By Rev. Sam Blair
If 2020 taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected, and then to have those expectations shattered as well. Even so, I would not have guessed that a Marvel series would begin a national discussion about grief and grieving. And yet, here we are, memes and all.
I work in hospice as a bereavement counselor and chaplain. I also happen to co-host a podcast exploring the intersections of the many forms of geek culture and faith. Like many, I was intrigued but also puzzled by Marvel’s WandaVision series at first. I knew that grief and loss, as well as significant mental breaks resulting from those losses, figured prominently in her comic book backstory and therefore assumed that the series would touch on them also. I just didn’t expect it to do it so well and so movingly.
This is not the first time Marvel has dealt with grief in its cinematic universe of course. If you didn’t hear audible weeping as our heroes went to ash at the end of Infinity War or after Iron Man reversed the snap at the cost of his own life in Avengers: Endgame, it was probably because you couldn’t hear them over your own sobs. However, in WandaVision we see grief not as a part of the story but as the story itself.
Often in superhero films, loss is never lingered on for long. It may only serve as a reason for the hero to punch someone harder than he or she normally would, or as something that happened in the far past that drove them to be the hero. WandaVision though dwells on it and explores it in what I think is a tremendously meaningful way because of what it says about grief, grieving and the realities we make to help us cope with loss.
Grief counselors usually talk about two different types of grief: normal and “complicated” or “prolonged.” Normal grief is what we experience not only when we lose a loved one but when we undergo any dramatic unwanted change that impacts us. It involves the things we typically associate with grieving – tearfulness, depression, anxiety, anger, lack of energy, longing. Complicated grief is relatively uncommon but can be severely debilitating. It shares many symptoms with other clinical disorders such as major depressive disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder, although it is still in the early stages of study and not yet classified clinically as a disorder in its own right. Perhaps the best way to think about complicated grief is to consider it as the symptoms of normal grief carried to their experiential extremes. One doesn’t just cry, one cries to the point of becoming physically ill. One doesn’t just feel sad, one feels so sad that he sees no reason to care for himself anymore.
An interesting aspect of normal grief, which I try to impart to others, is that it often doesn’t feel or appear “normal” to us. Things such as visual or auditory hallucinations are quite common in grief for example. Another common feature is magical thinking, in this case knowing that a loss has happened but simultaneously acting as if it hasn’t. The author Joan Didion for example wrote about charging her husband’s cell phone in the hours after his death, and feeling that while she could part with her dead husband’s clothes, she needed to keep his shoes, because in her mind, what if he needed shoes?
Wanda Maximoff’s creation of a world where she tries to hold the contradictory realities of her beloved Vision being both alive and not alive will ring surprisingly true to the experience of many going through similar losses. As the show highlights, Wanda is not just mourning the loss of Vision, but the loss of her parents and her brother as well. None of these losses have ever really been mourned, by Wanda or by we the viewers. In episode six, we see the toll these hidden losses have had on her, as the series villain Agatha Harkness plays therapist and forces Wanda to confront them. It is when we see Wanda arrive at the place where Vision had planned for them to live out their normal, suburban lives that the dam finally breaks. Wanda’s version of Westview, informed by the TV sitcoms she found comfort in as a child, is less something she intended to create it seems than something that came out of her. It is the outward manifestation of her mind trying to understand and cope with an inconceivable reality and the loss not only of her past but her future. In the language of grief, we would call this a form of denial, which again is something very common and a normal part of grief. While in extreme cases denial can hinder the grieving process, such as when someone absolutely refuses to accept the reality of a loss (or that the loss really impacts them in any way), it can also be beneficial. As in the case of Didion’s shoes, denial allows us to process and adapt to traumatic changes over time. But in Wanda’s case, we see that she is fleeing into a world where reality can be kept at bay while she refuses to grieve.
In the final act of the series, Wanda is given the choice by Agatha Harkness of living in her ideal but false world in exchange for her chaos magic powers. Wanda finally realizes though that her Westview is not sustainable – not only that, but that she is actually hurting the people in it. After releasing the citizens of the town and defeating Agatha, we see her slowly pull back the hex’s effects. She and Vision share touching moments with their children, knowing that they will be lost after the effect ends. We are left with Wanda and Vision, who are finally able to say goodbye. It’s an interesting interchange between the two, as this Vision is made from Wanda’s own memory and is not the “real” Vision (although that’s complicated). It gives Wanda the opportunity to say the things to Vision that she never could before he died, and also gives her a chance to love and care for herself in the process. It’s a poignant image of acceptance of the reality of loss as a necessary part of grieving.
The Wanda Maximoff at the end of the series is quite a different person than who we see at the beginning. Wanda, who wanted so much to be the ideal mother and wife, is now the Scarlet Witch, a being of chaos, mystery and immense power. It is a role and title she didn’t choose, coupled with a role she doesn’t understand. Life after loss is very similar, especially for those that lose a spouse or child. One is thrust into a new life that one didn’t choose and which doesn’t make sense anymore. The challenge of re-forming meaning and purpose after loss is probably the greatest challenge facing those going through this kind of grief. It is a process that takes years, not the three days we’re often given for bereavement time off from work.
As the series ends, not everything is well and good. Wanda is still broken and hurt, ashamed of what she put the citizens of Westview through and fearful of hurting others again in her grief. This is a good, honest reminder that grief does not end with acceptance of loss. There is still much work to be done. People in grief often go through the same feelings of anger, depression, guilt and denial over and over again. In a post-credit scene, we see Wanda in a self-imposed exile in a wilderness cabin. As a counselor, I will say that this does not bode well. Grief can push us to self-isolate at times. We, like Wanda, may fear that our pain and sorrow are in some way contagious. We fear losing control and harming those around us. We may fear the pain of loss again so much that we sever connections to others. However, nobody can go through the pain of grief alone. I have seen some go through tremendous loss that would cripple many but come through on the other side of it because of the presence of loving and caring supporters throughout the process of grief. The fact that Wanda lacks these supports is concerning. Our last view of Wanda is of her quite literally divided self: one peaceful and contemplative, sipping tea, the other anxiously studying a dark magical book in order to understand her powers.
It doesn’t give one a good sense of peace and closure. But it’s a heck of a setup for whatever Marvel has up its sleeve next.
Rev. Samuel Blair is a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator in Pittbsurgh, PA. He co-hosts the Church of the Geek podcast with Rev. Brian Bennet, and is the creator of chaplainsreport.com.