After years of reading terrible books like Captain Underpants, Austin finally showed interest in starting the Harry Potter series. A few months ago, we began reading the first book, and we’ve progressively moved through the story. It’s a compelling one, with characters and themes that are far beyond those easily understandable by a 7-year-old.
One of the magical creatures that appears in the series is a thestral. I had to actually look up the definition of this bat-like, horse-shaped creature online, and once I did I remembered that it was a special kind of supernatural being: the thestral is only visible to people who’ve seen someone die and accepted that death. In the series, Harry cannot see the thestrals right away. In fact, even after witnessing death up close, he does not see the thestrals immediately. He must come to gain an emotional understanding of the death he has seen before the creatures are visible to him.
This concept is an interesting one, especially if I extrapolate it beyond Harry Potter. The general premise seems to hold true for me: those of us who’ve seen and accepted death can see things that others can’t.
There is something about watching someone die that changes you.
Of course, it used to be a lot more common to watch someone die. Even a hundred years ago, people died at home, surrounded by loved ones. And death was a whole lot more common. It wasn’t just the very old that were dying en masse, it was also the young.
Let me be clear, I am glad we don’t have large numbers of children dying of preventable diseases anymore. I am glad we can prolong the lives of people with heart conditions and cancers and that many of the diagnoses of the past are curable now. I am glad we have awareness like #worldcancerday2019. This is all good.
But it means that we are removed from death. Unless you are a medical professional, it’s likely that you haven’t seen someone die until you are well into middle age when, possibly, you watch a parent succumb to illness. Even then, time and space may mean you do not watch the light go out in your loved one’s eyes.
Maybe this is why I feel a special connection to others who have lived through death. Last week, in fact, I ran into the woman who ran my grief group at church. A decade ago, she lost her young son to cancer. She grieved, terribly, but she also began to work with our church to do outreach to people who were also experiencing great loss. That’s how we met.
“How are you?” she asked, and then added, “I mean, I know, that’s a terrible question that’s impossible to answer.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, “and you can ask it. I’m okay.”
We chatted for a while about life. Her youngest son had recently gone off to college, and we talked about how tragic loss at an early age can shape you in very specific ways. “I know that his life will be significantly marked by the loss of his brother,” she said, “and I get that. But I don’t want it to be everything that defines him.”
“I get that,” I said. “I worry about the same thing for my kids.”
We didn’t have to say much more. I could see the mutual understanding in her eyes.
I don’t know anything about this woman, really. I don’t know what her favorite food is, or what TV shows she watches in the evening. I don’t know where her extended family lives and I don’t know if she has any pets.
But I know her. I know her because we’ve shared an experience that is rare among our peers. When I look into her eyes, I see someone who understands me and my life. In her, I recognize a kindred spirit.
We can see thestrals.