The one where we say goodbye to Matthew Perry (a.k.a. Parasocial Grief)
To listen to me reading this blog instead, the My Why podcast episode is available here.
I've been thinking a lot over the last week about the how/why/what/when/where of grieving somebody we never knew or met (like a celebrity), and the confusing feelings and grief that can arise when that person is gone, even though it might feel like the grief isn’t really ours to express.
I discovered this week that there’s actually a name for this kind of grief, after seeing a post by Mary Frances O’Connor (who I interviewed on the podcast in my Let’s Chat… Grieving Brains). It’s called Parasocial Grief. Now this was a new word to me, and it might be to you too, so here’s what it means:
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships. Basically it’s when we invest emotional energy and time on someone, but the other party is completely unaware of your existence. And without going into the weeds on this one, these types of relationships have the ability to help or harm us in life. And when someone dies where we have this kind of relationship, it’s called Parasocial Grief.
Why was I pondering on this over the last few weeks? Most of you will probably have a name come to mind if you’re listening to this in the autumn of 2023.
On 28 October 2023 the world found out that the celebrity Matthew Perry, a.k.a. Chandler Bing in Friends was found dead in his hot tub in LA.
Now we’ve probably all seen people grieving on TV for celebrities or famous people, could be crowds screaming, crying, sobbing, or silently tearful as they lay flowers, write tributes or get interviewed. And I’ve often wondered about these displays of large public emotions. How are they able to summon such emotions for someone they’ve, most likely, never met? As a fairly stereotypical British person, these sorts of scenes don’t seem natural and even sort of grate on me a little. Us Brits don't show our emotions publicly like that for those we love, let alone those we don’t (and I’m not saying that’s a good thing). And so we could be accused of thinking people’s response to grief is a bit over-the-top, we get a bit judgey about what others choose to mourn and how.
I do think there are levels to griefs and it’s important to keep that in mind. I loved my dog when we had one, and I cried when he died and the grief still sits with me seven years later, without children it was a huge hole in our life and our house, but if my reaction to losing him was the same as losing my husband - well, that’s something I probably need to assess and work through and talk about. I'm not saying we can't or don't mourn these things more than humans, but if we are it's probably something to explore as to why. So potentially there might be a danger in letting this sort of loss, with parasocial grief, have too big a place in our life, and if you mourned the loss of David Bowie more than your husband or father (if they were a good man) then that's again, something to think about. But I think for the majority of us, it's more likely to be the other side of the coin we struggle with when it comes to parasocial grief, and that's that we don’t allow ourselves to feel the sadness or we might even choose to ignore that there is a loss there at all.
Matthew Perry was arguably best known for being one of the six characters in Friends. And that NBC sitcom, which ran from 1994-2004, was for me (like it was to many), literally a ‘friend’. I've had a few people say to me 'I thought of you when I heard the news' - such was my relationship with Friends. I was thirteen when it first started and too young to be allowed up to watch something that was on around 9pm, so I didn’t really find Friends until my late teens, but it was just in time to see the last few series come out live, the final one when I was 21 years old. I waited eagerly for those seasons to be out and remember very clearly the feelings of watching the last episode of the last series, Season 10. Every episode was called ‘The one with…’ or ‘The one where…’ and I think most of the world watched and waited for that episode - The One Where They Said Goodbye. And boy did they go out on a bang, that last season was some of my favourite scenes and moments ever, and the ending, in my opinion, was just perfect. In those years and into my early twenties this sitcom became a huge part of my life.
My mum said to me recently that at one point she worried if I was watching it too much because I was getting obsessed with the show. I don’t know what gave her that idea, maybe it was the giant poster of Chandler, Joey and Ross I had up on my University room wall, or the fact I knew almost every line from every episode, or it might have been the 1000 quiz questions on Friends book I had that I made Chris and others test me with, or maybe it was my dad and my relentless hunt to collect all the DVDs. Back then the DVDs came out with about four episodes on and my dad and I had a list of all the episodes I had already, and then we’d hunt the bargain bins for the ones I didn’t have yet to collect the full set. Of course, years later they released all the episodes in a lovely boxset that was about a tenth the size of my collection, but we convinced ourselves that that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun. I still have them all now.
