I have read the Harry Potter series countless number of times, and each time I revisit it, I feel like I have stumbled upon a new gem of wisdom. When I was in college, a classmate of mine told me that reading Harry Potter helped her come to terms with her father’s untimely demise. Of course today there is enough literature out there that talks about how grief has played an integral part throughout the series, but back then, it was the first time I was listening to someone’s personal narrative and it was my introduction to actually delving deeper into the series and exploring the various metaphors that are scattered throughout.
In this post, particularly, I am going to be describing my interpretation of the different messages about grief and death that I received from the Harry Potter series, and yes, there are spoilers ahead!
- We can grieve people we have never met or cannot remember. Harry Potter’s parents died when he was just a baby and barely old enough to really remember them. Yet, he grieves his parents throughout the series. From revisiting them constantly through the Mirror of Erised in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to hearing about them from everyone else in the wizarding world, Harry experiences an ongoing sense of loss for not having had his parents in his life. Not having known his parents in no way diminishes his grief.
- Relationships continue even after a person dies. Even though Harry Potter has never had his parents by his side, he learns about them through the memories of those who knew Lily and James, and we see how his understanding of his parents changes as he learns more about them. According to the Continuing Bonds Grief Theory by Klass, Silverman and Nickman (1996), it is normal for the bereaved to continue their bond with the deceased, and in many cases, this connection provides comfort and support in coping with loss and adjustment. Harry’s ongoing and evolving relationship with his parents’ memories perfectly embodies the ongoing connection many children maintain with deceased parents. This theme is also reinforced later in the series with other losses Harry experiences like that of Sirius Black and Dumbledore.
- It is alright to remember those who are no more, but it is important to also keep living. In the very first book of the series when Harry Potter discovers the mirror that shows him his heart’s deepest desire and he sees himself with his parents and other family members, Harry Potter starts visiting the mirror regularly and gets sucked into the hope for the reality that he so desperately wants but that simply isn’t possible. When Dumbledore realizes what Harry is doing, he reminds Harry, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that”. It is only in the last bit of the series that we realize that Albus Dumbledore truly understood Harry’s grief and his attraction for the mirror – Dumbledore lost his entire family early in life and, probably, his deepest desire too, like Harry’s, was seeing his family safe and alive (perhaps, that’s the pair of woollen socks was simply a metaphor!).
- Grief is experienced in stages and it is alright to take as much time as one needs to process the sense of loss. I remember being absolutely heartbroken when Sirius Black died at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. After meeting and building a relationship with his godfather, Sirius, it felt like a cruel joke that Harry and he got such a short span of time together. According to the Kubler-Ross Model, there are five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If you reread the last few chapters of the fifth book, you will find Harry going through four of these five stages of grief in the short span of two or three chapters. At the Department of Mysteries, while Harry does not really get time to feel isolated, he grapples with Lupin’s hold for quite a bit before finally digesting with difficulty the fact that Sirius Black is indeed gone and won’t really come back. Once this realization hits, he is overcome with rage and recklessly attacks Bellatrix Lestrange, completely willing to use the Cruciatus Curse on her just to inflict upon her as much pain as possible. His rage is explosive as evident by the way in which he screams at Dumbledore and breaks and throws things that are there in his room until finally Dumbledore, in his own calm and composed manner, seats Harry down and at the end of their discussion, one can see how the anger has transformed and filled Harry with an all-consuming grief. The bargaining phase is explored briefly when Harry goes to find Nearly Headless Nick and hopes Sirius will come back as a ghost. When Nick tells him it won’t happen, Harry feels that sense of loss all over again. Towards the end of the fifth book, Harry Potter does not really move to the final stage (that of acceptance) for that takes time, and the book does end with Harry Potter not being in a great place emotionally and mentally. We see Harry still experiencing bouts of anger even in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and that is alright. Grief takes quite a while to be fully resolved. It’s okay.
- Grief can make even the most meaningful things in life feel empty and meaningless. Grief can engulf us in such a devastating manner that in the wake of loss, things we found interesting and meaningful suddenly lose their charm and the same activities we enjoyed and thrived in at one point of time start appearing meaningless and pointless. We see Harry Potter experiencing the apathy, that sense of loss, that feeling of meaninglessness in various parts of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as evident from these lines, “He would have been so interested to know all this a few months ago, and now it was meaningless compared to the gaping chasm inside him that was the loss of Sirius, none of it mattered”. In another instance, when Harry is in grave danger, Rowling describes Harry’s apathy, “Sitting here on the edge of the lake, with the terrible weight of grief dragging at him, with the loss of Sirius so raw and fresh inside, he could not muster any great sense of fear”. Such apt, accurate descriptions of the depiction of loss and grief are rare to find in children’s literature.
