The Things We Lost: Remembering Sirius Black
For many of us who grew up reading Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling’s characters guided us through the choppy waters of the life experiences you start having as you get older: a new school, a first crush, friendships made and broken. It wasn’t only that the characters’ stories of betrayal, of family, of loss, and of love were real to us; it was that sometimes, they also helped shape a bewildering world where we as kids, as teenagers, as young adults, tried to process how it all worked.
The first deaths in Harry Potter happen before the first book even begins, and when I read about Harry in my early teenage years – a little boy with no mom or dad – I felt sorry for him in a sympathetic but detached sort of way; it all sounded like a particularly horrible fairy story. But by the time he lost Sirius, the parental figure who might’ve made some questionable calls and perhaps did spend more than a decade in jail that one time but who was kind and good and loyal and fiercely loving and even made it along to school sports day (albeit disguised as a dog to watch his godson flying around on a broomstick, but my point stands)… well, by the time Harry lost Sirius, I didn’t have to imagine how he felt. It was real.
Today is the anniversary of Sirius Black’s death, but I don’t have to look up how many years ago we, the readers, found out Sirius had died; I know it was 12 years ago, around three weeks after the date of the death of my mom.
The losses of our beloved favorites in the Harry Potter books represent a loss of innocence, a realization that life is by no means fair – it’s why so many readers feel personally betrayed by the deaths of Dobby and Fred and Hedwig and the rest. Jo had taught us a lesson about fairness in the first chapter of the first book: a child living in a cruel and deprived situation because his parents are dead is about as unfair as it gets. But somehow I think we’d all been hopeful that Harry had suffered so much already that it was enough to last a lifetime.
And when Harry’s godfather came back in his life in the form of Sirius Black – a parental figure all to himself, one whom he didn’t have to share with the Weasleys or someone else – we shared Harry’s dreams of going to live with Sirius, of having not a dad, because no one could replace James, but a cool uncle and friend and caregiver all rolled into one.
We respected Sirius as a man who had overcome the racist, hateful ties of blood and the misery of his own losses and who dared to stand up to Dumbledore and Molly and who believed that Harry was strong enough and brave enough, at 15, to fight a war. He was a bit reckless, sure, but he’d faced the Dementors and escaped with his soul. He was a good man, and we were relieved Harry had him.
And then, barely two years later, Harry watched him die in the Department of Mysteries, and we were reminded that this was war and that life isn’t fair, even – or perhaps especially – for those who really deserve to catch a break. But J.K. Rowling wasn’t being gratuitously cruel to us. What we’ve learned, increasingly, since the publication of the books, the more she’s become active on Twitter and spoken directly to young people about grief and loss, is that Jo didn’t have an easy life either. And what she was telling us when she wrote the deaths of those characters we loved so much was that it was OK to be angry that life wasn’t fair but that there was something waiting for us on the other side of that feeling of devastation – that we were always fighting for something bigger than we could imagine.
Most of my Harry Potter reading memories are blurry; the act of sitting down on release day and joyfully devouring a book in huge gulps leaves no room for specific memories (other than yelling at people to go away or make themselves useful and bring me more snacks). But this is one memory that I do have: of sitting in bed in the middle of the night, in a silent house that had become increasingly silent in the previous weeks, reading the battle of the Department of Mysteries. I know I must already have been at a loss that night, though I’m sure having a new Harry Potter book to read had brought me some comfort. I had been wandering around in a bubble for weeks, detached from the rest of the world; my mother had died, we’d had the funeral, I’d gone back to school. I didn’t know what to do. I was 17.
So I remember that night, and I remember reading that battle. My memories sharpen around the point of Harry’s sickening realization that the person he hoped would be his guardian and his protector for many years to come had been used as bait. I remember the urgency of turning pages as the Order of the Phoenix arriving at the Department of Mysteries, as Bellatrix and Sirius fought, cousins fueled by so much unhealthy anger that had been fed to them by bigoted and tyrannical parents. And I remember feeling like my heart had stopped as Sirius fell through the veil.
I shared Harry’s disbelief that he was really gone. I wanted Harry to walk through just to check, and I shared his anger when Remus prevented him from doing so. What if Sirius was just on the other side of the veil, waiting for someone to come and get him back?
If Sirius was waiting just on the either side of the archway, what would that mean for me?
He wasn’t, of course; I say “of course” because Harry had to learn, as we all do, that that’s not how life and death work. Instead of going through the veil to find Sirius, Harry rages hotly, hopelessly, in Dumbledore’s office later about things he couldn’t change. And that made sense to me, too.
I know this isn’t only my experience, though; the power of Jo’s writing is that it’s made universal. Years later, I made friends with someone who’d had almost exactly the same experience with the sixth book; her husband had died shortly before she read the story of Dumbledore’s death, and reading it, she’d felt her own loss painfully, viscerally, all over again. By the time I read Dumbledore’s death, on the other hand, I was about the regular amount of sad, I think. I grieved for the character and for Harry, and I kept reading. Death was not as much of a shock to me. Perhaps that’s what growing up looks like.
And I did grow up. Not long after I finished the book, I went to France, and I tried to form new memories for myself; I went to college, and I got a job, and I drew wonderful people around myself who filled a hole that I had, and whenever I needed a little hope that light can shine in dark places Harry Potter and Jo’s words never failed to help.
So tonight, I raise a toast to Sirius Black, and to all of you for whom his death came at a time in your life where you were also dealing with something difficult or enormous or strange. Jo included Thestrals in those books for us, after all – beasts that appear only to those who’ve seen death but are also beautiful signs of the weird and wondrous nature of life. I imagine, now, my teenage self crying over Sirius’s death, in bed that night and Harry raging in Dumbledore’s office and Jo writing somewhere in Scotland that death was the last great enemy. And I imagine all three of us connected with the thread that binds us when we read these books, the one that makes you think, “Me, too, kiddo. Me, too.”
And that none of us is quite alone after all.