When Grey’s Anatomy returns for season 12 in September, it will be without leading man Patrick Dempsey as Dr. Derek Shepherd.
Fans are still reeling from McDreamy’s sudden death in April – and at the Television Critics Association’s press tour Tuesday, ABC’s president discussed the network’s “difficult decision” to have him die in a car crash.
“Patrick obviously has lots of interests outside. He’s very big in motosports. [Creator Shonda Rhimes] decided that was the way to go,” Paul Lee told reporters. “We’ve seen the pitch for Grey’s next season, and the show reinvents itself again.”
Meanwhile Rhimes added on Tuesday that having Dempsey’s character die in the accident was the only way to keep the story honest.
“The decision to have the character die the way he did was not a difficult one in the sense of what were the options,” she said.
“Whether Derek was going to walk out on Meredith and leave her high and dry, that was going to suggest that the love was not true, that the love they had for 11 years was a lie and McDreamy wasn’t McDreamy.”
In an effort to maintain their love story, the character was sacrificed.
“As painful as it was for me as a storyteller, the only way to preserve what felt true to me is that Derek was going to die in order for that love to remain honest,” Rhimes concluded.
Dempsey, 49, previously told Entertainment Weekly that he wanted “to try something different,” adding that the plot twist happened “very quickly” and “there wasn’t a lot of discussion.”
Though his costars, like on-screen wife Ellen Pompeo, only had nice things to say after his exit, a source tells PEOPLE “there was no love lost” between Dempsey and some of the veteran members of the cast – many of whom did not comment on the departure.
When asked about Dempsey’s exit on Tuesday, Pompeo kept her answer brief, saying: “As difficult as those decisions are, it s really [Rhimes’] best writing. So as an actor, those are the best scenes to play. That’s the meatiest stuff. As difficult as it is, we have something really juicy.”
In the meantime, Pompeo, 45, has been posting Instagrams from the set, and the network announced in June that actor Martin Henderson is joining the drama.
Grey’s Anatomy returns Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
• Reporting by AILI NAHAS and PATRICK GOMEZ