EP69: Superheroes and Grief
NASW Social Work Talks Podcast
From the National Association of Social Workers, I'm Aliah Wright, and this is Social Work Talks. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode, which focuses on Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss, which is also the title of a book created and edited by NASW member, Dr. Jill Harrington.
Dr. Harrington is a social worker, an adjunct professor, who has a clinical practice in the Washington, DC area. She is a thanatologist clinician, researcher, and educator who specializes in traumatic bereavement. Dr. Harrington and Robert Niemeyer enlisted a league of authors to enlarge our view of bereavement through the prism of contemporary superheroes.
Welcome, Dr. Harrington.
Hello. Welcome. Thanks for having me.
Tell us first about why you became a social worker, what you do, and how you came to create this book.
So I've been a social worker with my MSW for over 20 years, but I think it's a little bit in the genes and also has a lot to do with my superhero parents and how they modeled a life of service. I had a father who was a first responder. My mother, who was often very rooted in charity and social services, particularly for underserved women, she was not just a giver, she was a doer. So I grew up in a home that really valued service.
When it came to time for me to kind of get into a profession, my mother was a hospital administrator, and so I got to hang out sometimes with her colleagues. She had a great colleague who's become a lifelong friend of mine and senior mentor, Dr. Bob Sabaka. He was a social worker. He was one of the coolest people. When I'd go to visit my mom at the hospital where she worked, he was one of the coolest people I ever met. I could talk to him about anything.
So I think I was sort of raised with these qualities of service and justice and advocacy. When it came time for me to really go into a profession after I graduated college, my undergraduate degree was in psychology, my boyfriend at the time, his mother, who was very beloved to me, she was like a second mother to me, unfortunately got diagnosed with pretty advanced stage breast cancer and I started volunteering and working for some cancer organizations right out of college. Then it became more than just volunteering, it became then employment.
I started working for a couple of cancer organizations, one of them being the American Cancer Society. It was there that I met these folks who were oncology social workers. I was like, wow, there's actually you can work helping folks with cancer in social work. Really it was through oncology social work that opened that gateway to social work for me.
I went back, I got my MSW. I did a lot of advocacy work. I finished my MSW at Adelphi University. I think for 14 years, about 14 years, I did a lot of oncology-related work. So I did a lot of internships in family violence and trauma and bereavement. Then after 9/11, I was living in New York at the time, I was working for an agency there doing a lot of the intersection of grief and trauma work, anyone that had any bereavement-related experience kind of got called to action. So there was a lot of on the job training there in terms of violent death loss. So my career kind of took a shift and I decided to pursue my doctorate in social work for myself to elevate my scholarship and training in the field and also to make an impact on the next generation of social workers.
I've been able to work in nonprofit organizations. I've been able to do therapy with people. I've worked in hospitals. I've done research. I just think that social work itself, the general MSW, gives you such a tremendous background and capability opens up, I think, a lot of windows and opportunities.
I'm a big superhero fan. Growing up in New York in the seventies, my dad actually went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. This is where Stan Lee and people like Bob Kane, Stan Lee, who was part of Marvel Comics, or the creator of Marvel Comics, and Bob Kane, who was the co-creator of Batman, where they went to high school.
I also grew up in that era where you had about three channels on the television, not like today where you can watch TV 24/7, and after school, you had a bad an hour between the last soap opera and the, well, maybe one or two hours between three to five o'clock and the evening news, so you had your choices of Wonder Woman or Batman or Underdog. Certainly on a Saturday morning, at least in my household, you worked really hard to be able to watch Saturday morning cartoons.
I loved superheroes, but a superhero came into my life when my sister, my only sister, my older sister, we were about the ages of 12 and 14, we're about two years apart, my sister had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that almost took her life and she had been hospitalized. She was very, very, very ill and I wasn't able to see her because at the time you had to be 16 or older to visit. We were both, just it was really terrible and distressing and sad times.
