“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all, those who live without love.”
For our third anniversary, my husband, Patrick, gifted me a boxed set of all seven of the Harry Potter books. This gift came with the added promise that, after years of my begging and nagging, he would finally read them and experience this magical world that I love for the very first time. Before giving me this gift, Patrick had hinted that this may be one of the sweetest gifts that he has ever given me. I have to agree!
This great gift could not have come at a more apt time. July 6th, our wedding anniversary, was also only a few days shy from the three-month anniversary since the stillbirth of our twin sons. From the depths of my grief, I have been able to throw myself back into the wonders of this magical world and the comfort of its nostalgia. Reading them fills me with warmth and light when so much in the Muggle world around me feels so cold and so dark. It is like meeting an old friend again after a long absence and finding that, even after all of this time, that spark of friendship is still there.
And yet, I am finding that this friendship has changed – it has deepened; it has grown; it has matured. Through the lens of grief, I am seeing these books again with new eyes.
It is like Harry when he see the thestrals for the first time.
To explain for the Muggles among us, those who have yet to experience the magic of this series, in the books thestrals are black, skeletal, bat-winged horses who are invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death. Being able to see the thestrals is a sign that the beholder has witnessed death, and gained an emotional understanding of what that death means.
Harry can see these creatures for the first time after witnessing the tragic murder of one his classmates. After bearing witness to death, Harry finds the world around him changed; quite literally, he sees it all with eyes now open to things that formerly were invisible to him.
Reading this story with new eyes, I am encountering my own thestrals. I have always known that death and grief were central themes in the Harry Potter series. It is an inescapable thread weaved throughout the books. And yet now, as I peer through the lens of my own grief, I see it all so much more clearly.
The Harry Potter books begin with loss. Harry is only a baby when he loses his parents and Dumbledore places him in the Dursleys’ home to protect him from the villains of the series, Lord Voldemort and the aptly-named Death Eaters. And so, in the very first pages of the series, Harry loses his entire family and becomes The Boy Who Lived – a grief that will guide the rest of his journey.
As Harry stands before the Mirror of Erised, a magical mirror which reveals your deepest and most desperate desire, Harry longingly sees the family he never got a chance to meet. Reading this scene now, I imagine myself standing before this mirror and in its reflection seeing myself cradling my sons, only now they are happy and healthy and so beautifully alive – my own deep and desperate desire.
As Harry battles Lord Voldemort and faces death again and again, Harry is remarkably spared thanks to the sacrifice of his mother. Dumbledore eloquently explains this magical power of his mother’s sacrificial love – “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” Reading these words of wisdom now, I cannot help but be reminded of the strength of my sons, who sacrificed everything to spare my life. The protection of their love, quite literally, saved me, just as Lily’s love saved her son.
And as Harry loses others whom he loves, tragic casualties in this battle between dark and light, he must face fresh grief again and again. As the books so poignantly describe one of these heart-wrenching moments, Harry must “absorb the enormous and incomprehensible truth: that never again would he speak to him, never again could he help.” Reading these words now, I intimately recognize the shock of this grief, the unfathomable realization of death’s painful permanence.
And finally, when Harry faces Voldemort for one last time, he uses the Resurrection Stone to see his loved ones and gain the strength he needs to face his foe in this final battle. I have yet to encounter this victorious scene on this new journey through the series, so I do not yet know how reading through the lens of my grief will now reenvision this heroic triumph of life and love over death.
Perhaps Harry Potter captures the intricacies of grief so intimately, because the series itself was born out of the pain of grief. When author J.K. Rowling first started writing these stories, she too was facing a debilitating depression after the death of her mother and the destruction of her abusive marriage. She too experienced pregnancy loss. The story of her success has even been used to give hope to those who are contemplating suicide, something that she herself considered in the depths of her own pain.
Rowling has shared that the dementors, dark and loathsome creatures that guard the prison and aid the Death Eaters throughout the series, were inspired by her own experiences with depression. Knowing this genesis, you can feel the pain of this grief in her descriptions of these terrible beings –
“Dementors are 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.“
Maybe this unique intimacy with depression and death is why Harry Potter has been used by so many families trying to help children cope with grief – “How Harry Potter Helps a Grieving Family Cope” – or why Harry Potter is so often listed among great literary classics as a recommendation on what to read in the midst of grief – “10 Things to Read When You are Grieving.”
As one fellow griever reflects,
“When I’m grieving I turn to the Harry Potter series. They envelop me in the comfort of my childhood and allow a full escapism. I can escape with whichever one I’m in the mood for or read the entire series – yet again – if I really need to feel comforted. There’s something about turning to the books I read as a kid that help me push through grief, particularly these because they explore grief, death and love so much.”
She and I are merely two of many whose grief has been transformed by the power of these books. May the magic of these stories similarly bring you comfort if you need it today…