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Take Note: Dr. Jill Harrington on using superheroes to talk to kids about grief

Dr. Jill Harrington
Dr. Jill Harrington

Dr. Jill Harrington is the creator and lead editor of the textbook, “Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss,” which uses modern superhero narratives as fictional case studies to teach grief theory promote healing.

Dr. Harrington talked with WPSU’s Lindsey Whissel Fenton about how these pop culture icons can be used to spark conversations and advance understanding about loss, grief, and trauma.

To recognize a “superhero” in your life, click here.

Here’s the conversation with Dr. Jill Harrington:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Jill Harrington is the creator and lead editor of the textbook, “Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss,” which uses modern superhero narratives as fictional case studies to teach grief theory and promote healing. In addition to her work as a writer, Dr. Harrington is also an adjunct professor, grief educator, trainer, and consultant. She's been a practicing social worker for more than 20 years with a special focus on trauma, loss, and bereavement. And she's one of the first published authors on the subject of bereavement in U.S. military families. Dr. Jill Harrington, welcome to Take Note.

Jill Harrington 

Thank you for having me, Lindsay. I'm really happy to be here.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Where did the idea for “Superhero Grief” come from?

Jill Harrington 

Gosh, so I'll try and give you the short answer to that long answer, question. The idea for superhero grief really was born out of the time when I first started as a social worker. I started working after 9/11 with some family members, I had a young kid who, the person who was really close to him was like an uncle to him, died in 911. And he was about nine to ten years old. And he came from a pretty rough neighborhood in Queens. And, you know, he was just really shut down most of our sessions and it was hard to connect. And one day, he walked in with the Batman t-shirt. And that was the bridge, that was a therapeutic bridge. And we started talking about Batman and I brought up to him that was something we could connect with and like, then wove into the conversation how Batman was a homicide survivor. And that's really where the idea started back in 2001, 2002. But then in 2009, I was at ADEC the Association for Death Education and Counseling. And that was meeting with Dr. Kathy Shear the Center for Complicated Grief. And I opened up my computer and there was a picture, I had fan art of Batman with roses next to the grave of his parents and she asked the question, she saw my I was pulling up the project, and she wasn’t sure, “What's that?” “Well, that's a picture of Batman in front of the grave of his parents.” And she knew who Batman was, but didn't really know like, the whole backstory. She's like, “Okay, what’s he doing?” I'm like, “Well, you know, he's a homicide survivor, right?” And she's like, “No.” I'm like, “Yeah, his parents died in Gotham City. They were murdered when he was, depending on the story arc, somewhere between six and like ten years old. And he's a homicide survivor, and he's been a bereaved child. And if you Google “Batman and psychological conditions,” complicated grief pops up, if not the one or two number things that most pop psychologists everyone likes to diagnose Batman on the internet. And I would love to put together a panel on talk with you about what your thoughts are on that, because I don't really see Batman as having truly prolonged grief disorder, complicated grief.” And she's like, “Yeah, cool. Let's talk about that.” So that's where the idea really came about. And then I was campaigning around ADEC saying, you know, “A lot of these superhero stories are all about love, loss, and transformation.” And I'm very much a proponent of we have to be creatively bold, when we reach out to people who are hurting. And you know, it's ia difficult and painful topic to talk about. But if they could find it in a character, and with superheroes, especially, which are very popular, and multi-generational, multicultural, they are our modern mythology. And so, most of our heroes go through a hero's journey. And these stories are written by humans for humans about human struggles and death and loss being pretty big one.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Yeah, I remember when you and I first spoke about this, and you pointed out how much loss is present in these in these sort of modern myths, it's like you step back and you're like, “Yeah, yeah, these origin stories are all about grief loss and trauma.” Before we go forward, too, I should note, there's probably some spoiler alerts for people who aren't caught up other superhero lore. So just you know, listen at your own risk. But is there one story, one superhero storyline in particular that resonated with you?

