If there’s anyone that knows how to deliver a heart-wrenching death scene, it’s the team behind ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Created by Shonda Rhimes, the broadcast medical drama came out of the gate in 2005 with literal life and death stakes for its characters. Being set in a hospital meant that mortality was a constant theme that touched the lives of every one who walked through the doors, be they of-the-week patients or support staff, or full-time cast members — no one is immune to the cold touch of death.
Now showrun by Krista Vernoff, “Grey’s Anatomy” has become the longest-running medical drama on television and, as such, the show has accumulated a record-high body count.
There have been quite a few of memorable ones that caused tears to be shed but not buckets to be cried. Those include Bonnie Crasnoff (Monica Keena), who was admitted after a train crash which left her impaled with a stranger in the sixth episode of Season 2; Harold O’Malley (George Dzundza), the father of George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), who died in the 11th episode of Season 3 from cancer; Susan Grey (Mare Winningham), who died due to complications from a procedure to treat hiccups in the 23rd episode of Season 3; Gary Clark (Michael O’Neill), a mass shooter who took his grief over the death of his wife out on the hospital and ultimately killed himself in the sixth season finale; Dr. Craig Thomas (William Daniels), who died of a heart attack while performing an operation in the fifth episode of Season 9; Heather Brooks (Tina Majorino), part of the second class of surgical interns who died from accidental electrocution in the second episode of Season 10; Jimmy Evans (James Remar), who died in Season 10 from complications of endocarditis, which he developed after years of heroin use; Francesca McNeil (Harley Graham) who was admitted for cardiomyopathy and received an artificial heart — but who passed away after the transplant in the 21st episode of Season 10; Olive Warner (Mary Kay Place), Dr. Richard Webber’s (James Pickens Jr.) Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, who died due to cardiomyopathy related to liver failure in Season 14; and Paul Stadler (Matthew Morrison), Dr. Jo Wilson’s (Camilla Luddington) estranged and abusive husband, who was attacked in a hit-and-run in the 10th episode of Season 14 and whose organs were donated to save others, allowing him to do something good for once.
In anticipation of the final half of Season 16, Variety scoured the graveyard of Seattle Grace Mercy West/Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital to compile a definitive list of the saddest character deaths. Read on for the Top 13.
13. Thatcher Grey (Season 15, Episode 11)
Like so many of the relationships on “Grey’s,” amends were sadly made just a little too late. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Thatcher (Jeff Perry) had a rocky relationship as father and daughter, but as she warmed up to her sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh), she grew to care for her father as well — which made his death somber, as Meredith put off seeing him. When she finally did visit, the two carried on a somewhat terse conversation before he ultimately died in his sleep.
12. Ellis Grey (Season 3, Episode 17)
Let’s be honest, Ellis (Kate Burton) wasn’t the best mother. So when she coded after struggling with Alzheimer’s in Season 3, there may have been few dry eyes in the house. Meredith’s included. It was only through flashbacks in episodes to come that the audience fully came to appreciate her as the formidable surgeon and intense woman she was.
11. Diane Pierce (Season 13, Episode 18)
Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary) was a wreck after her adoptive mother died, as many people would be. How deeply affected the people she left behind were was what made losing Diane Pierce (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) so sad. It also serves as a stark contrast to Meredith’s reaction to her mother’s death. Maggie sobbed after putting down the nail polish, realizing her mother had died. But, the silver lining in this “Grey’s” cloud is the budding relationship she began with Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams).
10. Adele Webber (Season 9, Episode 10)
After a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s and a successful brain surgery to correct her aneurysm, Adele (Loretta Devine) died of a heart attack. The saddest part of Adele’s death — which occurred offscreen — was watching Richard and his wife dancing together in his imagination. The only reason this death isn’t ranked higher is because it was overshadowed in the episode by Miranda Bailey’s (Chandra Wilson) wedding to universal heartthrob Ben (Jason George).
9. Samuel Norbert Avery (Season 11, Episode 11)
It would be hard to watch any newborn die, and it was even harder to watch Jackson (Jesse Williams) and April’s (Sarah Drew) preemie succumb to his rare bone disease. After learning that their son’s bones were breaking in the womb, the parents decided to induce labor at 24 weeks and held him for a few minutes. This heartbreaking episode came a little too early in the season.
