Nearly departed: Mourning imaginary friends and worlds

After eight years, winter has finally come and gone. Our watch has ended. All men must die.

That’s right, Game of Thrones is finally over. I’ll offer no spoilers for those who have yet to complete this epic tale. I will say, however, that I was eminently satisfied with the ending.

I wish I could say the same for countless other viewers, however. Some are so crushed by the loss of this dynamic series that they might turn beyond the Twitterverse to web-based grief counseling to process their reactions; UK-based company is offering just such a service. Some are likening disappointed fans’ reactions to the end of the show to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, acceptance.

The more common setting for Kubler-Ross’s stages, as you might expect, would be grieving over an actual person. But for many die hard fans, the loss of this show and saying goodbye to, among others, beloved characters such as Jon Snow, Brienne of Tarth, and Daenerys Targaryen, means a very real sense of grief and mourning.

In some ways, this mourning is no less valid than the sense of loss we might feel for a real human. After all, we’ve spent countless hours with these characters, more hours than we might have spent with our real-life friends and family over the same time frame. And these kinds of relationships that we’ve come to build up with imaginary friends, usually through digital media, have a name; they’re called parasocial relationships.

A parasocial [relationship] is a term coined… in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television.

These relationships are one-sided, and can be formed with any any mass media figure, such as YouTubers, celebrities, sports figures, and the like. Parasocial relationships are particularly compelling when they are formed with people or characters who are introverted, brooding, or private; the unique access the viewer has to the personality’s innermost thoughts and experiences makes one feel special, privy to a world to which others do not have access. It’s quite compelling.

I’ve written at length on modern media’s function as a supernormal stimulus, meaning that it amplifies the pull of our most basic human instinctual and biological drives.

Television pulls [on] social instincts more strongly than…real people.

-Deirdre Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

I’m not concerned that people have myriad parasocial relationships these days; one could argue that they existed long before the existence of media. Personal, one-sided relationships with deities and characters from stories and mythology would certainly meet the criteria for parasocial interactions. As Deirdre Barrett states in Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, “Entertainment has always functioned as a supernormal stimulus for social instincts, playing upon our urges to get to know people and attend to compelling events.”

It’s also true that parasocial phenomena can lead to real social phenomena. Witness the rise of communities, both online and in-person, developed based on a shared love for an entertainment sensation. Mass media is the new story told around the campfire, and stories are the lifeblood of humanity. Perhaps the water cooler is the modern day campfire, around which we gather to recount and rekindle our favorite tales of heroism, suspense, dastardly deeds, and hope reborn.

No, the problem as both Barrett and I see it is when entertainment becomes “‘addictive’—less effortful but also less beneficial than real life.” Instead of being stories that link us to our community, parasocial relationships, when indulged too deeply and exclusively, rob us of the opportunity to form and cultivate real, vital human connections. After all, these take much more work! And once a show has pulled on your primal instinct–for camaraderie (Friends), lust (Sex and the City), or celebration (Cheers)–it does not leave you feeling satisfied, but instead craving more.

After 30–60 minutes of the illusion of social contact, [you are left] no richer in real friendship or family ties to support you in crisis and yet eager to tune in the following week to learn the next events in the lives of people who not only didn’t care about you, they didn’t exist.

-Deirdre Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

In the midst of being more interconnected than we ever have been before, we are also more isolated and disconnected. “Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog,” as Johann Hari writes in Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. The immediate availability of parasocial relationships gives us the immediate thrill of intimacy, but like any other addictive “high,” fades quickly. This “illusion of social contact,” as Barrett calls it, is self-perpetuating.

We fail to resist the intoxicating allure of parasocial relationships at our peril; Hari’s Lost Connections links the rise of depression with the fall of humanity’s natural grounding in communal life as a key variable in our survival. We owe our very existence–and our continued thriving–to the bonds we form between us.

“Every pre-agricultural society we know about has this same basic structure,” [neuroscientist John Cacioppo] wrote with one of his colleagues. “Against harsh odds they barely survive, but the fact that they survive at all they owe to the dense web of social contacts and the vast number of reciprocal commitments they maintain. In this state of nature, connection and social co-operation did not have to be imposed … Nature is connection.”

-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

What, then, can our collective mourning at the loss of Game of Thrones and all its parasocial phenomena have to offer our captive lives? To my mind, the answer is not a remake of the show’s final season, or an immediate dive into HBO’s new and enticing looking adaptation of His Dark Materials (cleverly teased before the airing of the final episode).

Rather, I think we can learn a little bit about grieving real social relationships from grieving parasocial ones; we can move through the Kubler-Ross stages and mourn the loss of these dear friends who have been with some of us for longer than we have known our spouses or children. And then we can apply that social learning we have done to the very real grieving and mourning we must all do in real life.

And after being struck by such grief, we can emerge from our habitats, collect around our modern day watering holes, and bond together in solidarity. We can use these stories in the way that stories have always served our species; as the glue that binds us tight, championing our survival in the face of harsh, overwhelming odds.

Winter is always coming. But we needn’t face it alone.

For additional reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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