Jill Harrington 

Hmm. Well, I mean, I'm forever Batman fan, so I mean, I think the story of Bruce Wayne and his searching for justice and meaning making and purpose and you know attachment loss like, the story arc of him pushing away all these… his difficulty with attachment, but he's certainly for someone who states that… I love the Lego Batman movie. I absolutely love Lego Batman movie. Okay, great job! Will…I forget his last name… Will Arnett was who voiced Batman couldn't have a better Batman, amazing movie, but it kind of like it's a montage, it brings together all sorts of Batman's attachment issues. And, but in the end, kind of does that repair work that he really needs to do for himself in terms of like, trusting people and having a family because he wants people around them. He wants Alfred around him. He wants… he has all these close relationships in his life. But, you know, because he had a sudden loss of the child, traumatic one and he witnessed it. it ruptures his ability to really attach to people. He's avoidant about it, but yet his like approach is avoidance about it most of his life. And so, his story arc to me is just that, that journey of someone who's had a sudden traumatic rupture in their life, it really gets it.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

So, the interesting approach in “Superhero Grief” is sort of these case studies, you know, chapter by chapter, and there's one chapter in particular, that I want to call attention to because it deals with sibling loss through the framework of Thor and Loki. There's a passage I wanted to read, “Siblings provide companionship and support play a prominent role in our development and constitute a significant part of our sense of self. The death of a sibling impacts who we are, what we hold dear and how we relate to others. For better or for worse, we are never the same.” This is so important, and I love this chapter so much because siblings are so often sidelined in the wake of a death.

Jill Harrington 

Well, we used to run a support group and an organization I work with for bereaved military families and the support group was called, the workshop was called “Sibling Grief: How are Your Parents Doing?” That was the title of the workshop because siblings are often the disenfranchised and forgotten grievers. My very good colleague, Dr. Rayna Godfrey, she's a psychologist. And this has been her focus really, as a bereaved sibling herself on through the loss of her brother who died tragically in a car accident. This was also her doctoral work was to really look at grief of siblings because there wasn't a lot out there just when she was reaching out and trying to find information for herself. And she discovered there wasn't a lot out there. Siblings are kind of a forgotten griever. And Thor and the death of Loki in Avengers: Infinity Wars, when Loki is killed in the beginning of that by Thanos, it is amazing because they have such a complicated relationship. Sibling relationships can be really complex. I have worked with families where siblings are, you know, very tight, very close. Most families, siblings are tight and close, but they don't always all get along they kind of, you know fight like a little pack of wolves. There's always sort of a pecking order and mommy’s and daddy’s attention or you know daddy and daddy or mommy and mommy, doesn't matter who they're with. They're trying to children are always trying to like, you know, sometimes be in the pecking order. But for the most part, siblings would do a lot for siblings, then you have a lot of siblings that don't get along. They're raised in the same family they're very different. They can be very complicated. There could be a lot of other things that come into play like jealousy we see that often with, especially from Loki who was adopted, he was adopted as a Frost Giant. And he's got a lot of issues with identity. Then, Thor's a little obnoxious, too, let's face it, he's like, “Yeah, I'm Thor, god of Thunder.” And, they negotiate that relationship. But I think the beautiful thing about the two of them that illustrated in the film is that when it really comes down to it, them wanting to kill each other, and they talk about this, they don't. They can't. As complex as their relationship is, they just can't kill each other. And when Loki finally kind of dies in this timeline, we don't know what's going to happen with that, you know, Thor is, um, it's pretty messed up. He's grieving. I mean, he's had significant losses in his family. And it really shows him how powerless he is over death.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

A lot of Superhero Grief looks at the superhero narrative as a way of exploring transformative grief. What is transformative grief?

