How ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Kept Derek’s Memory Alive the Last Five Years

Grey's Anatomy Season 17 Premiere Derek Shepherd

Before his jaw-dropping return in the Season 17 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey hadn’t filmed new scenes for the ABC hit in five and a half years. And though his character, Derek Shepherd, has been dead since Season 11, he has never been forgotten. Grey’s Anatomy has kept the McDream alive, even as Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) started embracing life and love after loss.

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For example, in the Season 11 finale four episodes after Derek’s onscreen death, Grey’s fans got one more glimpse of Dempsey in character — and an emotional coda to Derek’s story — as Amelia listens to the voicemail he left for Meredith on the day he died, a voicemail he left while enjoying his favorite mode of transportation.

“Hey, it’s me. I’m on the ferry,” Derek says in the clip, standing at the prow of the boat with the Seattle skyline behind him, marking on one of the show’s scenes filmed on location. “I just wanted to say that, um… God, I wish you could see this. Weather’s classic Seattle. Oh, the water is so blue. It may be the most perfect ferryboat ride I’ve ever had in my life.”

In his message, Derek reaffirmed his commitment to Meredith and their kids. “We’re gonna do this a lot more when I get home, by the way. You, me, and the family, we’re just going to take a day and ride the ferryboat — all day if we want. I love you, Meredith. I know I just left and I’m not even at the airport yet, but I just wanted to say I love you. I love our family. And we’re gonna keep doing this. I’ll see you when I get home. Love you.”

At the time, Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes tweeted that she was crying over the scene, especially because she was saying goodbye to an actor with whom she shares a birthday. “Here come my own personal supply of tissues,” she wrote. “Goodbye, birthday twin. Can’t believe this is his last scene I’ll ever see in my editing room.”

That wasn’t the neurosurgeon’s only posthumous appearance, of course. A season and a half later, an exhausted Meredith has a vision of Derek in the scrub room in the Season 13 installment “The Room Where It Happens,” after a surgical case triggers memories of his death. In footage rotoscoped out of the Season 2 episode “Into You Like a Train,” Derek puts on his scrub cap, smiles, and says hi to Meredith.

Then, in Season 15, Meredith walks past an imaginary Derek and the ghosts of other late loved ones — George, Lexie, Ellis, Mark, and even dog Doc — in the Day of the Dead-themed episode “Flowers Grow Out of My Grave.” Actress Kate Burton returned to play Ellis in the episode, and a canine actor played Doc, but the rest of the characters showed up through the magic of recycled footage.

Now, however, fans are getting their biggest post-death Derek scenes yet, between November 12’s Season 17 premiere and next week’s “My Happy Ending,” if not subsequent episodes this season. Plus, as showrunner Krista Vernoff told Deadline, Mer’s subconscious might spur other seaside resurrections. “You have to tune in and see who comes to the beach,” she says. “It’ll be a joyful discovery.”

Grey’s Anatomy, Thursdays, 9/8c, ABC