My mom, who I just told you had worked in a medical practice, had a woman that she worked with who was one of her coworkers, Doris, and Doris came to my mom one day and said, "My brother was in town and I was telling him about what your girls are going through right now, he's a cartoon artist, and he wanted to draw something for them to kind of give them a little bit of hope and just say hang in there and show a little compassion and kindness." She hands my mom these pictures. They're hand drawn pictures of Batman and Robin and Catwoman from Bob Kane. Bob Kane, who was the co-creator and artist of Batman.
Growing up, again, in New York, I was born in Queens, I loved Spiderman, Captain America is from Brooklyn, and Batman, of course, is the superhero of New York, you know, Gotham, which is a metaphor for New York City. I just, at that time, that act of just pure kindness, first of all, her kind of coming out of the shadows from her secret identity to tell my mom like, hey, I have this brother, who you'd never know this about this very lovely and humble woman, and then for him just to do that on his own accord, for me, really just emboldened the the super power of kindness. Kindness.
So let's talk about how you came to create this book.
The book idea came about around in 2009, when I was at the Association for Death Education and Counseling, which I'm also a member of, which is a home for thanatologists and those of us in the field of death, dying, and bereavement. I had used superheroes. Coming from the oncology world, superheroes were quite often used in illness and with life-threatening diseases, as well as in bereavement. Oftentimes in bereavement camps, you could see the superhero theme sometimes in therapy, using examples, those archetypes of strength, those archetypes of hope.
So how I came to create the book was in 2009 I was sitting with Dr. Kathy Schear at the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Throughout my career in social work, working with those with life-threatening illnesses and the dying and the bereaved, I often used interwoven, and a lot of my colleagues of mine, the use of superhero psychology is not something that's really new. It's been being used for many, many, many years in psychology field and often we see it in the field of death, dying, and bereavement.
There's no real systematic approach by those who are esteemed authors, or I would say experts in the field, that came to really look at superheroes through the lens of, particularly, I'm not going to say grief and loss, because grief is a reaction to loss. Bereavement is the process a person goes through after a death loss of someone they love or they care about. So there's never really been a systematic way in which these authors, who are amazing superheroes in their field in death, dying, and bereavement, have used the superheroes and the narratives to illuminate some of the practices and principles, and also possibly creative interventions, to really look at the narratives, who use them as the lens to either teach them ontology principles or theories or practices.
Whenever I watch these movies, because most of them, most of the backstories are rooted in, and a lot of people like to throw around the word, trauma. There's all sorts of trauma, and the trauma that's central to most superhero origins is the traumatic death loss of a family member. Deadpool 2 kind of says this in the movie, Deadpool 2, that every great family movie begins with a vicious murder. Most superheroes, their process is really that rooted in bereavement.
Well, let's talk about that for a minute, because you mentioned Deadpool. Let's talk about Batman, Deadpool, The Avengers, and the host of other iconic superheroes. Most of the stories we read his children, from Bambi and The Jungle Book and Batman to Spiderman, Wonder Woman, the Black Panther, and beyond, superheroes are all dealing with the loss of a parent or a parental figure and what we're actually witnessing in these tales is how they each grapple with grief even as they're rescuing others. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Part of this book is about better understanding, increasing our competency, our skills and our knowledge about what is grief. And they're not necessarily grappling with grief. What they are grappling with is bereavement, which is grief related to death loss. Most of them are significantly bereaved while still doing their jobs.
The mythology that surrounds grief and death has existed in various forms recorded throughout human history and in almost every ancient civilization, death has been represented by a deity or a form. Our current superheroes are that current day archetypal figure that represent the human struggle. All of them struggle with death, loss, and vulnerability, and in each one of their backstories death presents itself as both as a tragedy and an opportunity for transformation.
