We don’t often turn to TV shows about superheroes for profound meditations on trauma, grief, and coping with loss, yet WandaVision, a miniseries that completed its run last month, did just that.
Firmly rooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it focuses on Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson), better known as the Scarlet Witch. Traumatized as a young girl, and later forced to kill her significant other—a synthetic being named Vision—in an effort to save the world, Wanda, as you might expect, has issues. But she also has superpowers, which means she can warp reality itself to avoid dealing with losses she cannot bear. In her illusion, she lives in a world of classic television sitcoms, escaping to a place in popular culture where grief was never manifest. She uses magic to resurrect Vision and give them twin sons, all while taking an entire town hostage, trapping the people there in a series of sitcoms, as a means of indulging in personal nostalgia to avoid confronting her own grief.
After watching the show, I understood why psychologists have observed that WandaVision provides an unexpected and profound exploration of the challenges related to coping with loss, and why critics have noted how the conceit of the series, a trauma-induced bubble where all the characters are quarantined, is an apt metaphor for life during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the show’s themes are particularly relevant for observant Jews struggling to process grief amid a plague that has wreaked havoc with traditional Jewish mourning practices.
These rituals, known as Hilkhot Avelut, are generally regarded as the greatest psychological achievement of Jewish law. Social distancing protocols, however, have upended all of the standard bereavement rituals: Limited hospital visitation, restricted attendance at funerals, Zoom-only shiva observances, and closed synagogues have dramatically altered the therapeutic arc of avelut. Moreover, with limited or virtual gatherings for shloshims and yahrzeits, mourners have experienced a surreal form of grief: sorrow in social isolation and suspended animation. This, too, has made it even more challenging to mourn in a healthy, integrated fashion, so it’s a blessing to have a bit of great TV to help us grapple with a few thorny and absolutely necessary questions.
Like this one: What happens when grief curdles into something uncontrollable? In reflecting on Wanda’s maladaptive coping mechanisms and our own destabilizing experiences during this pandemic, the series not only underscores the dangers of complicated grief, but also highlights the need to proactively prevent such a scenario. We, in the Jewish community and elsewhere, have spent the past year doing the same thing. We adopted, for example, the new tradition of the post-prayer mini-eulogy: Standard practice during the week of shiva is to study a rabbinic text, usually the Mishnah, in memory of the deceased, immediately following each prayer service. This is most appropriate because mourners typically have ample opportunity at funerals and during shiva visits to eulogize their loved ones, so these “adjacent to prayer” moments are enhanced by Torah study. But with limited in-person funerals and shivas, outdoor gatherings for prayer services are the new best time for family members and close friends to share heartfelt in-person eulogies.
As Wanda—and we with her—learns the hard way, these opportunities for individualized storytelling are essential for healthy grieving. This is the most powerful takeaway from the series: Its defining, cathartic moment occurs only after Wanda is finally forced to share memories of the loved ones she has lost. The most affecting scene comes in the immediate aftermath of Wanda telling the story of her brother Pietro’s death and her difficulty in mourning his loss.
In one moment that has been justly praised by critics and fans alike, Wanda describes to Vision her feeling overwhelmed by grief. “It’s just like this wave washing over me again and again,” she says. “It knocks me down and when I try to stand up, it just comes for me again. And I can’t ... It’s gonna drown me.” Vision responds that the waves of grief are not to be avoided, but embraced. “No. No, Wanda,” he replies. “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
Vision reveals in this dialogue a way forward through grief, and although he’s an artificial creation, he somehow intuits the most significant feature of our humanity, realizing that the meaning of life is inextricably linked to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you inevitably will grieve.
As I absorbed this penetrating insight, I gained a deeper appreciation for the courage of Rabbi Yom Tov Zahalon (Maharitat”z), a prominent 16th-century rabbinic authority from Safed. R’ Tzahalon anticipated Vision’s observation by modeling a personal avelut that accentuated grief as the perseverance of love: He was forced to evacuate his home, with his young son in tow, because of a deadly plague. His son tragically perished from the plague along the way, and the Maharitat”z responded by abruptly suspending his regular course of Talmud study and instead writing movingly about the halachic issues relating to avelut that arose in the course of his mourning. Here he is, for example, on the applicability of the law of lo’eg la-rash (mocking the deceased) to a minor:
I am uncertain about whether the rabbinic prohibition to pray in close proximity to a burial plot extends to the burial plot of a minor, like the plot of my righteous deceased son: do we say that we follow the reasoning of the rabbis who prohibited praying because it is a mockery to the deceased, since the living have the capacity to pray and the deceased do not, and, this being the rationale, it is limited to an adult who had the capacity and obligation to pray (and not to a minor) or, do we say it applies across the board (even to a minor)?
While his question presumes that the injunction against the living flaunting observance of the commandments applies principally in the vicinity of the burial plot of a person who had been old enough to perform the laws, his conclusion heartrendingly rejects this premise:
It would appear to me that this is prohibited, since lo’eg la-rash extends to a minor, and maybe even more so in the case of a minor, since the deceased minor will say: ‘behold, you are mocking me for I was never even given the opportunity to mature, for had I such an opportunity, I certainly would have studied and prayed,’ and in this sense it is a greater mockery.
Maharitat”z’s poignant halachic ruling, that a deceased child experiences mockery even more acutely than a deceased adult, is quite moving. Through this ruling, R’ Tzahalon enjoins the living to imagine and honor the unrealized spiritual potential of a life cut short by a plague, an exercise in compassion from which we can all benefit.
But the discussion itself is also highly instructive; it serves as an exemplar for all those mourning loved ones during the upheaval of this pandemic. R’ Tzahalon teaches us that instead of avoiding the difficult discussions related to grief, we must create space for these meaningful conversations to help us confront the anxiety associated with contemplating life bereft of a loved one.
“Death steals everything,” the poet Jim Harrison wrote, “except our stories.”
The compound tragedy of dying during COVID-19 threatens to pilfer even our precious stories. For the more than half million Americans dead from COVID-19, there is the danger that their one-of-a-kind lives will be reduced to what ultimately took them. In the face of devastating grief, many mourners who lost loved ones to COVID-19, struggle to understand for themselves, and convey to others, that how their loved one died is merely a footnote, not the whole story. How unimaginable that one person’s life and death, let alone half a million, could be considered unremarkable.
Even for those who have died of other causes during the pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions have taken away the time and rituals required to pay our proper respects, to tell the story just right, and to share the full, unique story of the departed with others. For many mourners, the altered obsequies have made these lonely deaths only more unmooring, like trying to celebrate a wedding when the bride is absent.
How do we ensure that these human beings aren’t simply erased and that their singular stories don’t die with them? How do we prevent this overwhelming pandemic from overshadowing everything else? WandaVision and the Maharitat”z provide the same answer: We do it by persevering in our love through our grief. Only by sharing the missing chapters of our loved one’s narratives, can we creatively transition from loving them in their physical presence to loving them in their absence. This, in turn, will help facilitate integrating the pain from missing those who have died while cherishing and celebrating their legacies in lasting love.
Shmuel Hain serves as the rabbi of YIOZ of North Riverdale/Yonkers and as Rosh Beit Midrash at SAR High School. As the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies, he integrates academic, halachic, and pastoral perspectives on Jewish laws of mourning in his scholarship.