Jill Harrington 

So transformative grief is a fairly, I wouldn't say recent concept, but it's one of the post traumatic growth and transformative grief have been really highly studied the last 10 to 20 years. And, post traumatic growth, PTG, is really about, you know, we look a lot of Holocaust survivors and cancer survivors have said, you know, it's not the actual event that made me change in some kind of a positive direction. It was the struggle. The growth in the context that in the context of distress, there's not always pathology, there can be growth and so transformative grief. [Inaudible] still kind of postulates that through this bending in this breaking and in the struggle, we can kind of, in a way, as possibly we're rising through the ashes like a phoenix of something that has really broken us, broken us open, broken us down to our knees. And, you know, some for some people the death of a loved one, not always but sometimes a death of a loved one is profoundly painful and profoundly distressing. And so, in the struggle to kind of survive through profound loss, and survive through being broken open, we, in a way rise. Like these some of these characters; one of my favorite is Captain Marvel In the movie, I think she gives the best example of sort of way and transformative grief in that struggle to sort of she leans on that relationship, as the Kree AI is trying to get her to convert to use her powers for the [inaudible] genocide against the other people that [inaudible] the shapeshifters. And she discovers that they were trying to give her these powers to do destructive things. And she's kind of getting seduced by the dark side of the AI, which is very powerful and strong, and they want to kind of illuminate her powers, she really transformed into Captain Marvel as she leans on to that pain. And she leans on to remembering the relationship she had with Marvel, who was a Kree, and trying to fight the powers of the Creator get this power to use for really bad purposes. And then she remembers the struggle that every time as a child as a woman, that when she was faced with challenges knocked down, she chose to rise, she stood up, and leaning on that love and leaning on that humanity and leaning on that relationship, she pushes up against the power of the AI. And in that moment, of love, and leaning on her humanity, and in that struggle of wanting to use her powers, in a good way, she is transformed into Captain Marvel, she illuminates. And that's a beautiful depiction of transformative grief is that in leaning, sometimes, on powers that we didn't even know we had, through our struggle to rise in grief, we can be transformed as human beings, we can learn that we have strength we never knew existed, we can learn that the real fragility of life, and have deeper, more meaningful conversate meaningful relationships with people. We may not be the same person, you know, Freud expected us back in like to talk a lot about Freud the damage of expect with grief work, but he only got the conversation started. So, but we were supposed to be the same person. That was what the grief work was you were supposed to return to your identity and the person you were pre-loss this no, we are multi-dimensional. We have different chapters and different characters of our life. We can transform into different human beings that through a really difficult circumstance doesn't necessarily make us bad, could change us in ways we never know.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

The flip side of that… there's so much stigma and pressure that grieving people face. When talking about transformative grief, is there a danger of inadvertently shaming people like if you haven't experienced some sort of positive growth, you're, you know, air quotes, “failing” your grief experience?

Jill Harrington 

Well, there is. So, you know, I have a client in my practice whose son died by suicide. And she's a mom, and it's been just about a year and a half. And because there's also this perception out there that you gotta bounce back, you have to… everything's got to be super positive in your life. And you got to go out and create foundations and do runs and do this and that, you know, this is like, maybe like four months after her son's unexpected, very unexpected loss by suicide at a young age, was having all these subtle Ii's the [inaudible] messaging. No one was telling her she needs to do this, but she was imposing it on herself. You know, having to just get back to normal or do something out, you know, she's got to do something for suicide prevention. She's got to do something, she has to transform this pain. But yes, so there's a lot of social messaging out there. There's a lot of messaging to people that, yeah, even in your trans.. if you have transformed as a person for good or bad, that grief is not allowed to live with you. You've…okay, you've gotten over that, um, you've hit the stages, you checked off all the boxes. And now it's been ten years since the murder of your child or the death of your child, and you're just supposed to be gotten over that, you know, like love, just grief and love are synonymous. And so, I've never met a bereaved parent ever, that doesn't carry around pictures of their child forever. It's a painful, a beautiful thing to see. And that pain and beauty can live in the same context is a very hard, cognitive thought for us to have that pain and beauty can coexist. And so when I work with parents, especially I work with military, bereaved parents, it's amazing, the first thing they'll do is they'll take out a card and hand it to you, or show a page. But yeah, there's a lot of pressure from society, because it's another way people want to impose, like, you just got to get over your grief. Like, you can't, like talk about it. I mean, someone, just last week, we were talking about the book Superhero Grief. I was on a podcast and someone said, “Well, you're an orphan now, Jill.” I was like, what? I kind of never like stuck in my mind. But when I really thought about it. Because my parents died in 2015, and 2016, basically, like, a year apart, very quickly, I thought I felt like an orphan. But, you know, society's not going to label me as that. I didn't even label me as that. But I felt like one of like, I don't have my parents in the world anymore. Kind of, we think of an orphan as the identity is 18 and under and struggling and needs guardians, but you know, and is helpless. But yeah, we get a lot of messaging. And this has started from you know, we were in the Middle Ages, a much more death-accepting society. That's why you see cemeteries. I grew up on Long Island and I grew up on… my on my family was mainly in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. But my grandparents were in Queens and we drive into Manhattan a lot to also see my cousins and stuff there. And a lot of time in New York City. And when you drive while expressway, you can't help but see Cavalry Cemetery on the way to the… Cavalry one of the largest cemeteries right in the middle of Queens. And so, people buried their dead in the middle of town, people died in the home. Death was part of life. And then as we the Industrial Revolution came around, we industrialized with medicine is even more about medicine, actually giving us this magical thinking that we could avoid death, and has really propelled people into a death-denying society. We sterilize death. Now. We have people die, you know, away from home that people are buried far away or they disappear in cremation. So, um, I forget the answer your question. But yeah, so after the, when the death-denying society also gave rise. There was a Russian sociologist called Elie Metchnikoff, who wanted to study death and dying. And that's where we came up with the word he took two words, that ontology, so the study of death and dying battles coming from Greek for death, and then gerontology. This was back in the 1940s, or 50s, he wanted to study aging and death and dying. Gerontology really took off; thanatology, not so much. It was actually easier probably to talk about [inaudible] you're talking about sex, and it is about people dying. And so, we've seen with COVID-19, not that anybody should die, but plagues like this existed throughout history. And, you know, it's something I think that our society in a way wasn't prepared for, because that happened in the past. It doesn't happen now. And so, we want to push that out. We run tonight, and we get all this messaging and pressure that, you know, people can’t [inaudible] and they got to move forward and move past it really fast.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Dr. Jill Harrington, creator and lead editor of the creative textbook, “Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss.” You mentioned earlier, the idea of Batman being this gateway for you to open up a conversation. I'm wondering if that is a tactic that sort of the average layperson… especially maybe if we're talking about parents with bereaved children, or someone who knows a bereaved child, like can this be a way to open conversations about grief?