So most of our superheroes that are grappling with bereavement, the real superpower is that many of these superheroes show us the vulnerability that in fact there's vulnerability and grief, we could be both fragile and strong. That even with all the physical strength and their special powers, they can't be erased from pain and suffering, and that there are these decisional in which their backstories are so set up for them to be the villain. Oftentimes, they walk that path and, like us, their stories are about those real human struggles, that they grapple with pain and profound loss.
This is the hero's journey. I mean, they're stripped down to their base. They're complex and flawed and they're full of pain. But how do they rise? I mean, it's not easy and it never gets fixed. Grief isn't like, bereavement is not like, a cold where you just kind of move through it and it's done and gone. It's chronic pain, the pain of loss, which is really love, and how we manage that pain and integrate that pain and transform it.
So as the world handles so much loss, tell us how the bereaved and social workers can use this book.
Those who are bereaved, I think that this is an approachable and relatable way to get in touch with their grief. I mean, this also has cross-generational appeal and cross-cultural appeal. Film provides, it's a real powerful medium and artistic medium to see some of ourselves, examples of ourselves. So when we see that the superhero struggles with the pain of loss and the complexities that go with it, we can see part of ourselves.
Those who are bereaved, also, the book, I think, gives us opportunity to learn about themselves and what they're experiencing through the stories of the superheroes. Even in the clinical chapters, I recently had a client who had read the book and said, "You know, I couldn't put a word to what I was feeling and I read the chapter on secondary losses." These chapters are very short. She says, "You know, I'm a newly bereaved widow and I really didn't realize how many other losses, what we call secondary losses, I couldn't put a name around it and the book really helped me put a name around it."
I think that they could also learn about post-traumatic growth and transformative grief through the personal stories of the bereaved that are in the book, many of them who were suddenly and violently bereaved. I think the stories provide thoughtful insights on each of the five factors of post-traumatic growth and their own sense-making and hero's journey with profound pain and loss. Giving those personal examples to people, of people who have been there, who have really journeyed in that boat, I think it's really important, especially because the book addresses the intersection of death and trauma.
So what is thanatology?
Okay, thanatology is the study of what is inevitable, which death is a part of life, and holding true to Thor's observation in Avengers Endgame, that nothing lasts forever. The only thing that is permanent in life is impermanence. So the field of thanatology really dates to Greek times. We kind of always as civilization since ancient time have wanted to try to understand death and we've often emboldened it with a deity or some form that's readily recognizable and understood.
The word Thanatos is Greek for the god of death. Thanatos, who was the son of Nyx, night, in Kronos' time. Back in say the turn of the century, the early turn of the 20th century, a Russian zoologist named Metchnikoff, who really was known for his work in immunology, proposed two new areas of scientific investigation, and the two were thanatology and gerontology.
Gerontology took off. But like Thanos, who's not a much liked god in the universe of the Marvel universe, thanatology really didn't take off because we were living now in this death-denying society. In pre-modern times, death was really viewed as a part of life, and with the Industrial Revolution and people kind of relocating death and dying from the home into hospitals and other places, we became more of a death-denying society. Especially with medical advances, which are great, but at the same time, death, it was pushed away and not really viewed as part of life.
So the field of thanatology really didn't gain broad acceptance until around the 1950s or '60s. Basically thanatology includes researchers and educators and practitioners who investigate all aspects of death. All aspects of death. So that could be clinicians. That could be those who work in hospice. Those could be researchers. So really their focus is the investigation of death and the impact it has on the living.
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Dr. Jill, can you tell us, as you were editing this groundbreaking book, what were some of the themes you saw that you feel readers will find most impactful?
One of the takeaways we have from today's conversation is that the study of death loss, grief, and bereavement is really a specialty field, but yet there's a lot of people who armchair quarterback it or don't have the skills or the competency in it and really subscribe to a lot of old non-modern grief theory. So using superheroes to understand postmodern grief theory, like the dual process model, multicultural models, most of our grief support is rooted in really deep systematic biases, beginning with Freud's claims that we need to talk about our grief with therapists and Kübler-Ross' stage model that said you had to go through.
