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I was having drinks with a friend on Saturday night when a woman at the table next to ours made really intense eye contact with me and interrupted our conversation.
With zero preface she simply said, “Matthew Perry died.”
I didn’t quite know what to do in the moment. How does one react when one stranger announces another stranger’s death?
But of course, Matthew Perry doesn’t really feel like a stranger. Which is why the random lady out with her friends felt the need to share news of Perry’s death to some random people next to her. It felt like a big deal. Feels like a big deal.
I know that Instagram works on an algorithm and the moment you spend longer than 1.8 seconds looking at a picture, Insta will fill your feed with related posts. But even so, I can’t help but feel that there are an above-average number of Matthew Perry tributes circulating social media, mostly clips of his best-known character, Chandler Bing, from Friends. People are grieving, and are sharing their grief.
We do this all the time when actors die. Sometimes it’s tributes and pictures of the person themselves. But more frequently we share something of the character or characters they played that meant so much to us.
When Michael Gambon died in September, people shared the clip of the Hogwarts community raising lit wands as they gathered around Dumbledore’s fallen body.
When Robbie Coltrane died last October, I posted a picture from The Prisoner of Azkaban, when Hagrid returns to Hogwarts and Harry tells him, “There’s no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid.”
And when Alan Rickman died in 2016, it seemed the whole world posted some version of Snape’s heartbreaking line from The Deathly Hallows, “After all this time? Always.”
I’m aware all three of those examples are from the Harry Potter movies, and that’s no accident. Upon seeing all the tributes for Matthew Perry, I looked up some articles that explain why we grieve for celebrities, even if we’ve never met them. Everything I read said such grief was perfectly normal and to be expected, because we form real bonds with celebrities, though a different kind of bond than with other relationships.
In a Psychology Today article from 2020, therapist Aniesa Hanson says, “Our emotional bond with an influential person is based on our projection of what we need that person to be for us during influential moments of our lives. It’s the idea of that person we bond to, not necessarily the person themselves – since we didn’t come to know them in real life.” We form, says Hanson, parasocial relationships with celebrities: one-sided, non-reciprocal relationships where we extend emotional energy, time and interest, and we get back a level of predictable comfort in return. And because there’s predictability – because we can re-watch movies or listen to albums on repeat, we tend to think of the celebrities behind the characters as immortal…there for us whenever we need them to be.
Harry Potter has played an important role in my life. I listen to the books almost every morning while eating breakfast. I have a text thread with friends where we discuss plot holes or peculiar details we’ve just noticed. The movies are my go-to comfort watch. I donned costumes to watch the final movies in theater in college. The characters in these movies have been with me during my most formative years, and are ones that keep me company when I’m feeling low. Friends functions in much the same way for a lot of people. Chandler Bing has been our sarcastic, quick-witted, loyal friend since 1994. Friends reruns are on almost all the time. It’s a go-to feel-good show. When the person who brought us that beloved character dies, it feels like a loss of the character himself, a character we’ve come to love.
It’s comforting to read that this kind of grief is normal, because it feels strange in the moment. Like it shouldn’t be allowed – how can I grieve for this person I never knew? But we did know them – to a degree. They were important to us. So we share our grief – with people next to us in restaurants, or with our social media community. I’ve heard it said that grief is just love with no where to go. I think in this case grief is gratitude for what a person has brought into our lives, and expressing such gratitude seems right and good.