Jill Harrington 

Absolutely, I think the superhero is a bridge. First of all, when you know, art is a container for us, it's an external container. And if we could see things externally that touched us internally, that's what really art does. And I have a client who got the book. She's in her late 60s, early 70s. And she started watching WandaVision with her grandchildren, because it was during the pandemic, and she, they tend to come over how she might babysit them when the parent or take care of them while the parents are at work. And she found out about the book. And now she's sitting and reading chapters, even though the books can be a little bit to be it, there's something in there for everybody. The bereaved write chapters, some of the chapters seem a little academic, there's case studies in there, she was able to sit down with her grandchildren and connect with them, because her son died, unfortunately, a couple of years ago of a drug overdose. And she's able to now talk about their uncle and their father through superheroes and caulk about things like continuing bonds, and it's really relatable material. And so, I think, again, I'm a huge fan. I think when we can use art, as a bridge, to talk about things that are super, I mean, I use it to teach to because let's face it, I often get my students in my class, like I have 15 students in my intro, introduction, grief counseling class. And it is not an easy topic, believe it or not, most of them are taking the class because they've suffered a loss. And they want to know how to work with other people that have had a loss, but a lot of them are very, very, very touched by their own grief. And so, using the superhero narratives in we had a lesson last night on art and form brief and The Flash, love The Flash. But if we can connect really difficult material, that most people don't want to touch it, they rather touch a third rail on a railroad track, then touch the most painful thing that they've gone through. So, we can kind of open a bridge and get them discussing it, it opens up other apertures. And it gives them a safe way to kind of also connect with their own grief.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

And you touched on this a bit, but “Superhero Grief” is intended as a textbook, but is it something that the average person would be able to get something from?

Jill Harrington 

Absolutely, it's, um, they're very short chapters, some of them, some of them are a little academic, some of them are more explanatory than we have. They're all really case studies. So yes, I've had people… it was a really kind of exciting for me when the book came out. And I had people… I'm not I don't really like social media too much, because I'm not really that good at it. So, but when the book came out, I just put it on, like, one of my accounts or whatever. And, like, I think it was Twitter. And all these people I didn't expect to get the book, were getting it. And there are a lot of folks who are bereaved, there are a lot of mothers and fathers and, and fans of superheroes themselves who have had grief and loss I've had, we're talking about bereavement specifically, because there's other types of losses, but you know, who are bereaved who are buying the book, and really related to it. So that was really exciting for me to see that. And that was what the book was meant for you. But yes, I think any person can pick up this book, and learn something about their own grief, through “Superhero Grief.”