She studied the dying and we took that and applied it to the bereaved. So a lot of our early cultural understandings also kind of give meaning to grief and how people cope with grief on observations from a white, middle-class culture and people over the age of 55. So my hope is that the book will bring a multicultural viewpoint and also some justice to the lens of grief, that we need to look at how people adapt to loss from a multicultural-informed viewpoint.
Understanding types of grief with superhero case examples, we can look at this multicultural perspective from the multiverses and multi-dimensional funeral rights rituals. I'm hoping that the book will help people with using superheroes to understand postmodern grief theory. Things like continuing bonds theory, the dual process model, understanding grieving styles, attachment informed grief.
So like I said, skills, competency, and practices in thanatology, which is a specialized field. Understanding types of grief. What is ambiguous loss? What are secondary losses? What's the anticipatory grief? So helping to help increase that knowledge and understanding.
Grief in the family systems. One of my favorite chapters in the book is about Thor and the death of Loki. How our relationships with members of a family can influence how we grieve.
Challenges in bereavement. Bereavement is not unnatural. It's not pathological. We've certainly gotten away from that and there's still a lot of judgment and stigmatization of the bereaved and misunderstanding. But responses in grief can be dangerous and they can impair our ability to adapt.
Learning about post-traumatic growth and the five factors, the stories from the bereaved. Also leadership, what is grief leadership, especially these days? What encompasses grief leadership? There's a beautiful chapter written in the book by a great friend and colleague, Joyal Mulheron, who brings a call to action through her organization, Evermore, that she is trying to create a national standards on bereavement care to change our government's policies on the care of the bereaved.
Also, I hope the book helps people find superheroes all around us. How we can be a hero to the bereaved. How we can better understand the bereaved. Like I said, the bereaved have been stigmatized, misunderstood, and again, a lot of jargon thrown around and medicalized for bereaved and people want to fix it right away. People don't really understand it. How we can be a hero.
I helped bring this league of heroes, what I call all the thanatologists, from around the world. This is an edited volume. Because 75% of the people who wrote for this book really didn't understand the superheroes, I developed each of these chapters and assigned them the movies to watch, because they wrote about it through the lens about which their research support or clinical work with them. So how we can find heroes all around us while grieving too, our supports, I think that's really important lessons and takeaways I'd like for people to have from the book.
With so many of us being isolated from each other, let's chat briefly about how this book can help those dealing with self-care. Especially since many of us are at home and we're unable to engage in the kinds of self care activities we would have in the past.
I speak to social workers directly. Social workers, we talk about self-care, but we're probably the worst at it. I had to have a social work colleague last night remind me that I needed to get to bed early because I had this podcast today because there's so much need out there. What we can learn from this book, especially in these times, is that as our grief is amplified, we need to amplify our own self care, we need to either find new super powers, find new ways of coping. One of the things I've done recently is I started engaging in more meditation practice and really making time and space for myself to do that.
We need to be superheros to ourselves. We donned the cape so many times for others and there's so much anxiety and compassion fatigue, uncertainty, and death. Those of us who are called to serve, it really pulls at us. It really gives us conflict, wanting to be there for others but having to be there for ourselves. We often see this with superheroes. We saw when Tony stark in Avengers: Infinity Wars, he was just so burnt out that he couldn't function anymore. Batman's always at his worst when he's super burnt out.
Be a superhero to a colleague or a friend, reach out to them, ask them are you getting enough rest for yourself? Is there anything, even though I can't be with you, is there any way we can connect? These are some of the things that are helping me cope how to give myself space. Give yourself space. Give yourself some time. That's not always easy. Take a breath, put a mask on, go outside. If you can take a breath, remove yourself from your work. Set limits and boundaries for yourself. It's easy if you're working at home to basically sit at this computer all day long and interface and not set some boundaries around it. Have a start time and a stop time.
