Death is part of life, an adage usually reserved for those who physically exist in our lives – family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. So what happens when a profound death experience happens on screen? Is that still a legitimate experience of grief?
This week, the hit TV show Succession had a significant “on-screen” death — with even the cast filming the scene speaking as if the reaction to the trauma was a very real feeling.
In much the same way as the cast, social media reactions to the sudden and unexpected death of a person of complex character, growing to understand him after four seasons, can feel like the death of someone you actually know.
The research this phenomenon can be traced as far back as the 1970s, when early insights surrounding the death of a main character on children’s television served to provide real-world insight into the irreversibility of death as a universal experience.
As popular culture and television became more nuanced over time, the diversity of the ways death occurred in fictional programs began to fade. copy the complexity of “real” loss in our lives. Through television, we gain access to catastrophic loss, multiple accidents, loss after serious illness – and see how death affects those left behind.
In the most recent episode of Succession, we also see what happens when a death occurs involving a person and their character or relationship with others is strained. We see ways that sadness isn’t always a by-product of love.
Why does this sadness feel real from an armchair perspective?
Death on screen can also act as a trigger or a reminder of the losses we have endured.
When a show realistically depicts grief in its purest form, the emotional or reflective response can unlock our own grief. Involvement in the small screen is an overt act of escapism, often for amusement. We can turn on a program with the intention of relaxing, only to be confronted with trauma and grief.
When sudden loss enters our living rooms, or through the devices on our laps, we experience shock, confusion, and anger at the abruptness of an event, much like the feelings we may experience when loss suddenly happens in our real life.
Read more: Far from ‘ridiculously spacious’: What Succession’s fashion tells us about the show — and about society
Safe coverage of sudden and traumatic death in fictional TV shows is not covered by media reporting guidelines. Pre-scene warnings, or consistent information at the end of an episode about seeking additional support, can be minimal.
Recent research identifies multiple contexts related to warnings where TV shows may note that an episode will explore death, but the complexity of how to portray this is limited.
What is this grief called?
While there is no rule book for grief, reacting emotionally to a death on a small screen can lead to concerns that we look silly or that we are unaware of the distinction between reality and fiction. This form of parasocial mourningdescribed as having feelings attached to a pseudo-relationship, feels real, has consequences and needs space to be managed.
We don’t all watch the same shows, we don’t all react the same way to a character’s death, we may even have a hard time understanding why people have the reactions they do when a TV death happens. I would encourage you to take a moment to consider those who got under our skin.
In 1985, Australian viewers survived the death of Molly from A Country Practicewhere the definitive picture of a mother’s end-stage cancer diagnosis was set as she watched her daughter fly a kite.
Teenagers watching Sarah Michelle Gellar stumble upon her mother’s sudden, untimely death in Buffy the vampire killer has formed many feelings when there is a catastrophic loss without warning.
In the last decade, the sudden death of Patrick from Offspring people had legitimately called in sick the next day.
The global response to the Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones had forums on Reddit explaining why so many characters were killed off and sharing the impact of the sights and sounds of blood and murder and traumatic grief.
We enter into a social contract when we connect to a TV show. We expect to be removed from our real life and start looking at other spaces. Death in those spaces—and the reactions to that loss—can feel like breaking that contract.