and something that someone so young cannot prepare for, or attempt to comprehend.
Even though her mum offered her little to no guidance in life, Maeve is uncertain of herself or her direction once she is gone. After some brutal feedback from her writing professor, she doubts her abilities and is torn between returning to the US and getting a 'stable' job in the UK to provide herself with the safety and consistency her life has always lacked.
It's only when Maeve speaks with Otis's mum Jean (Gillian Anderson) that she begins to feel supported and safe enough to explore the complicated, difficult emotions intertwined with losing her mother. In comparison to her friends, Jean understands her grief, as she's experienced the horror of losing a parent herself.
When she accidentally cuts her finger, we see those emotions suddenly come flooding out of her, as though this one final small physical pain slices through her rage to expose all of her young vulnerabilities.
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I also experienced that disconnection, with friends' parents becoming more relatable as they understood the pain that was ripping through me without any need for explanation. Like Maeve, I didn't know how to express this chest-splitting agony, or how to co-exist with my newfound grief and the idea of the future I wanted for myself.
The chaotic funeral is also a perfect portrayal of the nuanced spectrum of emotions around death. A common misconception is that loss and funerals are horrifically sad, without room for any other shades of emotion. The reality is that death is a paradox of conflicting feelings that makes you want to laugh, scream and cry - simultaneously and uncontrollably.
As Otis cycles with the 'MUM' flowers on the front of his bike and Aimee lays out 'RIP' cupcakes, Maeve laughs about the darkly sweet childhood memories of her mum. It's a snapshot of the reality of grief, where dark humour emerges for us to process these difficult, life-changing events with the help of our loved ones.
Sex Education seasons 1-4 are streaming now on Netflix. Check out our lists of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix – or see what else is on with our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.
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