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

The textbook is just one element of “Superhero Grief.” There's a lot to explore on the website. There's also an interactive component where people can essentially nominate their own real-life superhero. Can you just tell us why it's important to recognize the heroes in our life?

Jill Harrington 

So, the book ends on, I wrote a chapter called “Finding Superheroes All Around Us.” And that, heroes, really, you know, the superheroes kind of pumped up from you know, like a [inaudible] jump. But there are superheroes in our lives every day, that typically go unrecognized because they don't want to be recognized. And it's so important when we're going through tough times. I mean, grief rewrites your address book. It really shows you. It really shows you your relationships, and then also can bring in new relationships in your life that you never expected, and no one really wants to ever be like tonight I'm running a suicide, bereaved parents group. These parents are so super connected right now and so glad to have each other in their lives, but no one will want the circumstances to get there. And so, recognizing through the most difficult of our life circumstances, sometimes can highlight out of the shadows. People just doing everyday kind and beautiful things for people who are grieving or in yourself discovering things about yourself on your own hero's journey through grief. But I know that through multiple losses in my life, you know, one of the things that I felt like was really heroic and these could be, you know, [inaudible] magnanimous acts people do for people. I once had an old boss, who ran a nonprofit and they helped a young college student lost both their parents pay off her tuition bills, while she was grieving. That could be a really go from big acts to this the small things in life like the person who remembers, who remembers you weeks or months after someone who's died. We recently had death in the neighborhood, I keep going the mom, you know, several weeks later, bringing meals in my life. One of the superhero things was a simple act of when I went to, I inherited my dad's motorcycle because I ride motorcycles and he wanted to give me his Harley Davidson trike that he bought, only got 200 miles on it. So, I remember going to the DMV, which is not a fun place to go. I hate it there. And they're never normally that fun at the DMV and nice. When the woman there saw that I was retitling my deceased father's motorcycle into my name, and I was flustered and I was hot and waiting there for an hour and I was nervous. And I was trying to go through papers and look for things she used was super patient with me and she said, “I'm so sorry for your loss. Take all the time you need. Don't worry, I'm here to help you.” Like that small act was super heroic. You know, and then even like, my clients that I work with who are newly bereaved, it's an act of heroism just to walk through a stranger's door, a grief therapist, with your heart and your soul. Like your soul feels it's like it sucked out your hearts in your hand. You're bleeding out, and you walk through a stranger's door to talk about the most difficult thing you have that takes so much courage. And I acknowledge that for people just getting up to brush your teeth and put on clothes after your child has died. And so, we see this in. And just to kind of sum up we see this beautiful act. And Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins when Commissioner Gordon… young Bruce Wayne is sitting there, he's traumatized. He just witnessed the death of his parents. And he's in Commissioner Gordon's office. And the commissioner has a coat from his father, his father's overcoat And he’s (Bruce Wayne) shivering and shaking, the Commissioner comes over, he puts his father's overcoat on him, and puts his arm around his hand on it and acknowledges just how painful this must be. That, to me, is a heroic act of kindness. So out of the shadows, if we allow ourselves to open up our eyes, even when we're grieving, out of this darkness, there can come light, because sometimes the darkness sucks away any sense that there may be hope out there. True darkness is not, as they say, in Justice League, it is not true darkness. What it is, is the belief that hope may never return. And so, if we look for those heroes around us these minor things that may be super helpful to us, or we do those acts for others, if we could also do those acts of kindness, the superpower of compassion, manatee understanding patients. We can be heroes to the bereaved, and they can look for superheroes all around them.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Jill Harrington, thank you so much.

Jill Harrington 

It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Lindsey for having me on. As you can see, I could talk about superheroes and grief all day long.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton 

Dr. Jill Harrington is an adjunct professor, grief educator, trainer, writer, and consultant. She recently created and served as lead editor of the textbook “Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss.” For more information on “Superhero Grief,” visit wpsu.org/takenote. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton is a senior producer/director at WPSU. An award-winning storyteller, she has explored a wide range of issues through her work in public media. Most recently, she produced and directed Speaking Grief, a multi-platform public media initiative that works to create a more grief-aware society; she continues to produce content for the project's social media presence.
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