Saying Goodbye to Game of Thrones: Dealing with Disappointment and Endings
Michele Southworth, JD, LMFT is a senior staff therapist at Council for Relationships University City.
Image Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Sunday night, after eight seasons and 73 episodes, we said our goodbyes to the surviving Stark siblings and other survivors of the Battle of Kings Landing, along with what remained of the armies of the North, the Unsullied and the Dothraki. For those readers who were satisfied with the final season and episode, skip ahead to Endings. For those of you dealing with Disappointment, read on here:
Disappointment is generally understood to be the complex mixture of sorrow, frustration, dismay and anger that we feel when we have hopes or expectations that are not met. I will include myself among the many who were profoundly disappointed when George R.R. Martin didn’t finish the last volumes of his opus, leaving us to the tender mercies of other writers for the last two seasons, and feeling that my high hopes for an ending as well conceived and written as the rest of the series were dashed. So, how to deal?
When it comes to disappointments in life generally, we learn to accept that disappointment is an inevitable part of life. How we cope with this depends a lot on how we were taught to manage expectations and deal with disappointment in childhood. Some of us may have had enough support, and some too little support, in dealing with the sharp feelings that children experience when they hope for something that doesn’t turn out as expected. These can range from relatively minor episodes, like missing a much anticipated party because we got sick, to something of much greater importance like the absence of a loving relationship with an important family member. Acknowledgment, identification and validation of a child’s feelings when this happens are very important building blocks for learning how to cope constructively with life’s inevitable setbacks: “You are really sad about missing the party,” accompanied by a hug, sets the child on a path to knowing that the feeling of sadness can be named and understood by others, and that there are others who both care when feelings are painful and are available to be sources of comfort. “What are you crying about? There will be other parties,” does not provide this kind of clarity, and can contribute to a feeling of shame about expressing vulnerable feelings, and to loneliness when there is no source of comfort to turn to with those feelings. Children who are shamed or otherwise criticized when they express the feelings that arise with disappointment, may learn to manage their expectations by lowering them to the point of not expecting good things to happen or not being willing to take risks to get them. Related to this, a child may develop the belief that her/his feelings of disappointment are unimportant and “wrong,” or that they do not deserve to hope for and expect the things they wish for.
And how does this apply to disappointment about the last season or two of Game of Thrones? It suggests that an important starting point, if we are disappointed, is to accept our feelings and allow ourselves to genuinely experience them rather than to dismiss or block them. Having accepted our feelings and allowed ourselves to fully feel them allows us to subsequently be intentional in choosing how we would like to cope constructively with the disappointment, rather than unconsciously acting out beliefs about the world and our place in it that were formed when we were young and may have learned to be ashamed of how we felt. What does coping constructively with GOT disappointment look like? Often it involves taking some kind of action: water cooler discussions and animated if anguished conversations with family and friends, perhaps. Canceling our HBO subscription may be another popular option. Writing to George R.R. Martin and begging him to finish the next two volumes? And over one million people have signed a petition to HBO to remake the last season, so there’s that.
After we have dealt with our disappointment, there’s another hurdle. Endings, like disappointments, are an inevitable part of life. In the course of living a life, many things change: we graduate from high school, we leave home, we leave a job, we end a relationship, we move from a familiar neighborhood to somewhere new, we may end therapy. And this week, we confront the ending of Game of Thrones.
All of these changes involve an ending; many if not most are followed by a new beginning. Some changes are changes that we choose; other changes are changes that we do not, and would not, choose. Changes that involve breaking connections with a part of life that is familiar and approaching the unfamiliar can lead to confusion, getting stuck, and feeling fear and grief, as well as feelings of excitement and anticipation if the new beginning is something for which we are eager . Our ability to cope with changes, both wanted and unwanted, is often a measure of how resilient we are. If our life circumstances have been such that we have not developed much resilience, we may find ourselves more rigid or more fragile in the face of endings and other changes.
Adapting to change constructively, or resiliently, generally means not pushing away any grief, fear or confusion that we experience when facing an ending. Acknowledging painful or uncomfortable feelings and loss allows us to accept our need to slow down, to reconcile ourselves to something being over, to get support if we need it, to pause while we understand what this change requires of us and what will come next. Taking the time to slow down and acknowledge what is happening lets us begin the process of disengaging from the daily habits, the interpersonal world and the identity that we associate with the part of life that is ending, all of which are important steps in being ready to let go and to move forward into what is next.
Pushing away our grief, fear or confusion in order to avoid discomfort and to move as quickly as possible to the more positive feelings of new beginnings can be a temptation. If we give in to this temptation, we risk losing the important opportunities for growth and self-understanding that being present to the difficult feelings offers us.
So, how can we be resilient in facing the ending of Game of Thrones, particularly if we fall into the group of those who are dealing not only with an ending, but frustration and disappointment with how the ending was handled? For myself, my increasingly unrealistic hope that the writers of the last two seasons would tie the many threads of the story together in a satisfying and well-paced way, was a defense of sorts against dealing with the sadness of ending my time in the world of GOT: I hoped for a resoundingly satisfying ending that would repay my years of investment in, first, the books, and then the series. Those hopes were dashed and I now confront not only an ending, but a poorly handled and most unsatisfying one. I am happy to report that I am pausing, with great resilience, to feel my grief, my anger, and my dismay at both the hash the new writers made of the thing, and George R.R. Martin’s incomprehensible dawdling in the completion of volumes 6 and 7. And here I pause while I wait to understand what is now required of me, and what will come next. Valar morghulis.
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