I think the reason I leant on these Friends characters so much was because I didn't have big circles of friends at that time. University was hard for me socially and so I leant on things like Friends as my friends, they helped me process the world, social situations and relationships. I do have to admit, real life is a big let down if you hope too much in stuff like that - it's a lot less funny!
I was quite a sheltered, naïve young person in many ways (in the ways all kids should be really) and so looking back now, I know that I didn’t really understand or get half of the jokes in it. I saw a lot of it as funny but I think I put my own interpretation on it and as I grow up now I realise what they actually meant, and just how much sex was involved in it! I didn't notice that at the time, I just adored the friendships and being part of their world - and I still do that now with programmes, I jump into another world and I feel safe in my parasocial relationships with the characters.
From the first time I encountered Friends, my favourite character was Chandler (Matthew Perry, for anyone that doesn’t know and has been under a rock for the last twenty years). He made me laugh. It was that simple. It was a similar sense of humour to what I'd grown up with, with my dad. And I loved it. I think a lot of my sense of humour now was developed, yes from home life but also, through watching Friends. I was formed a lot through the comedies I watched back then.
I haven't watched Friends regularly for years, some might say I overdid it! Once you know all their lines you need to step back and take a break. I am wandering back into it now though, for the nostalgia and maybe a way of saying goodbye to Matthew. I’m well beyond the stage of collecting the DVDs (no one uses them any more for Pete’s sake!) or owning the big poster with the three male characters dressed in black with a red background (I can picture it now), which will have long ceased to exist in the world. But the impact on me, the memories of watching it, the lines in my head - they will be with me forever. A lot of the vocabulary and phrases have made their way permanently into my life, I’ve been known to scream ‘I KNOW!’ as Monica did, or ‘It’s not all juice’ as Chandler responded, or a ‘How you doin’?’ like Joey, or ‘I wasn’t supposed to put beef in the trifle’ from Rachel, or to sing Smelly Cat' by Phoebe (which I won’t expose you to), or ‘it's all over everything!' or 'but I want, I want the pine cones’ from Ross (in fact in the later years Ross surprisingly challenged Chandler for being the funniest one for me!). I call people ‘guys’ a lot, much to the dislike of some around me, I credit that to Friends and it’s staying, people! I’ve been in thousands of conversations with many friends and family where we've had a situation that relates to a scene from Friends and we’d quote it, talk about it, laugh about it. Who hasn't yelled 'Pivot!' when moving house?! And I think that's just wonderful. What a legacy. Friends was so relatable, so down to earth, so funny, and so honest. They are six faces that I’ll always view as maybe more familiar than people I know when they pop up somewhere.
Plus, I never had to watch someone throw up in it, in all the seasons - a pet hate for me on TV - no one needs to see that, people! Friends managed 10 seasons without it, so can you.
And of course, as I’ve got older and taken an interest in the people behind the characters I loved, I’ve realised they had their own struggles and perhaps none more than Matthew Perry. He said he became an alcoholic at aged 14, constantly struggled with drug addiction, in and out of relationships, and he spoke of how filming Friends wasn’t the amazing journey for him that it was for us, it's sad to read. There are years where he doesn’t remember filming it and he couldn’t even bring himself to watch some of it. I think most of us witnessed his shift in weight and look between the seasons but never knew the full extent of what was going on behind the scenes.
My mind is out to kill me, and I know it. I am constantly filled with a lurking loneliness, a yearning, clinging to the notion that something outside of me will fix me. But I had had all that the outside had to offer! Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
I mean, I knew that these guys weren’t going to be around forever. I mean they're older than me so I knew there was a chance I’d see their deaths announced one day and it would be the end of an era, but this soon?