I think it's really important, the journey of the superhero. We see this, Captain America, he's very good at this, really setting up groups for others. His friend, Sam, Falcon, reminds him. He goes running with him and he says, "I'm on your left." We see in Avengers Endgame as Black Widow keeps operating in a degraded, ineffective state, and she throws herself into her work while Captain America kind of pulls back and is more reflective and takes care of himself and his team. We need to be like Superman once in awhile and go into our Fortress of Solitude and work things out for ourselves.
So again, I think as the grief and the loss is amplifying, we need to find ways to be superheroes to ourself and amplify our own self-care, which is a lot easier said than done.
And one of my favorite chapters in the book is finding superheroes all around us and you write that heroes for the dying and bereaved also come in many other forms using varying super powers and abilities. Then you have here the power of kindness, the power of intuitiveness, the power of thoughtfulness. Talk about some of these other powers that people may not think of as super powers, but they really are.
Super powers don't have to be shape-shifting or all-powerful or super even. I worked with a mom recently whose son died by suicide and her ability from a strengths perspective, her ability to get out of bed and brush her teeth and comb her hair and come attend a therapy session with me on the computer and never meeting me in person and come to me at her most vulnerable and broken place in life, I acknowledged that, just the strength to get out of bed. So I think it's really important to acknowledge really things that we might not recognize as we think of strength as being super strength.
Sometimes being able to get up out of bed with the thousand pound elephant of grief on your chest after just losing a child, the strength in getting up alone and surviving the day and keeping your head above water is exceptionally important. The strength to be able just to focus on work maybe after your bereavement leave is over and you go back to work a couple of weeks later. Maybe it's the strength of being able to go to the grocery store for the first time and being afraid that you might be confronted with somebody and you might burst out into tears. Maybe it's the strength to be able to reach across the aisle with a family member, because death gives us an opportunity to extend forgiveness to people or work out a lot of unfinished business or complicated business.
So maybe acknowledging those strengths, I think acknowledging heroic acts come both in their large and small. I think that especially with the dying and the bereaved, things like the super power of understanding. I remember after when my own father died, I inherited his motorcycle and it took me a long time to just bring myself to go to the motor vehicles and have the registration changed. I was standing at the counter and I was super flustered and I got up there and the clerk, she could see that I was disoriented and reaching for papers and very upset, and she was just extremely patient and kind with me and actually said to me when she saw it was from my deceased father's motorcycle, "I'm really sorry for your loss."
That was so powerful. She didn't have to say that. She could've just stamped my paperwork and said, "All right, next. Next number." So it's extending that bit of kindness and compassion and understanding I think are amazing superpowers, especially when people are in immense pain.
Why do you think grief education and training particularly in bereavement is important?
Well, like I said before, most of our understanding of grief and bereavement really comes from the study of Freudian psychology, who told us that we needed to deconnect ourselves from the deceased and these old ingrained social concepts, and also not from a multicultural viewpoint. Because even though people treat grief like the common cold and it's natural and universal, it's all humankind, but it is the most distressing of all human experiences and it comes with a lot of pain and a lot of distress and some people need skilled intervention.
Unfortunately, counselors and psychologists in mental health, a lot of people say they treat grief, but they're also very dismissive of it. They overstep their bounds on their knowledge and their skills, especially when it comes to the intersection of trauma and bereavement, which is really a specialty field. I'm seeing some more in schools of social work programs having classes on grief and loss, but again, I think they teach more about natural death versus unnatural death. In terms of our social work ethics of competency, I think that our first frame of reference is to do no harm, and there's so much stigmatization and misunderstanding on grief.
I recently saw an article that was the new show WandaVision, which I've been following, which really just focuses a lot on the characters' grief. I saw an article written by some psychologists and saying her grief was complicated grief, which is, again, people throwing around these terms with not really knowing it. That's not clinically accurate or diagnostically accurate. It's a complete misrepresentation about what complicated grief is. Just because grief might be complicated doesn't mean it's complicated grief.
