Why We Grieve Fictional Characters

04/29/2015 08:33am ET | Updated April 29, 2015
GREY'S ANATOMY - ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy' stars Kevin McKidd as Owen Hunt, Justin Chambers as Alex Karev, Chandra Wilson as Miranda Bailey, Gaius Charles as Shane Ross, Tessa Ferrer as Leah Murphy, Jessica Capshaw as Arizona Robbins, Sandra Oh as Cristina Yang, Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey, Patrick Dempsey as Derek Shepherd, Sara Ramirez as Callie Torres, Jerrika Hinton as Stephanie Edwards, Camilla Luddington as Jo Wilson, Sarah Drew as April Kepner, Jesse Williams as Jackson Avery and James Pickens, Jr. as Richard Webber. (Photo by Bob D'Amico/ABC via Getty Images)

I remember exactly where I was the day Denny Duquette died.

I was a sophomore in high school and I was sitting cross-legged on my flower-printed bedspread. I was on the phone with my best friend when it happened. "How can this be?!" I screamed in the phone through tears. "It isn't fair."

"You're crying over a TV character on 'Grey's Anatomy,'" my friend gently reminded me.

Flash forward nine years later and I found myself in the same position: Earnestly leaning toward my TV, watching the same darn show, begging my screen not to confirm that my beloved (SPOILER!) Dr. Derek Shepherd (aka McDreamy) was actually being sent to that great hospital in the sky.

Of course, the TV (or Shonda Rhimes) didn't listen to me -- and once again, my same best friend had to give me a tiny dose of reality. "You're upset over a TV character," she said. I still didn't care. It felt personal.

The (good? Comforting?) news is, I'm not the only person who behaves this way. Many fans had visceral reactions to the most recent "Grey's Anatomy" death, from a petition to bring the character back to fans posting photos of themselves sobbing.

And luckily for all of us, it isn't unfounded hysteria. In fact, a 2014 American University study found superfans can feel a strong sense of loss in the aftermath of a character death. There's a psychological reason we get so attached to fictional characters, Robert Rowney, a staff psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic, told The Huffington Post.

"These characters are an escape from some of the stresses of life," he said. "Watching these shows allows you to decompress and not have to think about things for a little while. You're exposed to different aspects of the characters' lives -- their losses, their loves and their own griefs, everything that goes into the human condition -- and you eventually begin to empathize with them and form an attachment. We see some of ourselves in them."

Because of these emotional bonds we form watching certain characters, it's perfectly understandable that we mourn their loss when they die on a show, Rowney continued.

"There's reasoning behind it," he said. "It's obviously going to be different than grieving someone you lost in your actual life, but the reality is what you experience. If you're invested enough, the death of a character is going to be very real to you."

In the case of McDreamy, Rowney explained that the media coverage surrounding the news alone indicates that grieving the death isn't totally absurd (at least for a day or two after the episode airs, as long as it isn't affecting your daily life or relationships).

"Tons of people felt affected by the loss of that character," he said. "Having some tearfulness, feeling upset by it -- that's absolutely normal."

In other words, if you need me during Thursday's "Grey's Anatomy" McDreamy-funeral episode, I'll be crying on my couch. Shamelessly.

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