Spoiler alert: this article contains some spoilers from ‘Avengers: Endgame’
Twenty-nineteen has been a rough year for a lot of reasons, and it looks like it’s not going to be much more forgiving to pop culture junkies. With the ending (or, at least, the transitional period) of huge franchises like Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars, we have to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to have to say goodbye to some of our favorite characters — and by the looks of it, it’s not going to be very pretty.
We already got our first taste of it with Avengers: Endgame this week. When I read that a Marvel fan in China was hospitalized for crying too hard at the end of the movie, I wasn’t even surprised — my entire theater had spent the last 15 minutes sobbing at the bittersweet ending of an era. Even now, nearly a week after the movie’s release, fans are still reeling from the loss of some of their favorite Avengers. Which begs the question: what is the appropriate way to say goodbye to our favorite characters?
This is hardly the first time most of us have been through something like this with another franchise or series, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Perhaps the hardest thing to wrap your head around is how the grief feels so real. While we may intellectually understand that we’re dealing with the loss of a fictional character, that doesn’t mean we won’t emotionally feel as though we’ve lost a good friend.
Look at it this way: Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the world in 2008. That’s 11 years of investing in not only Tony Stark, but also in the world of superheroes as we know it (and that’s if you didn’t grow up with the comic books). Similarly, if you started watching Game of Thrones on the day it premiered, you’ve successfully devoted eight years to its story. Don’t even get me started on Star Wars — even though most of the characters we’re dealing with now are relatively new, the universe was created decades ago and has infatuated in generations of devoted fans. Believe it or not, caring about something for that long creates an attachment that some of us don’t even realize we have until it’s taken away from us.
So, how do we say goodbye? Just because it feels like the end of something monumental doesn’t mean we can all call out of work or put our lives on hold. At the end of the day, we all still have everyday responsibilities we have to see through. How do we deal with the very real feelings of grief over something that is, in fact, not actually real at all?
Let me start by saying this: it’s okay to be sad.
Seriously, go ahead. Cry it out. Write about it. Go back and binge-watch the entire series and let yourself swim in your grief. Watch those tribute YouTube videos if you’re into that. Scroll through Reddit forums and Twitter threads discussing it. Talk about it with your friends. Treat yourself to a self-care night. Be sad, however that looks for you.
The thing is, people who don’t care for certain franchises (or who have never cared enough for any sort of medium to become emotionally attached to it) probably won’t get it. Some may even react cruelly, forever reminding us that the characters aren’t — and never were — real. But the sense of loss we feel when one of our favorite characters die (or even simply says their goodbyes) is actually very real — in fact, one study by American University found that the pain we feel over a character’s demise is similar to what we feel when mourning the death or a loved one.
It may sound a little ridiculous from an outsider’s point of view, but our ability to relate to the events and emotions we see on a screen is remarkable, really — it’s something innate, and something some might consider a hallmark of our humanity. After all, if we only ever felt sad about things or people we have direct, reciprocal relationships with, it would be a cold, cold world. It’s not a weakness of our species, but a strength. There’s something beautiful about the way we’re able to mourn someone we only ever knew abstractly.
However, at the end of the day, it is important to give yourself a reality check and remind yourself that even though these goodbyes are painful, they aren’t real in the traditional sense. Yeah, sure, these characters never truly existed in the real world, but it’s also important to remember that their presence in our lives never truly go away. Unlike when a loved one dies, we have documentation of every moment we spent with them on our journeys and the ability to relive those moments through books and movies. When you think about it, that’s pretty magical.
For some people, endings will always be hard. I’m convinced it’s in our blood, coded in our very DNA. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just embrace it. Don’t shame yourself for how you feel, and don’t listen to others who try to belittle you for it. To feel so strongly about something is a gift and a reminder that at the end of the day, no matter what may be going on in our lives, the stories we give ourselves over to matter.