When Coronation Street actress Anne Kirkbride sadly passed away from cancer at the age of sixty, there was an outpouring of grief from those who knew her and those who had watched her character Deirdre Barlow on-screen for over forty years.
Coronation Street cast members and viewers alike mourned the passing of the actress who had played one of the programme’s most iconic characters, and the sadness that we would no longer be seeing Deirdre Barlow on screen was palpable.
Why do we get so upset when characters die?
The death of a TV character, either through the death of the fictional character itself or the passing of the actor or actress who played him/her, can be a very upsetting and emotional experience. So just what is it that binds us to our favourite television characters, and why do we care so deeply about what happens to them?
Television programmes are a staple in our everyday lives. They are a source of entertainment for us, they help us to relax and escape to another world, and they provide us with talking points to share with friends and family.
Television captures events and stories which remain with us throughout our lives. Whether it is the fond memories of the programmes and characters we watched as children, the characters we followed as teenagers or the shocking and thought-provoking moments we view as adults, our beloved television programmes and characters often become part of our lives.
The departure of a character in a television programme, in particular the death of a character, provides a significant talking point for fans of the programme, and can be deeply upsetting. Shows such as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have become iconic for the deaths of their characters.
The deaths of characters in our beloved Soap Operas are often the most high-profile story-lines and resonate with people for days, months and even years after the event.
Our deep connection to characters
The familiarity that comes with following our favourite fictional characters can provide us with a source of comfort. We feel secure when we watch our favourite programmes. Television can provide us with a sense of escapism. For the duration of the programme, thoughts and worries about our real lives can be put on hold, and we can experience a different world for a little while.
Watching our beloved television characters experiencing challenges can also make us feel a bit better about our own struggles. Television is often at its most powerful when it conveys obstacles that we so often experience in our own lives, and this allows us to relate to the characters we are watching on screen.
Our investment in their lives
When we watch our preferred TV programmes, we essentially invest in the people and events being portrayed in the programme. We have access to every aspect of their lives, in a way which we cannot have in our real-world relationships.
Our favourite characters share everything with us. They share their thoughts and dreams, and their most intimate feelings and relationships. They allow us access to their very best qualities as well as their faults and flaws. We learn everything about them, and it is through this knowledge of every aspect of their being that we fully engage and become involved in these characters’ lives. We follow their journeys and we care about every moment of those journeys. So when we have to say goodbye to our beloved character, it can feel like we are saying goodbye to someone we know well.
The bereavement is real
The feeling of bereavement is real regardless of whether the person who has died was real or a character. The shared sadness and loss will inevitably tap into our own experience of loss, and, fear of loss, and gives us a common channel to express some of those feelings.
While the death of Anne Kirkbride, and the other actors, actresses and characters we have come to love so much, leaves us with a sense of sadness and loss, it can be comforting to think that the legacy they leave behind cannot be replaced. Our memories of our favourite television programmes and our feelings towards the characters we care about can stay with us forever.
What do you think?
We’d like to hear what you think. Which characters from television, film or literature do you relate to? What are your memories of your favourite television shows? How do you deal with the death of a character?
Bereavement counselling and support
Written by Jennifer McElroy, The Green Rooms Psychology Assistant, and edited by Alison Barr, Director