'Like losing a friend': Some TV fans mourn loss of their favorite characters

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By Linda Carroll

If you feel the need to don black when scriptwriters bump off your favorite TV character or you have a tough time dragging yourself out of bed when you hear a beloved series has been canceled, take heart. You are not alone.

Researchers say that uber fans get so close to the characters on their favorite shows they can actually go into a period of mourning when the series or any of its main characters get the ax. In fact, the grief can be so intense that it can feel like the aftermath of a real-life divorce or a death in the family, according to a report published in the Journal of Consumer Research.  

“Some of the people we interviewed, when they were talking about losing characters or stories, were very emotional,” said Cristel Russell, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business. “They were grieving. They talked about it as if they had lost a best friend. They used the language of bereavement to describe their feelings.”

This image released by AMC shows Bryan Cranston as Walter White in a scene from "Breaking Bad." “I am bereft without 'Breaking Bad,' ” said fan Amy Krakow. “I actually stayed in bed for two days when it ended."Frank Ockenfels / Today

Those results ring true to Amy Krakow.

“I am bereft without 'Breaking Bad,' ” the 64-year-old New Yorker said. “I actually stayed in bed for two days when it ended. I am still longing for it — and re-watching is not the same. It was so much easier with ‘The Sopranos,’ because that didn’t have closure. A dead Walter White means no more, which made the ending [of 'Breaking Bad'] far worse for those who loved it.”

For the new study, Russell and her co-author, Hope Schau, gathered fan responses to the terminations of four popular TV shows. Three were American: “The Sopranos,” “Entourage” and “All My Children.” And one was from New Zealand: “Outrageous Fortune.”

Fans were interviewed and asked to talk about their responses to the end of their beloved series and to the disappearance of favorite characters. 

“We followed a group of friends who religiously watched ('The Sopranos') every Sunday night together,” Russell said. “They would have a party with Italian food and drinks.”

When the show ended, the group held a funeral.

Psychologist Nancy Mramor says we sometimes feel intense grief because we allow ourselves to become so invested.

“Once you connect with characters and let them into your living room they become, in your mind, like a part of your family, and you begin to develop the kinds of emotions you would have toward a family member,” said Mramor, who studies the impact of media and film and is in private practice in Pittsburgh. “So when they do something you don’t like, you are more forgiving. They can act badly and you let them off the hook. Once you start making excuses for a character on screen, you know you’ve identified with them.”

Sometimes the show’s hook can grab a certain demographic because it mirrors their life experiences.

“The show 'Friends' is interesting because so many people felt like they grew up with it,” Russell said. Viewers bonded with the characters because they felt like the show reflected what they were going through, she added.

If the bond is strong, the loss can be sharply felt. “You can allow yourself to become so enmeshed that pulling back out is like the grieving process after a breakup,” Mramor said.

That’s especially true when fans identify closely with a particular character.

“I was in my late 30s and ‘Thirty Something’ was my show for my time,” said Richard Laermer. “Gary was that hippy, visionary activist that never bought into everyone else's ‘sell out,’” said the 52-year-old Connecticut resident. “I felt like him. When the phone was answered in the hospital and they were told ‘Gary has died’ it went to my core. WOW. That moment made me aware that in a second everything in life changes. It really had an impact on me — for the good.”

The ache from the empty spot can go on for a long time.  

“When the character of Nate died on ‘Six Feet Under,’ in the final episode of that brilliant show, I was devastated for weeks, if not months,” said Heather Tobin, 45, from Kingston, New Hampshire. “His abrupt death left me reeling. It was like losing a friend.”

So, if you get the news that your favorite show is coming to an end, here’s what you can expect.

“It’s the same phase process as when you lose someone,” Russell said. “First there is the denial phase, then there is a sort of phase where you feel numb, and then eventually acceptance comes and you come to terms with the loss.”

And perhaps, with time, you'll find a new show to take its place.

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic”and the recently released “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”