It’s a fact, death affects everyone, and no matter how hard we try, each of us will eventually pass away. But how we choose to view death matters. When we consider life, the act of dying, and death, the stories we have grown up with may be one of our greatest sources of mental fortitude, perspective, and wisdom. When it comes to the balance of life and death, perhaps no series of books resonates more strongly with its audience than the Harry Potter series.
“I have found that literature in general can be helpful for those who are grieving or going through difficult times. The ability to read about others’ experiences helps individuals feel validated about their own experiences and reduces feelings of isolation,” says Megan Perschke, a bereavement coordinator with Penn Wissahickon Hospice. “Harry Potter highlights the power and importance of positive support systems after going through a loss.”
While the themes of life and death can be found throughout the seven books that make up the series, the most striking example may be taken from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A major driver of the seventh book’s plot comes in the form of the story of the Three Brothers. In the story, which can be viewed in the accompanying YouTube clip, three brothers arrive at a stream which is too deep and too wide to cross safely. However, being proficient in the use of magic, the brothers use their powers to create a bridge, thereby allowing them to cross the stream unharmed. As they cross the stream, the embodiment of death appears before them. As a reward for their ingenuity and so cleverly escaping his clutches, death bestows on each brother a “gift” of their choosing. The gift each brother selects can tell us a great deal about how we view death and what lessons can be drawn from those perspectives.
The first brother: The elder wand
Seeking to become the most powerful wizard on earth, the first brother requests a wand greater than all others in existence. Death crafts a wand from an elder tree and gives it to the brother. The wand is meant to be impossible to defeat in a duel, and symbolizes the need to “control” death.
“The idea that we cannot control when and how death comes to us threatens what we know about the world, which threatens our safety,” Perschke says. Indeed, the search for the elder wand is a primary objective in Lord Voldemort’s quest to “defeat” death and achieve immortality. His obsession with possessing its power eventually becomes part of his final undoing. Perschke suggests an alternative to conquering death - that we make the most of our time on earth, saying, “While we cannot control life and death, many people ultimately find comfort in the idea that we can control what we do with the life that we have.”
The second brother: The resurrection stone
The second brother’s request is decidedly different from the first’s. Longing for his late fiancé, the second brother requests the ability to recall lost loved ones from the dead. With the power of the resurrection stone, he is able to do just that. However, upon seeing his love return from the dead, he realizes that nothing can ever truly bring her back.
“An important part of the process for many people is working to accept and adjust to the world without their loved one in it, and finding ways to continue their connection with the person who died,” Perschke says. “When a loved one dies, one can adjust and redefine their relationship with the person they lost. This allows a continued bond with the person that often changes throughout life.”
This perspective can be difficult to achieve, and not just for those we’ve lost who we knew in life, but also those we never really met. “Harry did not remember much about his parents, but is often driven by the chance to learn about them and connect with their memory,” Perschke says, adding that this connection with his parents and others he has lost (Sirius, Dumbledore, Hedwig, and Mad Eye Moody, to name a few) provides Harry with comfort and strength in many moments of need. “Harry is protected throughout the series by his mother’s love, which is an imaginative example of how maintaining that relationship with our loved ones can help us navigate the world moving forward.”
In this sense, there seems to be a critical balance of reflection and action. There is nothing wrong with contemplating the lives of those we’ve lost, as long we are able to channel those memories in a healthy way. When it comes to balancing the memories of the deceased with value for our waking lives, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore may have put it best in the very first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when he said, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
The third brother: The cloak of invisibility
What the first two brothers lacked in their requests was a sense of acceptance. Understanding that death will follow him wherever he goes, the third brother requests a cloak so that death cannot see him. For the rest of his life, the brother focuses on living a full life. In old age, he discards the cloak and passes it onto his son.
“There are many factors that may impact one’s ability to find acceptance in the inevitability of death, such as satisfaction with how one lived their life to this point, spirituality and what they believe will happen after death, or one’s own prior experiences with death and loss,” Perschke says. “Though acceptance of death can be a positive thing, it is also important to acknowledge that not reaching this point of acceptance is normal and understandable.”
Open at the Close
Regardless of how we choose to approach life, death, and grieving in our own lives, it’s important to remember that we are never truly alone in our grief. Whether it’s finding comfort in the words of a friend, family member, bereavement coordinator, or the written pages of a story about a boy who became a wizard, there are always people and places from which we can draw inner strength. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a moment in which Harry finds himself speaking about his late parents with his Godfather Sirius. Sirius responds with words that are both honest and hopeful saying, “It's cruel that I got to spend so much time with James and Lily, and you so little. But know this; the ones that love us never really leave us." It’s true, whether in our memories or our hearts, we can always keep those we loved alive in our own way.