As a Marvel fan, therapist, and assistant professor in counseling, I was moved by the portrayal of grief in “Spider Man: No Way Home” and the powerful model it offers as we help our youth navigate the COVID-19 pandemic that is taking so much from them.
The movie, released shortly before Christmas, was filled with callbacks to past Spider Man movies, offering nostalgia as we navigate the same feelings in our own lives—longing for a time that’s passed, missing people we’ve lost, a growing awareness about the pain of loss.
With the increase in COVID-19 cases due to the widespread Omicron and Delta variants, many school districts and universities are now grappling with how to keep youth safe while still fostering their learning. This led to the start of yet another year of uncertainty for our youth during key developmental milestones.
As COVID-19 cases rise, inevitably so does loss. As of January 2022, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the US experienced more than 800,000 deaths due to COVID. Black and Brown communities have been hit the hardest during the pandemic with Black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans disproportionality making up COVD-19 cases and deaths.
So what does this mean for our youth? With the combination of experiencing disruptions to their educational experiences and the surge of COVID-19-related sickness and death, it is inescapable the amount of loss our youth have faced during the course of this pandemic. From experiencing loss of connection to their peers, the disappointment of missed graduations, or the loss of a parent or relative to COVID-19, our youth are grieving.
Our youth need to know that they are not navigating their losses alone. Grief is an individualized process and a normal part of life. Grief is a psychological response to loss and is identified by changes in an individual’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Author and producer Jamie Anderson said, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Death and loss has always loomed over the Spider Man character. In “Spider Man: No Way Home,” audiences were reminded that even though grief is an individualized experience, we need the support of others to move through and learn to live with our grief.
Although many are familiar with the Kϋbler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, there is not one pattern or timeline for grief. However, most people who have experienced a loss will benefit from learning to accept the reality of the loss, processing the emotions associated with their grief, learning to adjust to the world after their loss, and finding meaningful connection. This can be hard for youth to do without a trusted adult walking them through the process. A shared cultural touchstone, like “Spider Man,” can help.
Youth need to have the opportunity to feel and express the impact of their loss in order to heal. Grief can leave youth questioning their purpose, anxious, depressed, and even suicidal if left unattended. Some might say that talking about death and loss is uncomfortable and might make a young person feel worse. However, our youth are experiencing these losses and the emotions associated with them whether we choose to address them or not.
Our youth will benefit from the adults in their life, school districts, universities, and other key-stakeholders being as brave as each Spider Man in “No Way Home” by choosing to lean into these hard conversations and provide grief support to help our youth.
Autumn Cabell is an assistant professor in counseling at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.