8. Doc the Dog (Season 2, Episode 27)
Just because Doc’s presence on the series was only the result of Meredith’s escapism, it doesn’t mean he deserved to die. He loyally served his role of bringing Derek (Patrick Dempsey), Addison (Kate Walsh) and Meredith together all throughout Season 2, only to be put down and overshadowed by Denny Duquette’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) death. Doc eventually returned (but just in Meredith’s mind) following Meredith’s near-death experience in Elliott Bay in Season 3.
7. Henry Burton (Season 8, Episode 10)
From a patient without insurance to Teddy Altman’s (Kim Raver) adoring husband, Henry (Scott Foley) became an important part of the “Grey’s” family, so his death hit hard. If their marriage remained an insurance fraud contract, there wouldn’t have been as great a reaction to the obvious fate of the chronically ill Henry. But watching a usually stoic Teddy try to keep her cool — eventually giving way to one runny mascaraed tear — over Henry’s dead body in the morgue was simply too much for a midseason episode.
6. Seattle Grace/Mercy West shooting victims (Season 6, Episodes 23-24; Season 7, Episode 6) Reed Adamson, Dr. Charles Percy, Mary Portman
Among the numerous nameless victims of one of “Grey’s” most traumatic episodes, a few of the Seattle Grace-Mercy West residents also died. While she may not have been well liked, Reed Adamson (Nora Zehetner) certainly didn’t need to be killed off in such an abrupt and violent manner. It was almost like a quick hit if it weren’t so random. The writers at least gave fans a chance to feel some sort of sympathy for Charles Percy (Robert Baker); at first another unpopular character, by drawing out his death, his vulnerable side was shown.
Mary Portman (Mandy Moore) was a different story: Viewers were introduced to Mary as a patient in the hospital shooting who actually bore witness to Dr. Percy’s death and spent the entire episode trying to help Dr. Miranda Bailey get him to an operating room. After she escaped the hospital, she eventually returned to get another surgery for a colostomy bag removal. It’s after the surgery that she fell into a coma and died. Her death served to tie up the final loose end from the episode, but also felt even more tragic after all she had been through.
5. Lexie Grey (Season 8, Episode 24)
As the first to die from the plane crash, Lexie Grey deserved better. She was a latecomer to Meredith Grey’s life and it took at least three seasons before she was loved by her sister. She had finally given up the tormenting relationship with Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) after he had a baby with Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), but she hadn’t even stepped into her prime yet before her life was cut short. To see Mark, first in denial, finally declare his love for her as she was dying only made the scene more heartbreaking.
4. Mark Sloan (Season 9, Episode 1)
Did McSteamy really have to die? If you compare him to Lexie — who died an episode earlier — he made it through the plane crash unscathed, only to succumb to his injuries and be pulled off life support in the dramatic Season 9 premiere. Mark’s character growth endeared him to audiences as more than a set of washboard abs and sexy salt and pepper goatee: At the time of his death, he served as a decent best friend, mentor, father and true love to Lexie Grey. But to play devil’s advocate, maybe it would have been unfair to have the tragic couple wait to spend eternity together.
3. Derek Shepard (Season 11, Episode 24)
There wasn’t enough wine in the world to prepare “Grey’s” fans for Derek Shepard’s untimely passing. A day that began with McDreamy saving a family, ended in his death as the incapacitated neurosurgeon described the missing steps in his own emergency intake and surgery. Then, if only to drive the knife further into the hearts of fans, once Meredith found Derek, braindead and alone in the fiscally deficient hospital, she was forced to pull the plug on the love of her life.
2. George O’Malley (Season 5, Episode 24)
The world collectively gasped when George was revealed to be on the other side of the elevator doors, dressed in his Army uniform, ready to guide Izzie (Katherine Heigl) to the afterlife. This intense Season 5 ending was the audience’s first time witnessing the death of a main circle doctor, forever raising the stakes to come. From Callie recognizing the freckle, to John Doe tracing “007” into Meredith’s palm, each moment created goosebumps. The underdog of the interns didn’t deserve to go out being dragged under a bus, but it’s only fitting that he did it to save someone else’s life.
1. Denny Duquette (Season 2, Episode 27)
Love makes people do crazy things; but, unfortunately cutting L-Vad wires, breaking the law, and Izzie almost losing her job couldn’t save Denny Duquette from death. Isabel and Denny’s love story was the first flame that could’ve shone brighter than Meredith and Derek’s. It’s largely why the death of Denny was so heartbreakingly tragic. Although Izzie seemed to move on, Denny’s ghostly cameo in Season 5 made it clear the love story was always doomed.