When it comes to tear-jerking drama, no show is more guilty of manipulating its fans’ emotions like "Grey's Anatomy." Since "Grey's" fan base has taken off worldwide, grasping the attention of nearly all teenage girls (including myself), I thought that I would let us all recap just 15 of the most heartbreaking episodes and moments that we just can't get out of our emotional whirlpool. Long before shows that made killing off main characters look cool, "Grey’s Anatomy" mastered pulling in viewers, only to rip out their hearts with shocking deaths and dramatic breakups. So let us examine the 15 episodes where "Grey’s Anatomy" proves that it is the king of emotionally terrorizing its viewers and bringing them back for more. So grab your tissues, tequila shots, and your “person” because we're about to take a walk down memory lane.
15. Season 2, episode 6: "Into You Like a Train"
What happened: A middle-aged man and a recently married young woman come into the ER after a train accident, connected by a steel rod that runs through both their bodies.
- The emotional pull: The doctors must decide which patient to pull off the pole because that person will have a much greater chance of surviving. Tom is older, but Bonnie has more extensive internal injuries and one has to be sacrificed for the other.
- The heart-wrenching twist: Bonnie ends up giving up her life for Tom, but when Derek tells Bonnie’s husband that she’s dead, fans realize that the entire situation has been a metaphor for him leaving Meredith and going back to Addison.
14. Season 5, episode 13: "Stairway to Heaven"
What happened: Derek is assigned to perform brain surgery on a death row inmate who was convicted of killing five women. The staff of Seattle Grace is required to help the man because of the Hippocratic Oath, but many have moral objections to it—including Derek.
- The emotional pull: Meredith is the resident on the case and she develops a kinship with the mass murderer. She isn’t creeped out by his clearly sociopathic ways and she feels that she understands him in a way that the other doctors can’t. She even helps him push up a risky surgery because he’d rather die on the operating table than by lethal injection. It’s a dangerous decision for her career and morally ambiguous for everyone watching at home.
- The heart-wrenching twist: He survives the surgery and Meredith decides to attend his execution. Despite having seen dozens of people die in the hospital, Meredith is rocked to the core by the experience. She sees how flawed her connection with the murderer was and is terrified by what she saw—so much so that Derek picks her up and drives her to Cristina, who holds Meredith while she sobs in Derek’s pickup truck for hours.
13. Season 3, episode 25: "Didn’t We Almost Have it All?"
What happened: It is Cristina and Burke’s wedding day. Despite busy operating schedules for both of them, Cristina has put on the fancy dress and given Burke’s family the wedding they always wanted for their son. At the last minute, Burke decides that he can’t do it and walks out on the ceremony before Cristina can walk down the aisle.
- The emotional pull: Burke and Cristina had one of the most turbulent relationships in early Grey’s history. He held her when they lost their baby. She helped him after getting shot left a tremor in his operating hand. Cristina Yang had never painted herself as a wife or giving her life to anything but surgery, but she was willing to do it for Burke and their wedding was supposed to be one of the most romantic moments of the show.
- The heart-wrenching twist: After Burke leaves, Cristina goes back to the apartment in her wedding dress. As soon as she crosses the threshold, she starts screaming that the dress is suffocating her and she needs Meredith to rip her out of it. It’s a powerful scene for Yang, but heartbreaking for fans who know that the wedding dress is really code for what her entire relationship with Burke had become.
12. Season 11, episode 11: "As Tears Go By"
What happened: April and Jackson deliver their baby, despite its fatal diagnosis of brittle bone disease—meaning it can barely be touched without its bones breaking. They only have a few moments with their child before it dies in their arms.
- The emotional pull: April is a devout Christian and the diagnosis of their baby tests the limits of her faith. At one point, the couple has to decide if they want to terminate early or go ahead with the pregnancy, knowing that the child will live for a few weeks at most. The decision puts April at odds with a God who she has believed in for her entire life, unable to accept that He would allow something so horrible to happen to her unborn child.
- The heart-wrenching twist: It’s one thing for adults or random patients to die on "Grey’s Anatomy," but it’s an entirely different level of painful when beloved characters lose a child. That was a kind of emotional torture creator Shonda Rhimes usually saved for the spinoff "Private Practice," but watching April and Jackson go through this tragedy introduced "Grey’s" viewers to an acute level of heartbreak.
11. Season 3, episode 17: "Some Kind of Miracle"
What happened: Meredith is in a hypothermic coma after almost drowning in Puget Sound. While her friends and colleagues try to revive her, she has a coma dream in which Denny Duquette, Bomb Guy, and her mother, Ellis Grey, tell her essentially not to go into the light.
- The emotional pull: It’s still unclear whether Meredith spent so long in the water because she couldn’t swim or because she was giving up on life. Being able to have a lucid conversation with her mother makes it more tempting for Meredith to give up and go to the afterlife with Ellis. Within the dream, she has to figure out why she is so willing to let go in the first place and fight it.
