‘Friends’ Fans Are Mourning the Loss of Matthew Perry

6 min read
Dim Hou/Pixabay

Dim Hou/Pixabay

Anyone who calls themselves a Millennial or Gen Z (and a lot of us who were born before or after those generations) is probably feeling shock and sadness this week after hearing about the death of “Friends” star Matthew Perry. This can be surprising, and perhaps unsettling, since most of us didn’t know Perry personally. “Friends” fans are asking themselves why the loss is hitting them so hard and why they are experiencing what feels like grief about someone they may have never met. While it may feel unexpected, there is an explanation—and it’s one that suggests fans’ reactions are understandable and common.

Our Favorite Characters Really Do Feel Like Friends

“Friends” was a comfort show for many of us—a group of people we joined in their living room while sitting in our own, who became so familiar that they truly felt like friends. Although the show began airing in the mid-1990s, it has been consistently available for streaming, which means its original fans could keep watching and new fans could discover it and join the fandom. People of all ages watch an episode of “Friends” at night to fall asleep or make a pilgrimage to the re-creation of the iconic set in New York City. The “Friends” reunion special in 2021 was a hit, with even more people discovering or re-discovering their comfort show during the pandemic.

The characters on “Friends” became a part of everyday life, people who were reliably around and felt like they always would be. Social surrogacy theory explains that when fictional characters become that familiar, we experience a similar sense of belongingness when “hanging out” with them onscreen as we do when spending time with friends and family in real life. We’re wired to become attached to familiar faces, and our brains don’t necessarily distinguish between people in front of us and people on television. Like any attachment relationship, being around those familiar faces can help us feel safe, secure, and less lonely. Matthew Perry’s character on that show, Chandler Bing, is one of those familiar faces. He was beloved for his sardonic wit and sense of humor, and spending time with him (onscreen) was a pleasant experience.

Mudassar MS/Pixabay

Mudassar MS/Pixabay

The Power of Nostalgia

That’s not the only reason the loss is hitting many people harder than they expected—the importance of the show itself is part of the explanation, too. “Friends” began airing in 1994, nearly 30 years ago. Fans who were adolescents or young adults when they started watching are now in middle age or older, so nostalgia also plays a part in how emotionally connected many people are to the series—and how serious the loss of one of its main actors feels.

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for one’s past. Watching a familiar show that has been a part of someone’s life for a long time brings a feeling of nostalgia through the phenomenon of mental transportation—mentally leaving the current space you’re in and transporting yourself into a past experience. When immersed in something nostalgic, people engage in self-reflection and access autobiographical memory. The reward centers of the brain are involved, along with the area of the brain that regulates emotions. That means, in essence, that nostalgia feels good—and can be good for us.

Research has shown that engaging in nostalgia is connected to psychological benefits like higher self-esteem, a greater sense of optimism, more life satisfaction, and increased positive emotions. Nostalgia is often a social emotion as well, fostering closeness with others as fans share their affection for the characters and memories of past experiences. That sense of belongingness is a benefit of fandom as well, so the combination of fandom and nostalgia can feel particularly good. Individuals don’t just feel happier; they also show higher levels of empathy after nostalgic reflection.

There are even existential benefits—by reconnecting with something in one’s past, there’s a sense of connection between the past and present that creates a feeling of self-continuity, which is comforting. This helps us feel more authentic and more aligned with our true selves. Nostalgic reflection can also create a feeling of being young again, which most of us welcome. Watching a beloved show like “Friends” and engaging in nostalgia makes life feel more meaningful.

In the face of the many stressors in the world right now, nostalgia can also reduce anxiety and be a buffer against stress, fostering resilience. The more people are experiencing negative emotional states, the more they report using nostalgic pursuits as a source of psychological comfort. When people are feeling disillusioned, nostalgic reflection can help reduce those feelings as a reminder of “better days.” No wonder watching a show like “Friends” has remained so popular.

Grieving a Real Loss

And no wonder losing one of the familiar and beloved characters from that show is experienced as a significant loss. We may not have known Matthew Perry, but we knew Chandler Bing. And, by extension, most fans felt a similar sense of familiarity with Perry. That was encouraged by his openness in discussing his struggles with addiction and his determination to help others who were similarly struggling—the thing he most wanted to be remembered for.

Experiencing grief over the loss of an actor who played a favorite character can feel like something that’s not OK. There will no doubt be some dismissive comments from people who weren’t fans, usually along the lines of “he was a stranger to you; get over it.” Grieving the loss of a parasocial relationship, in which the fan felt close to the character or actor but the actor (and obviously the fictional character) didn’t know who they are at all, is not always well understood and sometimes pathologized. This makes it harder to process the loss and express the understandable feelings of sadness. This kind of loss is a type of disenfranchised grief, one that is not recognized by others and, thus, is not supported.

However, feeling sad about the death of Matthew Perry or a sense of loss about losing, in some sense, the beloved character Chandler Bing, is neither unusual nor unexpected. Our attachment to familiar people, fictional or real life, makes them important to us. Engaging in nostalgic reflection by watching and re-watching our favorite shows over many decades is a healthy endeavor that brings many benefits. That makes this a loss that’s very real. Don’t be afraid to grieve or to reach out to other fans who share a love of “Friends” and Chandler and Perry. The next time you turn on an episode of “Friends,” it may bring a pang of hurt, but the familiar characters we love will still be there as a comfort, a connection, and a source of meaning.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours