On March 21, 1980, someone shot J. R. Ewing… and audience members were captivated. Though it was hard to love Dallas
’ bad-boy oilman, we were desperate to know whether he was alive or dead… and who shot him. The network made us wait eight months for the resolution to the cliffhanger, and 76% of TV viewers tuned in to find out J. R.’s fate.
J. R. lived, but we were prepared to be shocked and saddened by his death. The deaths of fictional characters can have a greater impact on us than we expect. Even if we’ve only know them for a few years on a TV show, or the weeks it took to read a book – even the hours of a movie – we feel devastated by their loss. These characters may reflect people in our own lives who we’ve lost, or don’t want to lose. And when we grieve the deaths of fictional characters, we learn more about how to approach and accept real-life deaths. On the anniversary of J. R.’s shooting, we reflect on a few other fictional characters whose deaths moved us and taught us hard truths.
1. Bambi’s mother provided, for many of us, one of our earliest and most traumatic experiences with fictional death. Though we don’t see her die – a sight too difficult for young viewers to handle – we sense her terror as she runs from hunters and urges Bambi to run faster. Once we hear the shot, it’s hard to keep it together – and Bambi’s confusion as he searches for his mother is almost guaranteed to bring tears (or for some of us, sobs). The colors of the scene help set the mood, with swirling snow in a world of gray, contrasting with the rest of the cartoon’s bright and sunny palette. Generations of children have learned from watching Bambi – and still more from watching The Lion King and grieving the death of Simba’s father, Mufasa – the horrible fact that parents die. But maybe more importantly, they’ve also learned that although we grieve, we can, eventually, move on.
2. Obi-Wan Kenobi, beloved mentor to Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, falls to Darth Vader’s light saber before he can help Luke destroy the Death Star. Like Harry Potter upon the death of Albus Dumbledore, Luke is devastated by the death of his mentor, and he doubts his ability to succeed without Obi-Wan’s guidance. In real life as in fiction, it’s a loss almost as huge as that of a parent. Our mentors share our passions and shape how we learn and work. Unlike Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, we rarely get advice from our mentors from beyond the grave. But what Kenobi and Dumbledore tell their protégées in their post-death appearances is nothing they didn’t already know – use your skills, the ones we taught you. We can take that advice from our own mentors, too, even after they’re gone.
3. Old Yeller has been around long enough that it’s almost a cliché, practically shorthand for “sad movie.” But it doesn’t feel like a cliché when you’re curled up on the couch with your own beloved pooch and a box of tissues, trying to hold back the tears as the movie mutt contracts rabies while defending his family. Neither the book nor the Disney movie pulls any punches in the sad story – not only does Yeller die, but young Travis, barely more than a boy, has to be the one to put the dog out of his misery. Our parents get us pets in part to help us come to terms with the fact of death, but anyone who has ever cried over the death of a dog or cat – or even a hamster or an especially clever goldfish – knows it’s not that easy.
4. Leslie Burke’s death was shocking and sobering to any child who read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia. Even if they had already experienced and understood the deaths of pets, grandparents, people with illnesses, they may not have been prepared for the concept that children die. Leslie’s accidental death by drowning nails home the fact that death can be random, sudden and pointless – and it can happen at any age. Bridge to Terebithia is one of the most challenged books in school libraries and children’s reading lists, partly because of Leslie’s death, but this hasn’t done much to stop children from reading it. The death of a young person is scary, but we need to know about it and prepare ourselves for it – so we keep reading.
We could list page after page of fictional deaths that resonate with audiences – Mr. Spock, Buffy Summers, Hercule Poirot, Charlotte the spider, Harold Lauder, Lennie Small, Charlie Pace, Dr. Mark Greene… Given how much we love these characters during their short, fictional lives, we can’t help grieving their deaths.