- The heart-wrenching twist: All three characters in Meredith’s coma dream died on the show. Bringing them back in this fashion is such a tease for fans who miss them dearly—especially Denny. Years later, tears still come to the eye when he talks to Meredith about Izzie and how much he loves her.
10. Season 3, episodes 15/16: "Walk on Water"/"Drowning on Dry Land"
What happened: A ferry crash requires all Seattle Grace hands on deck. Everyone has to bring their A-game to save the hundreds of people who are stuck under rubble and separated from their loved ones. While trying to examine a little girl, Meredith falls into the freezing water and it is up to Derek to find her.
- The emotional pull: The ferry crash is the first “epic event” in "Grey’s" history, which means that the show spared no expense when it came to carnage. Meredith falling into the water adds a whole other level of emotional stress as Derek and the other doctors walk by where she’s floating multiple times, but are unable to see that she needs saving.
- The heart-wrenching twist: A previous incident where Meredith may or may not have been trying to drown herself in a bathtub puts the doubt in everyone’s mind that she might not want to be saved. When Derek finally finds her and pulls her out of the water, Meredith’s skin has gone deathly blue. The look of anguish as Derek carries the lifeless body of his true love to an ambulance is one that fans will never forget.
9. Season 4, episode 17: "Freedom, Part 2"
What happened: Rebecca Pope comes back for Alex with her memories restored and determined to make a relationship work between the two of them. However, Alex discovers that Rebecca still isn’t who she says she is and that she suffers from bipolar disorder. She has a meltdown and tries to kill herself. As Alex pulls her limp body into the shower to calm her down, he realizes that they can never be together.
- The emotional pull: Alex spent weeks being Rebecca’s doctor after the ferry crash. When she came in, she had no memory of who she was, so they called her Ava. The two became so attached that when Rebecca did remember who she was, she lied about having the memories so that she could stay with Alex. It turned out that she was married and Alex let her go to try and make things work with her husband again—despite his feelings for her. Rebecca’s return initially sparked hope that Alex could still have a happily ever after in this situation.
- The heart-wrenching twist: For a while, it seemed that Rebecca/Ava might be Alex’s chance at happiness. Instead, she turned out to be mentally unstable, making him question if any of their connections were real. Rebecca forced Alex to be unselfish and it was a treat to see him care so much about someone else. To see him lose her in such a painful, drawn-out way was just downright disheartening to watch.
8. Season 3, episode 23: "The Other Side of This Life Part 2"
What happened: Meredith’s stepmother Susan comes into the ER because she has an incurable case of hiccups. A few routine tests lead to a need for emergency surgery and Susan dies on Meredith’s operating table.
- The emotional pull: Meredith grew up with her mother, Ellis, who would never be described as an affectionate parent. She felt abandoned by her father, Thatcher, and she resented his new family. Susan was the world’s nicest stepmother, though, and was trying desperately to help mend fences between Meredith and Thatcher. It was almost working when the hiccups started.
- The heart-wrenching twist: Susan’s appearance at the hospital seems much more like an attempt to bond with Meredith than anything being seriously wrong, so her death is as much of a shock to the audience as it is to Meredith and Thatcher. This makes them even less prepared for Thatcher blaming Meredith for Susan’s death, slapping his daughter, and ruining all chances of Meredith being able to feel like she belonged to a real family.
7. Season 6, episode 23: "Sanctuary"
What happened: A bereaved widower, Gary Clark, decides to get revenge on the doctors who he feels were responsible for his wife’s death by shooting up the hospital. His primary targets are Derek and the Chief, but he’s willing to shoot anyone who gets in his way.
- The emotional pull: Everyone is in grave danger. Bailey tries in vain to keep one of the new Mercy West residents alive, but he bleeds out before the hospital can come off of lockdown. At the end of the episode, Clark finds Derek and shoots him while Meredith must watch helplessly from afar.
- The heart-wrenching twist: At this point in "Grey’s" history, it is no guarantee that Derek will make it through this shooting. The possibility of him dying is made even worse by the fact that Meredith is pregnant and hasn’t told Derek yet. Now she and the team have to figure out how to disarm the shooter and save Derek before Clark can come back to finish the job. Derek survives, but the stress inevitably causes Meredith to lose the baby she hadn’t realized she wanted so much.
6. Season 8, episode 10: "Dark Was the Night"
What happened: Henry seems to be coming out of the tunnel of never-ending surgeries when he suddenly takes a turn for the worse. His wife, Teddy, has another surgery to perform, so she has Hunt put Cristina on the case. However, Cristina is unsuccessful and Henry dies on the table.
- The emotional pull: Teddy is the best person to perform the surgery Henry needs, but is already working on another patient when he starts coughing up blood. She and Hunt decide to have Cristina do it, but don’t tell her who the patient is so that the pressure won’t get to her. Keeping that secret has the opposite effect and Cristina is overly cocky and cavalier about the surgery. It leaves everyone to wonder if she had known it was Henry, would she have been more careful?
