Defence Against Dark Times: How Harry Potter helped deal with the death of a loved one

How does one find one’s way back into life after the death of a loved one? Turning to the Harry Potter series — the magical world of author JK Rowling — can help deal with love and loss.

Ever since I can remember, I preferred books to human company. My father had introduced me to the world of Puss in Boots, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jataka Kathas and the Panchatantra, when I was about three or four years old. Growing up in Dehradun, evenings were spent with him regaling me with stories. Through The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I lived quite a fulfilling life, albeit vicariously. I read The Godfather (Mario Puzo) and Papillon (Henri Charrière) and over time, my bookshelf expanded to accommodate John Grisham novels, the occasional Mills & Boon, and the classics of English and American literature. Reading helped me tide over being a semi-outcast in my all-girls’ convent school (they didn’t read, and I did not like Shah Rukh Khan, or know the difference between lipstick and lip gloss). By the time I had written my Class X boards, I had acquired a firm belief that everything in life can be dealt with — as long as you have the right book to help you through it. I didn’t read books, I lived them.

In June 1997, the first of the Harry Potter novels appeared and my life changed forever. I celebrated each new book, venerated Harry and his loyal band of friends. My world and vocabulary grew to accommodate the magical alternate. I felt buoyed by hope.

But my life-affirming relationship with books ended abruptly following the death of my younger brother. He was 16 at the time, I was 21. The world tilted on its axis, and the light went out. Death, when we are young and healthy, always seems to be in the distant future. But a road accident made it a tangible reality for us.

People grieve differently. Some, like my parents, seek solace in the rites and rituals that follow the death of a loved one. I wanted to invoke my books to help me come to terms with the tragedy. I picked up a dog-eared, yellowed copy of the Little Women. The camaraderie and antics of the March sisters had always made me smile. I hoped the familiar world of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy would envelop me in their familiar comfort. But I was not able to read beyond the first paragraph. The words seemed garbled and my thoughts began to stray to the what-ifs. What if my brother hadn’t died — injured maybe, even that was infinitely better than the finality of death? What if he had chosen to not ride his bicycle that day? What if my father had gone to pick him up from his tuition?

I put the book down, shaken. Perhaps, I had chosen the wrong book. I picked up another and another and another, but the words danced in front of my eyes. I felt abandoned and betrayed — both by my brother and by what had been my refuge, my books.

I resumed college. I have little or no memory of the initial few weeks. Then, in a passing conversation, I mentioned to a friend how I was not able to read. The friend, a Potterhead, quietly suggested that I should reread the Harry Potter series. “One page at a time,” she stressed. I had read Harry Potter many times before, sometimes even speed-reading the seven books in a matter of days, but I wasn’t sure this would work. I returned home that day and gingerly picked up the first volume of the series — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Chapter one: ‘The boy who lived’. It was as if I was noticing it for the first time.

It wasn’t easy. It took me about half an hour to read that chapter, as my mind started to wander off in the now familiar terrain of what-ifs. But I finished it. As Harry struggled with being an orphan, I struggled with being an only child. A sibling’s loss is akin to losing your history — they are the only ones who know how crazy your family is. It took me three days to finish the first book, a new record for me. But I was on the mend. Dumbledore’s famous words stayed with me — “To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” I remember feeling a deep sense of relief, that, perhaps, I was not damaged permanently. My hero (Harry), too, had dealt with loss. He had sought life as desperately as I was searching for light and he had fought. Every time I closed the book, its warmth would stay with me for a while before depression and the guilt of being the one who survived gnawed at me like the Dementors.

The fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, was where I actually let myself grieve. At the end of the book, as Harry dealt with the death of his godfather Sirius, I sobbed hysterically into the night. Sirius was the closest thing Harry had to a parent and I cried for Harry and I cried for my brother.

By now, I was reading at my normal pace again. The sixth and seventh books made me more resilient than ever. Nearly all the characters in the series had dealt with losses. The Weasleys lost Fred, and Bill is scarred for life. Hermione had to erase the memories of her parents — so they don’t remember that they have a daughter. Neville’s parents had been tortured into insanity by the death-eaters. Yet, collectively, they all chose to live and fight for the greater good, against an enemy that was all-pervasive and powerful. As I finished the series, I felt more determined to face the world. The books were back in my life, and, with it, hope.

It’s been 10 years, but I always turn to the magical world of JK Rowling whenever anything goes amiss. Be it heartbreak, or a career faux pas, the books have always been there, like the Room of Requirement, waiting to help.

My only regret is that my brother never read the books.

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