When I think about it, what made me shed a small tear this week for Matthew wasn't so much my loss, because I know that my loss is minimal. Everything that he, and they, have given me is still there. I still have it. Nothing is taken away from my memories and love of it because he isn’t on this planet right now, my life isn't affected. Chandler Bing lives on forever. But when I read Matthew's story, and I think about him dying alone, and I see his last Instagram post of him in a hot tub, and I wonder if he knew, or it it was planned, if he was done, if he couldn’t take any more, if there was an accident, or if he relapsed in some way and it was the last straw - it’s the unknown makes me sad. It’s at this point I’m sad that I didn’t know him, that his struggles had to end this way, that such a light has gone out so early, that his life felt so hard.
I sometimes do want to tell God to go fuck himself for making my road so hard. Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
Like one of the book review titles said, and I feel it too - ‘I just want to give him a big hug.’
I haven’t read the book, but I do want to, weirdly even more so now. It came out last year and the paperback isn’t even out yet over here, so I’m waiting for that.
It makes me so sad that a life like his ends this way. One of the things I fight for and am passionate about is that I hate the idea that anyone feels alone in this world. That any one has to fight alone through hard times. It’s why I do the podcast, I can’t help as many people as I’d like personally, but I can share stories of the trauma others go through to try and reach those feeling alone to say ‘look, you’re not alone in how you’re feeling/grieving, and there is hope if you hold on’.
Maybe in some way, knowing Matthew’s struggle is over is a good thing, I don’t know his situation well enough to tell, but whatever the circumstances we know that something big has left this world, something has been lost, something I appreciated, enjoyed, and was blessed by has changed and shifted. And there is something sad about that.
So it's hard to know how to grieve in these situations. Some people will grieve hard, some too hard maybe for the relationship because it might release grief in them tied to other things too. Our grief will be affected by our culture, our personality, our love. I think the important thing is that we feel those feelings. This is a common message on the podcast from guests. What does it mean? Well, allow yourself to tune into what you’re feeling, not what friends, family, and society around you think you should do, but what you're actually feeling. If you’re feeling sad about a loss but the voice in your head or around you is saying ‘it’s not your loss, you didn’t know them, yes it’s sad but we move on’ then don’t allow that to dictate how you move through the feelings.
Be honest about how you’re feeling and in my experience the best way to do this is not in a big crowd of people who might also be wailing and grieving about something, but in the quiet of your own home. No audience, no external expectations. So you’re free to not hold anything back. And then let yourself feel what you feel. Are you angry about it? Sad? Heart-broken? Confused? Frustrated? Regretful? Try to identify the feelings and then let yourself feel them. And at this point it doesn't matter whether it's valid or not, it's what you're feeling, and you should let that be felt as much as it needs to be felt. Sure others might not understand, but they don't need to, some feeling needs to be done alone, so you can be completely honest about it.
I used to struggle with this idea. I had preconceived ideas of what did and didn’t need/expect/deserve feeling, but then from talking to podcast guests I realised that you don’t feel sad about something unless it genuinely makes you sad in some way, you don’t get angry about things you don’t care about. Feelings are there for a reason, they’re unique to you, and whether it’s related to the situation or not, allowing yourself to notice it and feel it is healthy. Being childless I get a lot of feelings crop up and I used to ignore them to be strong, or to move forward, or to not be weak or harp on about something I’ve already dealt with loads of times, but I’ve realised if they’re still there, they’re there for a reason. If watching happy families around me makes me a little sad, that’s ok, that’s what I’m feeling, if seeing other people’s successes makes me weep sometimes because I long for my own, that’s ok, that’s what I’m feeling. And when I feel them I find I experience healing in the moment for it, and I can face the next sad feeling a little bit easier. When I don’t feel them they build up behind the dam and then something very unexpected might release them all when I least expect or want it. And I will always hope, and I believe, that they'll get easier and one day I might not feel it at all. But it's important that they're natural feelings, and not manufactured by me or part of some vow I've made that I'll always be sad around children etc.
