The very first D&D character I ever played (circa. 1995) was a half-elf bard. He was a smarmy know-it-all with a knack for finding trouble and needing lots of help to get out of it (think Tony Stark). I began his career at level 1 and worked on his development to around level 12 over a real-time period of four or five months. At that point, he suffered a mortal blow whilst also delivering a mortal blow to a Red Dragon. It was the most epic character death I have ever experienced.
However, after the initial satisfaction of defeating the dragon wore off, I found myself instantly mired in the grips of grief. I was genuinely saddened by the fact that this character, one I had fostered and brought to life, was now gone. Looking back it seems a bit silly now, but at the time it felt almost as bad as a real-life death. I think I actually missed a few sessions immediately following this event because I needed time to gather myself. Was this taking the game too far? According to many of the people I've talked to over the years, apparently not.
It seems that the people who take character death (CD) the hardest fall into two categories: A) players who are new to the game and perhaps experiencing CD for the first time; or B) players who have lost characters that they have worked on for extended periods of time (say more than six months). In both of these cases, the DM and the PC needs to be aware that there may be a bit of grieving involved when a character leaves the game and goes into the great beyond. So, what can you do if you’re a player and need help in the healing process? Similarly, what can you do to help that player if you’re the DM?
Firstly, I think the worst thing you or anyone else can say is, “it’s just a game.” This is not only disrespectful to the feelings at hand, it is also completely useless. It’s a cliché phrase that somehow gives us license to ignore the problem and we all know how often ignored problems get solved. Honestly, would you walk up to someone grieving at a funeral and say, “Don’t worry, there are lots of other folks still living!” Instead, I believe it is much more helpful to remember the “good times” and to share the highlights of your character’s career with the other people in the group. Along the same lines, you might want to ask your DM to have a character funeral and get the other PCs to say a few words. This is not only a great way to remember and heal but it’s also a fantastic roleplaying opportunity and rallying point for the other PCs in the campaign.
The second thing I would suggest for a grieving PC is to take some time to digest the fact that your character is gone before you dive into another avatar. I’ve seen lots of people ignore or brush off their CD and just rush into the next character they've created. This is also an excuse people use to ignore the problem just like a real-life grieving person throws themselves into their profession to “work through the pain”. I’m sure that for some people this helps but many are still hurting on the inside and for a few it makes the feelings worse in the long run. There is no shame in taking a brief break and asking your DM to excuse you for a few sessions. Go clear your head and your heart. I’ll wager your next character will be much better off for it.
As for the DM’s point of view, there are a few things you can suggest to your PCs to help them cope. Again, I would bring up the idea of a funeral or at least a memorial for the character. Another option would be letting the PC(s) play the character or characters one last time as ghosts or spirits, especially if there is something important they need to relay/warn to their party. Something else that can work, after letting the PC take a brief break as suggest above, is allowing their new character to be connected to their old character in some fashion. They could be a brother, sister, cousin, child, spouse, former roommate, former teacher or student, etc. This option seems to take some of the sting out of the CD and it also makes for a smoother integration of that character into the party.
However, on the flip side of this coin, I strongly recommend that you avoid the “clone” character. I’ve argued with many PCs over the years that just replacing “Joe Halfling” with “Joe Halfling 2.0” is really a form of cheating. If their character dies, it should have repercussions; it should have weight; and it should be a lasting memory for the rest of the party. All of that goes out the window if the player just replaces their character with a clone. It also says that it really doesn’t matter what you do as a DM because they’ll just come back and pick up where they left off before dying. Well this isn’t Super Mario folks and if you let them get away with that you’re asking for trouble.
Generally speaking, I guess the point I’m trying to make is CD can be a big deal. It should never be taken lightly or ignored. If you are the player and you feel a kind of grief from the loss of your character, you need to take a break from playing (times will vary from person to person) and allow yourself to reset. If you are the DM and realize that your player is taking the loss hard, you need to offer some helpful and transitional options that will allow them to both heal and get back into the swing of things. Finally, should anyone, either player or DM, feel that a character death has no real meaning, then for some reason you are missing out on one of the most important aspects of D&D and roleplaying in general: passion.