Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Dr. Strange. Who is he? He's a sorcerer and master of the mystic arts, wielder of the reality infinity stone, and a protector of earth that saves it from threats even the Avengers can't see.
He wasn't always like this. There was a time when he was just a man who had suffered a devastating and debilitating loss.
The character of Dr. Strange was first introduced in Marvel Comics in the 1960s, with the character joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016. Played by the popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the film brought the character to life for a new audience. The film introduces exciting characters and follows one man in his epic battle to save the world (Encyclopedia Britannica & Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki).
But wait, maybe there's something more to it than that? Maybe the story of Dr. Strange is about more than fighting villains. It addresses deeper questions like the process that people go through after experiencing loss and how one can accept the loss to move forward.
The Cycle of Grief
Trying to understand how people cope with loss is not a new area of study. Grief and all emotions are not something that can be summed up in a psychology textbook.
In each stage, individuals experience and express particular emotions that are natural to the grieving process. It is important to note that Kubler Ross emphasized that these stages do not happen in a specific order. She also acknowledged that people can skip some stages altogether (Virginia Commonwealth University).
The five stages of the Kubler Ross Model are
Rather than explain each of these stages, let's look at each through Dr. Strange's story and how he acted at each stage.
Dr. Strange's Story:
Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange was once a talented and successful neurosurgeon. He had everything, but his arrogance was overwhelming.
All that changes when his car crashes. Miraculously, he survives the accident, but he suffers severe nerve damage in his hands. His entire life changes. He can't do what he has always done, and there is an immense sense of loss.
While the odds of his hands working again are low, Dr. Strange researches and theorizes that his hands can function again with the right surgeries. This is where viewers see him in the stage of denial. He spends all his money on experimental surgeries, all of which fail to restore the function of his hands. During this time, he doesn't believe that the loss has occurred and thinks he can "fix" the problem. He undergoes seven surgeries to try to heal his hands.
For people in this stage: Understand that the loss you experienced might be severe even if you seem to feel fine right now. The denial stage is a time when you might compartmentalize and not realize the full extent of your loss. This can be a coping mechanism and isn't always a bad thing (Clarke, 2021). But you may experience more pain as the full realization of your loss sets in.
For friends of the person in this stage: Be present. Be aware that the person might not be ready to talk about the loss. The important thing is to be ready to listen when the person wants to talk.
Harvard Health publishing notes that
Often, people work through grief and trauma by telling their story over and over. Unless you are asked for your advice, don't be quick to offer it. Frequently, those who are grieving really wish others would just listen. It's your understanding—not your advice—that is most sorely needed.
When he wakes up after his accident, Dr. Strange expresses anger when he tells the doctor that operated on him that "You have ruined me."
Dr. Strange truly enters the anger phase after a fellow surgeon refuses to perform another experimental surgery on him. This refusal occurs over a video call, after which Dr. Strange throws the laptop across the room. His friend, Christine, comes by to visit. She tells him that life without his hands is still life and that there are other things that can give his life meaning. She is also a doctor, and he accuses her of treating him like a patient to "fix." He yells at her and ends up pushing her away.
For people in this stage: Understand that anger is also a natural response to loss. (Clarke, 2021). However, reacting in anger can hurt the people around you. Try to find healthy outlets and use anger management techniques. For example, try to use relaxation techniques and exercise to help avoid lashing out at other people. When you are more calm, learn to express honestly what you are angry about (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
For friends of the person in this stage: Often the person who is grieving will lash out at other people. Be gracious and kind. Try to understand that the person is not actually mad at you, but also learn to set healthy boundaries.
At this stage, people often appeal to higher power as a means to cope with their loss. "If only (x) happens, then I will be okay with (y)." Dr. Strange takes this idea to the extreme. He learns of a man who would normally have been paralyzed for the rest of his life miraculously walking. When he meets this man, Johnathan Pangborn, Dr. Strange asks him for help. He says, "You came back from a place there's no way back from." He holds out his shaking hands and says, "I'm trying to find my own way back."
Johnathan tells him about a place called Kamar-Taj. While there, Dr. Strange meets the Ancient One and learns of the mystical powers of the multiverse. Dr. Strange starts learning how to harness this power because he believes it will heal his hands. He becomes discouraged, and while he learns new skills, he notes "My hands still shake," indicating that he is wholly focused on whatever he needs to do to heal his hands.
For people in this stage: Recognize that there are many things that are beyond your control, and this is not a bad thing. And while you may not get what you try to bargain for, you may actually be made stronger the loss.