So feel those feelings if they’re there and let yourself grieve someone you never knew, whatever that looks like for you. Maybe you need to work out what you’ve lost, I’ve been pondering on that myself this last week, what did I lose when Matthew died? He was a figure in my life that brought me a lot of joy, they all were, and it’s sad that he’s no longer on the planet, but I'm not grieving it in the same way as somebody I knew, because everything he's given to me I still have and it lives on. So what have I lost? And like I said, I found the sadness wasn’t about my own loss at all, it was about his, how he died and what he struggled through while bringing so many other people joy, comfort and companionship.
Apparently he didn’t want to be remembered for just Friends, and I can understand that because he did a lot of amazing work for those with addictions, which of course was more important than filming a sitcom, but I think he might have underestimated the joy and support and friendship he gave millions of other people through Friends. What he gave and left the world with, is something that we will all still cherish and keep for generations and generations. That group of friends made people’s bad times better, turned tears into laughter, provided companionship for lonely people, made outcasts feel welcome, normalised everyday struggles, showed us how to, and not to, navigate job losses, bereavements, friendship, relationships, love, fall out, pregnancy, parenting, disaster, embarrassment, loneliness, and the fun that can be found in the every day when you have others to share it with, like dancing with a raw turkey on your head.
It’s worth noting though that Matthew didn’t regret Friends, because he wrote this in his book…
If I had to do it all over again, would I still audition for Friends? You bet your ass I would. Would I drink again? You bet your ass I would. If I didn’t have alcohol to soothe my nerves and help me have fun, I would have leaped off a tall building sometime in my twenties.
My heart goes out to the rest of the Friends cast, who have been silent apart from this joint statement on 30 October:
We are all so utterly devastated by the loss of Matthew. We were more than just castmates. We are a family. There is so much to say, but right now we're going to take a moment to grieve and process this unfathomable loss. In time we will say more, as and when we are able. For now, our thoughts and our love are with Matty's family, his friends, and everyone who loved him around the world. Friends Cast Statement, after the death of Matthew Perry
I love them for their silence after this, despite others criticising them for it. I can almost feel their grief at the loss of someone that was part of a different sort of family for them for so long, as well as his friends, family and support network and those he’s helped along the way with addictions - so many grieving people. And then there's all the Friends fans, not grieving to the same extent, but hopefully offering thanks instead for all he gave us.
At Matthew’s funeral they played a song he was particularly enamoured with - ‘Don’t give up’ by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. I’ll put a link in the show notes to watch it - Matthew particularly liked the element of the two singers hugging in the video. He often signed ‘Don’t give up’ in his book signings, he said: "I always put 'Don't give up' because you shouldn't give up." And man, listening to this at the funeral would have been a real tear-jerker.
Here’s some of the lyrics:
In this proud land we grew up strong We were wanted all along I was taught to fight, taught to win I never thought I could fail No fight left or so it seems I am a man whose dreams have all deserted I've changed my face, I've changed my name But no-one wants you when you lose Don't give up 'cause you have friends Don't give up you're not beaten yet Don't give up I know you can make it good Rest your head You worry too much It's going to be alright When times get rough You can fall back on us Don't give up Please don't give up Don't give up 'cause you have friends Don't give up you're not the only one Don't give up no reason to be ashamed Don't give up you still have us Don't give up now we're proud of who you are Don't give up you know it's never been easy Don't give up 'cause I believe there's a place There's a place Where we belong Don't Give Up by Peter Gabriel (ft. Kate Bush)
I find it interesting it has a line that says ‘Don’t give up ‘cause you have friends’. I hope he had true friends, beyond the show. I feel like for many of us that was the message Friends gave us - don’t give up.
I’ll finish with another quote from Matthew’s book, it’s one of hope and one that comforts me in his death:
Being in a kitchen always brings to mind God. He showed up to me in a kitchen, of course, and in doing so, saved my life. God is always there for me now, whenever I clear my channel to feel his awesomeness. It’s hard to believe, given everything, that He still shows up for us mortals, but He does, and that’s the point: love always wins. Matthew Perry, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
Rest in peace Chanandler Bong, the eternal Transponster.