Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 100,000 excess deaths have been recorded in the UK. Almost everyone has their own personal connection to at least one of these bereavements, whether it is the death of a family member, a colleague or someone in the local community. Even deaths not directly caused by Covid have been affected by painful restrictions on visiting loved ones and funeral arrangements.
Perhaps our pandemic experience of loss is part of the reason why Marvel’s WandaVision has resonated so deeply with its viewers. Like Wanda Maximoff, the show’s central character, many of us have felt the pain of grief and, like her, we are trying to find our way through feelings that can sometimes feel overwhelming. That’s why this exploration of Marvel’s study in grief needs not just a spoilers warning (which have been kept to the minimum), but a recognition that for many of us this is a live and painful journey. What follows is not intended to upset, but it may cause you to reflect on your own responses to grief.
Marvel, and its owner, Disney, are no strangers to emotional dramatisations of death and grief. Bambi’s mother, Mufasa in The Lion King, and Coco’s Hector are all tragic on-screen deaths. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe we see Thor’s grief almost destroy him, the Black Panther struggles to come to terms with his father’s murder and there is perhaps the biggest single loss of life in cinema history.
WandaVision takes the portrayal of grief to a whole new level. The show is set a few weeks after the death of Vision, who is killed while fighting supervillain Thanos, despite Wanda’s best efforts to save him.
Learning how to grieve
Most of us encounter death in books and films before we encounter them in the real world. To an extent, fictional deaths prepare us for the day we will experience the reality of bereavement ourselves, and present us with models of response.
As a society we rarely talk to children, or other adults, about death until after a bereavement has occurred. If books and films teach us about what bereavement will be like, a series with as much reach and emotional impact as WandaVision is worth not just enjoying but examining. Viewers will have spent nearly six hours watching the first season. Its powerful emotions and poignant lines will stay with us.
Wanda’s experience of bereavement was particularly harrowing. It also happened at the same time as numerous other deaths. Each single death has profound significance, but we have learned that the meaning of each individual loss can sometimes be overlooked in the sea of grief the pandemic has unleashed. As is the case for Wanda, our normal patterns of grieving have been taken from us, and that is not without consequence for our ability to cope.
Looking at some of the online responses to WandaVision, there is a sense of shared, cathartic experience among viewers. Somehow, sharing Wanda’s world and feeling her grief reminds us that it is OK for us to grieve. The series reminds us that grief is both a deeply personal, yet a shared experience, and that even the strongest of us can feel overcome by it. If someone as powerful, intelligent and self-aware as Wanda can feel grief as “this wave washing over me again and again…it’s gonna drown me” then it is OK for us admit to feeling that way as well.
Stages of grief
Since the publication of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying (Macmillan) in 1969 the idea of the ‘stages of grief’ has become well known. Most grief counsellors are agreed that these five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are rarely experienced in a linear way, but that the stages, while identifiable, are often mixed up and returned to in different ways as we make an increasing level of peace with our loss.
Wanda experiences elements of each stage of grief as the show develops. Her supernatural abilities allow her to take denial to a level that many grieving people long to be able to. She simply cannot accept Vision has gone, and so for her, he has not. Such denial and disbelief is not unusual or deliberate and cannot be rushed through.
Anger is the second stage. Wanda certainly gets angry when her world is threatened and acts to protect it. We see examples of this stage in the Bible too. Martha tells Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21) and we can feel the pain in her voice. Many of us have experienced the anger of bereavement. “Why, God?” we shout to the sky. Sometimes we find ourselves taking out this rage on objects or even those around us. At other times we just boil within.
At least one scene sees Wanda bargaining, asking to be left alone and making threats so the world she has created can be preserved. In Wanda’s fictional case, supernatural powers are a strong bargaining chip. Those of us without such abilities still often find ourselves in a stage of bargaining. Ask any parent of a dying child and you will hear somewhere in the conversation their deep sense that it should be their life ending and not their child’s; they would swap places if that were possible.
Another episode sees Wanda telling the camera that she is OK when she is clearly not. Depression, or at least feeling low, is a stage of the process for many. The Psalms give us plenty of examples of honesty with God when down or emotionally empty. Advice to cheer up, whether with mention of our heavenly hope or not, is rarely helpful at this point. Instead, like Job’s friends (before they spoke!) sitting and sharing the pain, even in silence, is the most healing response we can offer (see Job 2:11-13).
