Last night, Shonda Rhimes ripped open the hearts of millions of fans when she killed off yet another beloved character. Only this time, it was one of the few remaining Grey’s Anatomy OGs who met his demise: McDreamy, aka Derek Shepherd, he of the amazing hair, beautiful face, and skillful hands that saved many a life in the operating room over the course of 11 seasons.
But Derek was more than just pretty and brilliant—he was also the great love of Meredith Grey’s life, the source of much of her happiness, and a lot of her headaches. (Let’s not forget that when they first started hooking up/dating/whatever they were doing in Season 1, he neglected to tell her that he was still—separated, but—married.) And despite the show’s many, many characters and plotlines, Meredith has always remained the central figure of Grey’s, so this death marks a very important turning point in the show. Yes, everyone at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital will mourn him (as the promos for next week attest), but what matters the most in upcoming episodes is how Meredith alone responds to the loss.*
Meredith handily wins the award for the unluckiest character on Grey’s, a show with no shortage of unlucky characters: She has dealt with the traumatic effects of her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, the traumatic effects of the ferryboat incident; the traumatic effects of one of her best friends, George, being hit by a bus; the traumatic effects of almost losing Derek the first time around to a mass shooter; the traumatic effects of the plane crash and losing her sister Lexie; and now officially losing Derek after he’s hit by (of course) a semi-truck. These events would take a toll on anyone, but the way in which the earlier catastrophes affected Meredith was often a soul-sucking experience for the viewer. The ferryboat incident especially made her a dour, mopey character for many episodes after, with the terribly misguided (even in hindsight) “Meredith floats ethereally between life and death” sequence. Her gloom pulled the show down with her.
But in recent seasons, even as more traumas have continued to hurtle her way, she’s evolved as a more resilient character, one who isn’t so irritating, and is actually much more empathetic. While mourning Lexie’s death, she also managed to be there for Christina and Derek during their own emotional issues following the devastating plane crash (a newly-acquired fear of flying and the possibility of never being able to perform surgery again, respectively). And on last night’s episode, when one of the surgeons who failed to save Derek apologized profusely to her for not making the right call, Meredith had this to say:
He was your one. Every patient you treat, you’re going to see my husband’s face and remember that he was the one that died on your watch … That one will make you work harder, and they make you better. Or they make you quit. And you don’t get to waste what would have been the rest of my husband’s life being a quitter.
Derek’s death comes with the ultimate gut-punch: The couple was just starting to climb over a significant relationship hurdle, and he was on his way to resign from his dream job on the other side of the country, in order to support her important research at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital and spend more time with their young kids.* But at this point in the Grey’s Anatomy universe, if anyone can come out of this tragedy as a tougher, better character than ever, it’s Meredith Grey. At least, we can hope so.
Read more in Slate: