Tuesday, April 6, 2021

What Is Grief, If Not Love Persevering?: A Palliative Perspective On WandaVision

by SarahScott B. Dietz (@SDietzMD)

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR WANDAVISION.

In January, WandaVision released on Disney+, promising a weekly serial centered around two romatincally involved and familiar Marvel characters, Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) and Vision. The advertisements showed a black and white, vintage look to the show, and gave few clues as to exactly how it would tie in with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fans were intrigued for many reasons, chief among them being that the last time we saw Vision, he was dead. (CW-Superhero violence/death)

I dove into WandaVision like many fellow geeks: remote in hand, rewinding to scrutinize frames for clues as to what the "Big Story" was, and trying to solve the mystery before they revealed all. My Nick At Nite viewings of My Three Sons and Patty Duke provided ample cultural references for those first few episodes, and my Marvel lore was at least adequate. But where was it all headed?

Somewhere around the third or fourth episode, it hit me like a vibranium baseball bat. WandaVision is a study on grief, loss, and mourning, in layers and layers. I took to Twitter, as one does, noting that colleagues in palliative medicine might want to keep an eye on the show. A friend replied, asking why I would think so.

“It’s Wanda, it’s a giant grief bubble for her. She’s doing this out of grief,” I replied.

"I see it now,” he said, “It’s like superhero complicated grief.”

Complicated grief is what happens when the symptoms of loss and mourning do not begin to subside over time, instead worsening and becoming more intense. People struggling with complicated grief become caught up in their emotional turmoil, and the normal healing process is stalled. They dwell in a world colored by their loss, and may seek out items, locations, or sensations that make them feel proximity to the person they have lost.1

Superhero complicated grief is, in other words, a perfect explanation for trapping an entire town of innocent people in order to build a perfect happy sitcom life with your deceased beloved.

While Wanda is the focus of the story, every character in this series is processing grief stemming from the events in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, most specifically the “Snap” in which Thanos exterminated half of all life in the universe. Fifty percent of the population disintegrates in place, in front of their helpless loved ones, only to reappear in exactly the same place five years later. In the hospital in Episode 4, we get a window into the chaos, tension, and anxiety in the moments as people return after five years. Is the man shoving his way through the hallway desperate to call his wife because he is just returning, or is he hoping to hear her voice again for the first time in half a decade? A key character, Monica Rambeau is shown reappearing in the same room where she was with her mother 5 years earlier. Only now her mother is not there in the hosptial bed, and Monica finds out that her mother died in the 5 years she had been 'gone.'

In Episode 6, Hayward, a main antagonist, growls at Monica that it was so easy for the ones who vanished, they have no idea how hard it was, how much pain those left behind suffered. Even his pain and, yes, grief, is manifest in that short outburst. (The next bit about Monica not having the stomach to sit with her dying mother, though, that’s just an inexcusable snark.)

Monica’s loss is also heightened by having been disintegrated by the "Snap", and the isolation that she feels as a result. While Monica's mother may have died surrounded by loved ones, Monica was unable to be near her mother, to hold her hand or comfort her in her last moments. Monica has to find her own closure without the benefit of those final good-byes. For too many families, that scenario may hit close to home this year, as COVID-related visitation restrictions have limited our ability to be present with each other, even in times of great need.

In the midst of all the grief processing and mourning on screen, I appreciated the reference to Vision’s advance directives. I found it satisfying that going against his stated wishes not to be re-animated or used as a weapon was presented as proof of serious transgression. It does make me wonder what the contents of an Avenger’s advance directive would look like. Do they have a standard order form? Does it include circumstances in which resurrection would be acceptable?

WandaVision’s executive producer and head writer, Jac Shaeffer, has shared that they set out to build Wanda’s story arc on the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. (2) In retrospect, it’s easy to see that progression. Early in the season, Wanda is perky, the problems are light, and she is cheerfully in denial. We see her sink deep into depression, her kids worried about her. Is there anyone who has gone through the grieving process who did not sympathize on some level with the exploding Wanda, energy radiating out away from her in a messy, undirected eruption of frustration and angry sadness?

In the midst of a brutal tour of Wanda’s memories and many losses, it is Vision who crystalizes the essence of our journey: “What is grief, if not love persevering?” To lose someone we have lost does not erase the love we have felt for them, it simply moves the object of our love out of reach. Grief is the space left behind, and it is the work of loving someone who is gone.



One of the most moving moments of the show for me was in the very end, when Wanda and Vision were saying goodbye to their boys, and to each other. There was a genuine sweetness to it, tenderness in a scene that could easily be overwrought. It was the superhero version of a farewell I have seen in my practice, occurring in deeply religious families. It is a mix of emotion found in someone with a deeply held belief that they will surely see their beloved again, someday — certain faith that this will happen, blended with uncertainty of what exactly it might look like, and when. Sadness for the parting, even as they trust it will not be forever.

I am grateful for WandaVision and the conversations it has sparked about grief, loss, and trauma. Marvel being Marvel, we know that even though we have said our farewells this time, we will be able to see these characters again. I can only hope that it will be in a form that is as thought-provoking and enjoyable as WandaVision has been.

For more Pallimed posts about grief.
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For more Pallimed posts by Dr. Dietz click here.

SarahScott B. Dietz, MD practices palliative medicine in western Pennsylvania. She is a life-long geek of many fandoms, and lately has been learning both gardening and how to TikTok.

Reference

1 Shear MK. “Grief and mourning gone awry: pathway and course of complicated grief.” Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2012 Jun;14(2):119-28.

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