Bob Saget and grief: Why losing a TV dad can hurt so much

·5-min read
Here's why losing a beloved TV dad like Bob Saget can hit hard. (Photo: Bob D'Amico/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Here's why losing a beloved TV dad like Bob Saget can hit hard. (Photo: Bob D'Amico/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

On Monday, two names synonymous with family-friendly '90s entertainment were trending: Bob Saget and Uncle Phil. It's easy to see why; the 65-year-old Saget's sudden death on Sunday sent shockwaves throughout Hollywood, while the just-released Bel Air trailer had fans reminiscing about the gruff but loving character played by the late actor James Avery in the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Some drew comparisons to the two men, both, as one commenter noted, "quintessential TV dads ... [who] passed WAY too young." (Avery was 68 when he died of complications from open-heart surgery in 2013.)

"Bob Saget, Carl Winslow [the policeman dad played by Reginald VelJohnson on Family Matters] and Uncle Phil basically raised me," read another tweet mourning the Full House star's death. Speaking to Hoda Kotb on Sirius XM's The Hoda Show Monday, actor Josh Gad spoke of his own grief as he processed the loss of his childhood hero turned real-life friend.

"Danny Tanner was a surrogate father to me after my parents got divorced and I was growing up watching Full House, and him being this anchor keeping his family together," Gad said of Saget's most famous character, who was a widowed father of three girls on the ABC sitcom which ran from 1987 to 1995.

While Gad went on to have a personal relationship with Saget, he's not the only one who saw the comedian — and fellow TV dads like Avery — as a trusted father figure whose loss has hit hard. As media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, tells Yahoo Life, our emotional attachment to a particular celebrity or fictional character is an example of a parasocial relationship, the term coined by psychologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956.

"It is more than fandom," Rutledge explains of these "one-sided psychological relationships" someone might have with a beloved football star, TikTok influencer or book character. "It is an emotional investment, where the viewer feels as if the person they see is like a friend."

While these relationships are unreciprocated, they can come with benefits, such as boosting self-esteem, supporting identity formation and offering a crucial sense of connection and belonging. Rutledge points to the popularity of shows like Friends, The Office and Cheers during the coronavirus pandemic. In a time of loneliness and isolation, these characters "really do feel like friends."

Developing an emotional attachment to a fictional TV dad — such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's James Avery — is an example of a parasocial relationship. (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank)
Developing an emotional attachment to a fictional TV dad — such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's James Avery — is an example of a parasocial relationship. (Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank)

And a wholesome TV dad — someone who demonstrates love, affection and meaningful life lessons — can feel like a genuine father figure. Rutledge explains that parasocial relationships "can play different relational roles, often fulfilling a need" in our own lives.

"Everyone wants a loving dad but few of us have the idealized and understanding dads of sitcom TV," she notes. "A sense of connection can develop not just to an actor but to the characterization of a warm, supportive and unconditional and loving fatherly relationship. Humans are social animals that crave attachment and love. These parental characters represent the ideal."

Along with Saget and Avery she cites Growing Pains patriarch Alan Thicke and Happy Days's Tom Bosley — both now deceased — as sitcom dads who "were central to the family structure but always likable and relatable" and portrayed relationships "that are more idealized and less realistic, making them more aspirational."

"Research from our lab, led by Marina Rain, has found that how we relate to fictional characters often mirrors how we relate to other people in the real world," adds Raymond Mar, a professor of psychology at York University in Canada. "Given that attachment to our primary caregivers is often such an important aspect of our lives, it's not surprising that a benevolent father figure — even a fictional one — would be so appealing."

Given the significance a parasocial interaction can have, it's naturally upsetting when it's disrupted — either through death, a show's cancelation or, as seen in the case of Bill Cosby, long regarded as the TV dad ideal, scandal.

"Death and loss of a parasocial relationship is very similar to the loss of a real one," Rutledge says. "It can create anger, disappointment and sadness. Because parasocial relationships create real feelings of connection, the loss of one triggers real feelings of that loss."

With the recent passings of Sidney Poitier and Betty White — the latter another idolized parental figure many of referred to as "America's Grandma" — fans are understandably reeling. These losses hurt, but ultimately there's no harm in maintaining parasocial relationships.

"As always, balance is key to everything," Rutledge says. "Most parasocial relationships are perfectly healthy and add meaning. If someone finds themselves obsessively struggling with the loss of a parasocial relationship to the point where it interferes with normal life, it's time to seek professional help. For most, however, the parasocial relationship adds to the enjoyment of media entertainment by increasing the immediate pleasure of watching and the longer-term sense of meaning."

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