For friends of the person in this stage: Continue to be present. Listen to your loved ones' desires and thoughts. This can help them process what it is that they truly want. Encourage them not to make any drastic changes or decisions that they might regret later. The American Cancer Society notes that the bargaining stage of grief can often be a time when a person is struggling to find meaning related to a loss and that the person may reach out to other people.
While Dr. Strange does appear to almost skip this stage, there are a few moments that could represent him going through this stage. He comes to a point of being humbled in a new environment where he is no longer at the top. At Karmar-Taj, he is called Mr. Strange rather than Dr. Strange, at which point he asks to be called Stephen.
When he learns that the sorcerers at Karmar-Taj protect the world from cosmic threats, he says "I'm out. I came here to heal my hands, not get caught up in some cosmic war." At this point, he is no longer in the bargaining stage of grief. He also learns that the Ancient One has been lying to him, and for a little while, he doesn't know what to do or where to go next. He feels caught between what the other sorcerers want him to do and his old way of life.
For people in this stage: Depression can be debilitating. The world can feel numb and it can be hard to get through the day. But with the right kind of help, you can get through it. This may involve help from loved ones or from a licensed therapist who can help you work through your grief.
For friends of the person in this stage: Continue to be attentive to the grieving person's needs. As they struggle to know what to do next, look out for them in simple ways. This can involve making sure they practice good self-care or avoid excessive isolation. The Harvard Health Publishing further notes that it is helpful to be specific about your interventions. Rather than simply asking, "Is there anything I can do to help?" find active ways that you can intervene.
The Ancient One is killed by the villain, Kaecilius, and in her final moments, she tells Dr. Strange something miraculous. Dr. Strange learns that he could harness energy from the multiverse to heal his hands. He learns that he could have his old life back.
But he now also knows about what Kaecilius wants to do, a plan that will ultimately lead to the destruction of earth. He knows that he can help stop Kaecilius. And it is when he chooses to do what is best for earth, that he truly comes to a place of acceptance about the loss of his hands. He recognizes that he cannot go back to his old life. But he can go forward and focus on something greater than himself.
For people in this stage: Coming to a point of acceptance does not mean that your loss wasn't severe. Accepting the loss doesn't mean that you forget about it or don't care anymore. Rather, it means, that you are able to look past the loss and move forward in spite of it. Also understand that grief is a process, and it is not linear. You might go back to stages of grief that you have already experienced. You might be certain you have come to a place of acceptance, and then discover there is more to the loss that you need to work through. This is okay. Ultimately, remember to keep looking forward.
For friends of the person in this stage: While acceptance is an excellent place to be, understand that your loved one might take a while to get to this point. They may also go back to other stages of grief. Continue to encourage them, but don't rush them through other needed stages to get them to a point of acceptance.
Outside the world of comic books:
In the real world, we might not be able to experience the power of the multiverse or save the world from cosmic threats like Dr. Strange. Most of us also won't get a choice like the one he had to go back to his old way of life.
But we all experience loss, and many experience loss of function similar to what Dr. Strange faced. People lose limbs, visual acuity, or nerve function. What can be beautiful about loss is how people rise above it. What makes the story of Dr. Strange inspiring is not that he got back what he lost and got to be the man on top again. No. His story is beautiful because he loses everything and then learns to move forward and save other people.
And as individuals, we can heal and move forward in spite of loss. It might not be easy. It might take a lot of help. But it can be done. And in the end, we might just inspire and help others.
American Cancer Society. (2019, May 10). Grief and bereavement. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/end-of-life-care/grief-and-loss/grieving-process.html
Biography.com. (2021, April 07). Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.biography.com/scientist/elisabeth-kubler-ross
Clarke, J., MA. (2021, February 12). What to know about the five stages of grief. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/five-stages-of-grief-4175361
Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, July 18). Ways to support someone who is grieving. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/ways-to-support-someone-who-is-grieving
Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki. (n.d.). Doctor strange. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://marvelcinematicuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Doctor_Strange#Biography
Mayo Clinic. (2020, February 29). Anger management: 10 tips to tame your temper. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/anger-management/art-20045434
Roach, D., & Encylopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Doctor strange. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Doctor-Strange-fictional-character
Virginia Commonwealth University. (2021, June 29). Grief counseling techniques and interventions in social work. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://onlinesocialwork.vcu.edu/blog/grief-counseling-techniques-social-work/