Thestrals

Hospital corridor and beam of light representing DC widow blogger Marjorie Brimley seeing death

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.

12 Replies to “Thestrals”

  1. My wife was a big Harry Potter fan, I’d love to discuss your thestral analogy with her! Last Saturday I spoke with my grandmother, who lost her husband in a tractor accident when they were both 43, and every time I talk with her about being a widower I do feel that she understands me better than other people.

    1. Yes, exactly. It’s interesting because one of the people I really connect with about grief is my aunt, who also lost her husband. She’s 70, but this life experience is one that has bonded us more than any other.

  2. I have a good friend who’s been a widow for 15 years (she was 60 when her husband died.) She and I try to get together often for lunch because she’s the only person I can talk to who really “gets it.” Both of our husbands died at home with us caring for them and present at the end. Other people can be sympathetic, but there are just some things they wouldn’t understand. Yes, watching someone you love take his last breath and leave this earth changes you forever.

    1. Exactly. It’s a strange bond to have. But it’s real – regardless of the age.

  3. Yes. This.
    I’m a crazy HP fan…changed forever by the day I started seeing thestrals. ❤️

    1. I read the Harry Potter series with a totally different mindset after losing Shawn. In particular, I think JK Rowling really does a great job discussing grief in the later books.

  4. I had started re-reading the Harry Potter books with my kids before my husband died, and when we were on the second book he realized how much he liked them too. He died in the middle of the third one and continuing on with the series afterwards became a kind of life-line for us- for my children, it was a way to see favorite characters coping with loss and grief, and for me, it was a tangible reason to make it through each day- I would tell myself I just had to keep going long enough to finish each book. Fourteen months later, and my daughter still listens to the audiobooks while going to sleep at night. I imagine that for her it’s similar to this blog for me- to know that there are others out there who see thestrals too, and who persevere.

    1. I love this story. I’ve never tried the audiotapes, but that’s actually a great idea for me and my kids.

  5. The thestrals part in Harry Potter is a favorite of mine. Unlike most children’s books, JK Rowling really lets the characters go through realistic stages of grief and describes it a little. I love how she describes the thestrals as a creature that is kind of scary but not harmful, and that seeing them dispels a sense of magic that the carriages were self-propelled. Still she makes it seem like a gift to see the truth because not everyone gets to see that.

    Beautiful writing as always, Marjorie.

    1. Yes – I should have discussed that. I love “scary but not harmful” – because that’s what they are, and really, that’s what grief is too. I’m feeling like there will be a “thestrals, part 2” blog post at some point. Thanks for the love, friend.

  6. Yes, this is why I read this blog and comment on it: Kindred Spirits! There’s nothing like other widow(ers) to understand what you’ve been through.
    Besides thestrals, we all share with Harry that tremendous longing to see only one thing, looking in the Mirror of Erised: our loved ones with us, forever .

    1. Oh, that’s right. I loved that part in Harry Potter when he looks in the mirror and sees his parents. I had forgotten about it, but it’s so key to his character. Thanks for the reminder.

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