So grief is complicated when those persistent, acute grief symptoms, that inability to really come to accept all the realities of the loss, the rumination, the intensity of the grief for years to come feels like the day one, two, and three after that person you loved died. It somehow impairs and ability to naturally adapt to the loss. There are many influences in grief that can lead to complicated grief, but just because there's complications in grief doesn't mean that it's what is called complicated grief. So prolonged grief disorder include the tendency to blame oneself or others for a loved one's death.
We do see this as a process that suicide survivors go through. So suicide survivors are often much more at risk for complicated grief, but that doesn't mean they necessarily will have complicated grief in years to come. When someone dies by suicide, often self-blame or perceive responsibility of the death is something that survivors, is a prominent theme with them. So oftentimes we accompany the survivor on that journey of trying to find a bearable narrative and to work through some of those issues of self blame and self-responsibility. So yeah, it can lead to be a risk factor for complicated grief and so an understanding of suicide grief would let us know that suicide grief is confusing, it's complicated.
It doesn't mean it's going to lead to complicated grief, but sure it's a risk factor. Excessive avoidance of places or situations that remind one of the deceased. Excessive avoidance and social withdrawal. Survivor's guilt for years and years and years that impairs that person's ability to function. This is when you're starting to see these symptoms persist for a year or more after the death.
So by definition, in WandaVision, Vision's been dead for about nine days. Any anybody who's trained in complicated grief wouldn't be slapping on the complicated grief diagnosis on her. Complicated grief is grief that has something complicating the natural ability for a person to adapt to their loss, but again, it's not instantly.
I'm watching one division now, too. From your perspective, how are they handling her processing of the death of Vision?
I think they're doing a beautiful job by showing how one of the things Bill Warden says is, Dr. Warden, who wrote the book on grief therapy and grief counseling, is that there are influencing factors. So homicide bereavement, she's definitely a survivor of those who've died by homicide in her life.
After Vision died, what we see beautifully here is her wanting the dual process model of wanting to push out the reality of his death and kind of the avoidance of it, but then being poked in by reality. People from SWORD keep coming in, and especially Monica Rambeau, but Monica Rambeau's trying to connect while other people are judging her anger and they're angry with her or they're trying to pull her out of this reality. Monica is in there trying to connect with her because Monica lost her mom, saying, "I get it. I understand you."
So there's a lot of judgment and anger toward her grief and not understanding her anger at losing Vision and her whole world, so I think that they're really constructing a beautiful sort of narrative to explore spousal bereavement or the death of the spouse or the death of a partner and how this wanting to avoid, this is part of the natural process people go through. Now, it doesn't mean it can't be dangerous. So separation distress is often the hallmark of acute bereavement.
When we lose someone we love, just like in early days when we learn how to attach to people, because attachment is really about survival and it's rooted in love, we protest losing. The first time we're separated from our caregiver, we protest that separation. So if we have a secure attachment style, we will be able to work through the pain and relocate the deceased somewhere in our lives.
Right now I think what they're showing is a lot of her separation distress and the anger and the protest. She had to basically kill Vision to save the universe and then have to watch him get killed again and have everybody in her life killed. She's angry. As a therapist, if I was able to kind of meet with her and talk to her and join with her, we would definitely normalize that. But how she's acting on it, these are the things that can become dangerous for people, but I wouldn't pathologize it for her at all.
How somebody dies when somebody dies in our life. If there's trauma associated with the death. Trauma doesn't necessarily mean that the death has to be sudden and violent. There could be trauma right now. We're seeing this with people who have COVID-19 in their family members. It's relational trauma that's going on there. The trauma of separation of not being able to be with their family members where they're dying. A lot of unfinished business.
Dr. Jill, thank you so much for joining us. Listeners, you can find details about the resources we've discussed and where to buy Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss, edited by Jill Harrington and Robert Niemeyer, in the show notes on our website.
Thank you so much. We appreciate it.
All right, thank you. Have a good day.
All right, you too.
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