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4 Lessons on Grief We Can Learn From Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

The release of the long-awaited and anticipated sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has made many of us wonder what to expect with the loss of our beloved T’Challa. Many of us wondered how the film would honor the late artist Chadwick Boseman as well as how Wakanda would move forward while grieving the loss of its king. 

We waited with excitement to see our beloved Wakandan characters and also anticipated the appearance of new characters like Namor and Riri. Which character made a nonstop appearance, you ask? Grief. Grief was an inescapable contributor to the movie. While moments of action and humor had our attention, grief was ever-present in the background, quietly fueling the actions of the characters we saw on screen. 

In the past few years, we have endured a pandemic, societal and political unrest, and several continued stressors. Loss has affected many of us in one way or another. Many of us have attempted to rebuild our lives, and in the process, some of us may have become numb to cope. With the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, we could count on feeling something. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever provides us all a chance to lean into the grief that many of us have been holding in our hearts, minds, and bodies for quite some time now. It gives us a space to feel all we’ve been needing to feel. It gives us a moment to tap into our shared humanity with the characters we saw on screen. We were not simply voyeurs of this film, grief required us to participate in a different way. We can learn a tremendous amount about grief if we allow ourselves to truly relate to the themes we saw in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Grief has the ability to impact us all. It is a universal experience and no one is immune. 

In the film we see that every character has an encounter with grief and loss in one way or another. We watch as each person attempts to make sense of their losses and tries to continue moving forward while carrying the pain of loss with them. Fairly early in the film we were introduced to the origin story of Namor, the feathered serpent god of Talokan. In his story we learn about how the loss of his mother, the loss of safety of his mother’s homeland, and how the loss of connection to the surface world impacted his worldview and helped shape his devotion to his people. We saw how the people of Wakanda had to balance honoring the legacy of their  beloved king T’Challa while still having to protect themselves from outside threats. The commonality between two of the main characters, Namor and Shuri, is the loss of their mothers. Even though their origin stories were very different, we saw how the common thread of the impact of a mother’s love and the desire to honor their mother’s legacies influenced the actions and internal motivations of each character. We even saw how the two mothers who never met mourned for their children in that they could not prevent their children from experiencing pain.

Similar to the film, grief can often require us to step into roles and spaces that we may not feel ready for. We can relate to each other and develop empathy by sharing our experiences of loss and we can better understand those around us by understanding how they grieve.

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We all process grief differently. 

We watched several characters acknowledge their grief in different ways. We watched Shuri immerse herself in her work, we watched Queen Ramonda rely heavily on the use of traditions, customs and rituals to work through the grief of losing her son. When we were introduced to Riri, we saw that she kept her connection to her father figure by keeping and working on his car. The theme of performing through grief was very evident in the film. 

Many of us can relate to the idea of still being required to function in the midst of grief, especially in the Western world. Some of us may be granted bereavement time directly following the passing of a person, but we often do not get the chance to sit with the ever evolving relationship with grief in the time that follows. There is no one right way to process grief, and we all go on a journey of figuring out how to carry on in the midst of loss. Grief can encompass all emotions and impact several facets of our lives. As we saw with Shuri’s journey to the ancestral plane, grief requires us to reckon with our deepest feelings whether we express them aloud or not. Grief can force us to experience radical honesty with ourselves and sometimes the people around us as well. 

Grief can come in many ways, not just physical death.

Grief did not just exist in the loss of physical life in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. We saw that many characters endured several types of losses that impacted them significantly. We watched the devastation overcome Okoye when she was stripped of her title and duties as the general of the Dora Milaje. We saw how the loss of anonymity threatened the world of Talokan and the safety of its inhabitants, leading Namor to wage war with Wakanda. When we think of connection, we saw that Shuri’s connection to tradition and rituals was often bridged by her relationship with her brother, T’Challa. With his death went Shuri’s already limited belief in the ancestral rituals.

When we limit grief and loss to solely physical death, we deny the impact of how nuanced grief really is. Not only do we grieve when death occurs, but we can grieve things that are alive and still among us. We can grieve what we did not get to experience, we can grieve the loss of access to someone or something, we can grieve the things we didn’t get the chance to say and so much more.

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Grief can introduce us to new things. 

Only when Shuri slowed down, went inward, and sat with her experiences did we see her truly surrender and step into her new role as a leader. Even though she was hesitant to fully accept tradition, when she accepted the role of Black Panther and presented herself to the council she immediately accepted their prayers and rituals of the elders. She learned to incorporate both the old and the new into her evolving understanding of herself and the people around her. It was not until she surrendered to grief on the beach in Haiti that she learned of her new family member. By embracing her grief instead of running from it, she made space for new experiences. 

Grief allows us to get honest about what really matters to us. It can help us reprioritize the things we truly believe to be important to us and can help us decide how we want to spend the time that we have left. The fight of your life may happen while you’re in the throes of grief – and you might have to go away to do it. Away may mean physically away, but away may also mean going within and allowing yourself to feel. What more can we learn from grief?  We can learn to not destroy whatever we have left in effort to avoid facing what we’ve lost. We can create meaning and know that grief does not necessarily leave us, but becomes incorporated into our existence. Grief is the ultimate teacher of surrender and acceptance. 

In Summary

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a masterclass on how grief permeates and surrounds us all. It challenges us to develop a more nuanced relationship with loss and empathy. The film normalizes the idea that we are not required to be the same person we were before grief or loss occurs. It teaches us to work around our grief, cultivate a relationship with it, and it declares that we are allowed to be changed by our grief.