- The heart-wrenching twist: Teddy is still in surgery when Henry dies. Hunt knows if he tells her, he’ll put the patient she’s operating on at risk. So he continues to go in and update her and say that Henry is fine, knowing that he’s already dead. This makes it even harder for Teddy to process when she finally learns the truth. Even an episode later, she makes Cristina go through the surgery step by step until Teddy feels confident that nothing could have been done to save him.
5. Season 9, episode 2: "Remember the Time"
What happened: Mark Sloan finally succumbs to the injuries that he sustained in the plane crash at the end of Season 8 and passes away.
- The emotional pull: Fans knew that Mark was going to die in the episode before it was actually shown, so “Remember the Time” just flashes back to his last lucid moments before slipping into a coma. The episode plays like watching old video tapes of a loved one and it gives a nostalgic feeling to Mark’s death.
- The heart-wrenching twist: Lexie Grey also died in that plane crash. While everyone is fighting for Mark to stay alive, he knows that he isn’t going to make it and tells them it’s OK because Lexie is waiting for him. Edited-in clips from Callie and Arizona’s wedding show Mark knowing that Lexie was the one for him, even before they got back together—making their deaths that much more bittersweet.
4. Season 8, episode 24: "Flight"
What happened: A team from Seattle Grace flies out to help another hospital with a conjoined twins surgery when their charter plane crashes. Each of the doctors sustains serious injuries, but Lexie lands with the plane on top of her and dies within hours of the crash.
- The emotional pull: In her final moments, Lexie tells Meredith how proud she was to be her sister and that she’s glad that they were able to reconcile after so many years of family dysfunction. Then she confesses to Mark that she loves him and that she has always loved him. If she had survived the crash, they would have ended up together, but she dies under a pile of twisted metal and engine parts instead.
- The heart-wrenching twist: Lexie’s death was traumatizing enough, but it’s made worse a couple of episodes later when Cristina explains that she hasn’t been able to sleep because she can still hear the sounds of the animals tearing Lexie’s body apart. It was hard to see Lexie go, but that mental image ruins her perfect final seconds.
3. Season 5, episode 24: "Now or Never"
What happened: George O’Malley dies after being hit by a bus and the doctors are unable to save him in emergency surgery.
- The emotional pull: George was one of the most loved characters on the show. He had decided to join the military because he wanted to be more like Hunt and be an Army trauma surgeon. Bailey had tried to dissuade him from going and became increasingly worried when George refused to pick up his phone. It seemed like he had already left for basic training without even saying goodbye.
- The heart-wrenching twist: George’s injuries from the bus accident left him unrecognizable to the hospital staff. While Bailey worried that he had already left, he was lying in a hospital bed. It wasn’t until he wrote “007” on Meredith’s palm in the final moments of the episode that anyone even knew it was him. That means that unlike Lexie, Mark, or Denny, George never got a chance to say a proper goodbye. He was just gone.
2. Season 2, episode 27: "Losing My Religion"
What happened: Izzie pulls Denny Duquette’s LVAD wire to bump him up on the heart transplant list. He gets the new heart, but his body rejects it and he dies anyway.
- The emotional pull: Izzie had spent the majority of Season 2 falling for Denny, as did “Grey’s” viewers. If she hadn’t pulled the LVAD wire, he would have given up fighting. It was easy to understand her desperation and why she would risk her entire career to save the love of her life and it still didn’t work out.
- The heart-wrenching part: Denny’s death was a valuable lesson that a fan favorite character could be killed off—a lesson that "Grey’s" fans never really learn, as evidenced by this list. You never get over your first love. Well, when it comes to "Grey’s," you never get over the first act of emotional terrorism. Denny is still the one that hurts the most. In some ways, we’re all still lying on the bathroom floor, waiting for him to come back and make everything OK.
1. Season 11, episode 21: "How to Save a Life"
What happened: Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd died doing what he does best, helping people. He saved a mother, her young daughter, and two teenagers after a fiery car accident on a desolate road with no cell signal. As Shepherd himself pulled away from that death-defying scene, he was hit by an oncoming semi-truck.
- The emotional pull: 11 seasons of MerDer moments play out to a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” allowing the full impact of Derek’s death come at once. Then, their final phone call is reenacted for an extra emotional tug at the heart strings. When it comes back to the present moment, Meredith then tells her braindead husband that it’s okay, he can go, and he does.
- The heart-wrenching part: Derek’s death was handled in an emotionally traumatizing and beautiful way. As he’s wheeled into the hospital, he’s unable to speak, but the audience is treated to his voiceover. He narrates all of the doctors’ mistakes and talks fans through his death. If they had been properly trained, if he had been taken to Grey Sloan Memorial, maybe he would have lived. Instead, cop cars arrive at Meredith’s doorstep. The neurosurgeon on call didn’t get to Derek in time, so he’s braindead and Meredith has to decide when to pull the plug.
Now that we have gone through every heart-shredding moment of "Grey's," we may now recollect ourselves, grab a tub of ice cream, turn on Netflix, and start again from season one. If you haven't watched "Grey's Anatomy," I strongly suggest that you do so.