Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Eight Stages of Grief Over the Death of a Fictional Character

Getting attached to fictional characters is an issue that many readers and series-watchers will be far-too-familiar with. Unfortunately, many authors and screenplay writers are possessed by the devil’s minions halfway through a series, and come up with the wonderful and oh-so-original idea of killing off the favourite character, just to see their readers’ or watchers’ reactions. George R. R. Martin and Veronica Roth are two of the most deadly heartbreakers any reader will come across.

This blog was inspired by one particular episode of Downton Abbey, a television series that had never contributed anything to my life and was amusing to watch with my parents (my dad loves it, but has to hold my hand for most of the episodes because evidently the problems of ridiculously rich people in 1900 England stress him out a lot). Given we were watching the Christmas Special, I assumed it would be happy and full of snowy miracles and mistletoe. Um, no. Everything was fine until the last five minutes, and then that damn theme song came on and I just knew. I just knew something bad was going to happen, and I should have just turned off the TV right there but I didn’t.

I cried for about three hours after the credits rolled.

So, for those of you who have never been through this horrific experience, I hope that soon you will understand why your family members cry after Mufasa dies in The Lion King.

Stage One: Sweet Insolence

You can feel the tension building (that faint theme song or leitmotif is playing in the background and everything seems just a little too happy) but you choose to ignore the dread that’s beginning to stir up your stomach. You preoccupy yourself with fantasies about what might happen to your favourite character in the next scene or chapter. This is the part where you’re feeling happiest, and honestly this is the exact part where – if you have any self control – you need to switch off the TV or close your book and spare yourself the heartbreak.

Stage Two: Dread

Something’s beginning to happen, and you can’t deny it any more. You sit up a little straighter in your seat and mentally prepare yourself for the worst. At this point, I usually start biting my nails – awfully clich├ęd, but it proves a marvelous distraction. You might feel a little lightheaded as you sit, riveted, and try to make the plot go faster (it’s sometimes better just to get it over with as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid – except that the author/director is guaranteed to draw out the buildup as long as possible).

Stage Three: Shock and Horror

This is it. This is where it happens. The car swerves and the screen goes blank. The narrator cuts off mid-sentence. Within a second, your brain is thrown into oblivion, and for a few moments the image imprints itself onto your memory. There is no going back. Your heart may even just stop for a few tiny moments, and then beat three times as fast as though it’s trying to make up for the lack of a heartbeat in the character’s body.

Stage Four: Denial

Stage four takes place in the few moments when the screen is black, or the scene shifts to a different landscape, or you finally lift your eyes from the page of the book and allow yourself to take one big, shaky breath. You think, This can’t have just happened. No way. This did not just happen. Did that really happen? No. No the author/director would never have done that. He/She couldn’t have done that. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. Nope. Nope nope nope nope nopenopenopenope.
It’s pitiful, really.

Stage Five: Reasoning

This is the worst part. You still haven’t necessarily been given evidence that your favourite character is truly dead. There was no shot of the body, the book was hasn’t said it in so many words yet, so you entertain ideas that maybe, just maybe, they’re going to be okay. Your brain starts to think up other outcomes at top speed. Perhaps the character just blacked out? Maybe it was just a minor car accident. You find yourself praying that the character will be in a coma instead.

Stage Six: Realization

Now there’s really no going back. The shot appears of the lifeless body. The book skips to a funeral scene. Usually some people start crying, or they return to the shock-and-horror phase. Your brain finally clicks that your favourite character is really gone. There will be no more episodes or sequels where they’ll run laughing through purple flowers, unless the author/director is awfully cruel and decides to show a flashback of their character’s beautiful life, just to rub it in. Instead, you’ll have to make do with re-reading/re-watching all the previous episodes/books over and over and over again, all the while sobbing into your ice cream.

Stage Seven: Anger

 You don’t cry now. Not yet. First comes the fury that somebody (the author/director) you put so much trust in would dare to crush your heart with a pestle and mortar and then serve it as garnish on food to the other characters that didn’t deserve to live. You feel like throwing something (I threw a box of pills at the wall in the Downton Abbey Incident) or punching something, and all the while you imagine the face of the author/director as your target. The braver few will even send strongly worded hate mail to editors, explaining why the author was wrong.

Stage Eight: Devestation

After somehow exerting your anger (perhaps by yelling at a certain family member or friend that recommended the series or book to you) you feel emotionally drained. You sink into a hard surface of your preference and allow the grief to wash over you. The scene keeps replaying in your head. Most of us start crying at this point – sobs that cause your other family members that witnessed The Incident to look at us with a raised eyebrow and a touch of concern, before they convince themselves how stupid we’re acting (“You didn’t really believe it was real, did you?” or “Please tell me you’re not seriously upset about something that was made up by a person even more demented than you are...”) and return to their other activities.

Don’t even ask me if there’s a recovery stage – if there is, I haven’t gotten there: it’s been about a decade since The Lion King Incident and I still cry every time I think about it. As far as I know, each fictional character death causes you to turn to another fictional character for comfort, and then they die so it causes a vicious cycle of sorrow that can never be reversed and will one day be used to generate some sort of electricity so that we can watch more TV series where the characters die and this goes on and on and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


  1. Argh! That episode made me swear off Downton forever; I just couldn't take any more heartache. I did some research (during stage 5) and managed to make my peace (the actor had some amazing opportunities beyond the series). I've missed reading your posts and am glad to have space to enjoy them again :)

  2. I just watched the last episode of season 3 this week -it was awful. I still cannot believe it and now I understand why you don't want to watch it anymore!! Brilliant article -by the way -loved reading it. xx