As for acceptance, most people find there are levels of acceptance along their bereavement journey. It is a process rather than a single event.
Wanda’s on-screen journey through grief is powerful because it is authentic. We watch her go through the feelings we go through. Even if the constraints of a nine-episode season mean her journey is rather more linear than ours, we recognise the truth of the experience presented to us. We can empathise because, despite her powers, Wanda is vulnerable, like us. She mirrors and validates our experience.
Funerals, graves and shrines
Funerals are an important way marker on any journey through bereavement. Wanda is denied an opportunity for a funeral for Vision. And Covid has placed restrictions on funerals and denied many their opportunity to come together and say goodbye. Those who are unable to say goodbye, for whatever reason, find grief harder to process.
At a funeral we actively and publicly hand our loved one to God. Whether at a grave or crematorium, there is something important about physically leaving the body with God. The deceased is no longer our responsibility but left safe in the loving hands of God.
I regularly drive past a memorial to two people killed in a road traffic accident. Both families have set up and maintain memorials with floral displays, candles, pictures and even lights. I know nothing about who is responsible, but I wonder whether, like Wanda, they are finding it hard both physically and emotionally to move beyond the tragedy. I wonder if somehow they fear they would be letting the deceased down if the quality of the display drops.
One consequence of a worldview that sees death as the end is the belief that those who have died only continue to exist as memories. If we forget them, then they are really gone. This puts tremendous pressure on the living to preserve the dead. It is no surprise that as belief in an afterlife declines, the importance of memorials and homemade roadside shrines grows. The words of the angels: “Why do you look for the living among the dead” (Luke 24:5) echo around such shrines. For Christians, faith that the departed have indeed left, and are safe with God, means we’re released from the responsibility of maintaining their existence and the pressure that brings.
What about the Church?
Wanda grieves alone. She has no one to share her pain, no one to listen to her story. The words from creation that it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18) are as relevant when we grieve as anywhere else. One of Covid’s curses is that it has forced so many to grieve in isolation. It is not good for us to grieve alone.
Interestingly, there is little evidence of other superheroes reaching out to Wanda or even recognising that she had disappeared. I wonder how many bereaved members of our churches have dropped off our pastoral radar? Wanda’s all-consuming grief removes her capacity to reach out for help, partly because Vision’s death adds to previous experiences of loss. Like Wanda, our previous experiences of loss will have an impact on our response to fresh bereavements and, like her, sometimes those who are bereaved find it hard to reach out for help.
How brave are we at reaching out to those who might be grieving? Or do we excuse ourselves by thinking we might be intruding? How different would Wanda’s story have been if someone had reached out to her?
Only love remains
When Vision uttered the beautiful and wise words: “What is grief if not love persevering?”, the response was immediate. Those seven words quickly spread across the internet in memes and tweets and many shared how the scene had moved them to tears. But a line can be moving and profound without being the whole truth. Love and grief are not synonymous. Grief is not just love but a messy mix of love, regret, guilt, anger and disappointment. Love lasts, but if we are unable to recognise and work through the negative aspects of grief we, like Wanda, will cause pain to ourselves and those around us. The negative aspects of grief can be passed through while love remains. For Christians it is love, not grief, that is eternal.
WandaVision is moving in its portrayal of grief. But in Marvel’s world, Wanda must find her own way through. Her grief is her problem and only she can solve it. The Bible pulls no punches about grief’s pain but tells a more hopeful story: “Even when my way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side” (Psalm 23:4, The Message).
Notice the “when” in that verse. Like Wanda, we all face the agony of grief at some point, feeling we are drowning in our pain. Faith is not a ‘get out of pain free’ card for the bereaved. But, unlike Wanda, Christians do not face grief alone. This Easter, we can journey with the death conqueror, Jesus. He has prepared a place for us (John 14:2). No one and nothing can separate us from his love or snatch us from his hand (Romans 8:39; John 10:28).
WandaVision is streaming now on Disney+ and is rated PG