- Family members may not be the best support-system always. Harry is placed in the care of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon after his parents’ death. His childhood is filled with abuse and neglect for not only do they treat him horribly and have little sympathy for his grief and sense of loss, they also lie to him about how his parents died and do not allow him to talk or ask about his parents. It is in Hagrid, Hermione, Ron and the Weasleys that Harry first finds a community that is supportive of his grief.
- You can grieve for someone who is still alive. Harry lost his parents to death, and while that consumes him with an ongoing sense of loss, his classmate, Neville Longbottom, throughout the books, is also grieving. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry learns that Neville was raised by his grandmother because Death Eaters tortured his parents into insanity, and Neville’s parents in the books still live at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. While there is so much to Neville’s role in the books and his unique relationship to Harry, for this post, one can say that Neville’s parents may be alive, but they are no longer the people or parents they used to be, and Neville can grieve for them. In life, we don’t always grieve for people who pass over, sometimes, we can grieve the death of relationships, jobs, or certain experiences that once were very special to us but that did not last. It’s also important to remember that sometimes we are not grieving the loss of the actual person but what they meant to us or, perhaps, the mental image of the relationship with them that we had in our head, and all kinds of things we grieve about are of equal importance.
- People who have experienced devastating losses often see the world in a way that is different from those that have not. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, only Harry, Neville and Luna can see thestrals, dark, winged horses that can only be seen by people who have seen death. In many ways, loss makes us see things from a different perspective. Many students fear thestrals and see them as a bad omen, but as Hagrid explains to them, they are clever and useful.
- Life isn’t fair, and anyone can die. Before Game of Thrones became a rage and made us really believe that anyone can die, it was J.K. Rowling who, through the Harry Potter series, did not give us the happy endings we wanted, especially when she killed off characters like Sirius Black (I am still not over that), Dobby (this broke my heart), Lupin, and Fred Weasley. Fred Weasley’s death was the most devastating one for me at a personal level because I just could not even make myself imagine what his twin, George, would be feeling. For George, every mirror would be like the Mirror of Erised showing him his heart’s deepest desire – probably for Fred to be alive. The Weasley twins, throughout the series, were the personification of joy, with their light-heartedness and clever humour and antics. I felt robbed of this joy when Fred died in the book. But even in the world of fantasy, the reality of life and death is portrayed. People die – good, wonderful, important people – and it is not fair, but it is true. One simply has to accept it and move on.
- We grieve four-legged and feathered friends. Grief is not restricted for people alone. Hedwig’s death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is devastating for Harry. For people who have pets, they know how crushing that loss can be.
- Learning things we did not know about someone who has passed over can be complicated. For many of us, we type the people in our life in certain roles and peg them to be a certain way. Learning things about them after they are gone can be quite a struggle especially when we, sometimes, uncover things about them that we could never imagine even in our wildest dreams. For Harry Potter, Dumbledore is like a mentor, a father-figure. Harry did not know or understand much about him yet he put a lot of trust and faith in Dumbledore throughout the series. We’ve done that too with our parents and other adults (who sometimes can feel to be 150 years old!). In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it is confusing and unsettling at times when the road ahead seems unclear and one does wonder if the rumours about Dumbledore have any basis. In the end, all secrets do come to light, at the right time, not until Harry Potter (or the reader) is ready to understand them. No person is as open a book as we may perceive them to be, and it is alright if we can wait for things to settle in their own time. No mystery book is enjoyed by directly reading the last few pages, right?
- Depression can be soul-sucking and also difficult to explain, but it can be overcome. When we first are introduced to dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, they are described as “among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” If anyone has ever had an episode of depression, they will be able to relate with that cold absence of feeling – that really hollowed-out feeling, different from sadness which is just to cry and feel…At the same time, it is important to remember that dementors can be defeated. Seek therapy and, perhaps, you will stumble upon your Patronus charm!
- The people we love always remain with us. James Potter lives through Harry for the latter’s patronus is the same as his father’s. Snape’s patronus is a doe that was Lily’s patronus. The people we love always stay by our side. Their physical form may have left the earthly abode, but they continue to live with us in spirit.
None of us are immune to the effects of grief, but it is unfortunate that only some of us choose to process it, while others make the choice of suppressing it. Being a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, depression and trauma, I know the importance of experiencing and processing painful emotions and how toxic they may become if we do not. Being around friends and family or a healthy support-system helps. Sometimes, we do need to understand our grief at a deeper level in order to process it better. This is where therapy can help. In addition, connecting with real-life people or fictional characters who have experienced loss can help us understand our own feelings and potentially help us build a foundation for recovery. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor Dumbledore said, “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.” In the Order of the Phoenix, he adds, “This pain is part of being human…the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength” and I agree with that completely. So, if you are trying to cope with painful emotions – be it grief, anxiety, depression, or something different – please know that you are not alone. Even though you are living in the bubble of isolation and feel that no one understands you, there are many people going through exactly what you are experiencing, and please know that your pain is your greatest strength. If you feel like you need to reach out, please connect with a mental health professional near you or drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, remember that you are loved, and you matter.