I was a freshman in college when The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters. Given that my attention span has always been about an inch long, the theatrical release was, at best, an aesthetically pleasing slog. I know I fell asleep in the IMAX during The Two Towers and the only thing I remember about my first time seeing The Return of the King is the pretzel bite/nachos coupon I forgot to bring. But what was once mildly entertaining drudgery has since given way to my healthiest coping mechanism: fandom.

I lost my mom and dad to cancer in 2017 and 2015, respectively. These soul-punching experiences were each traumatic in their own ways. Grief may have triggered my anxiety, something I’d rarely experienced before 2015, but my fandom helps keeps it manageable. It was my grief counselor who first pointed out the power of my fandom. Specifically, I’m told my love for Lord of the Rings is a Very Healthy And Mature coping mechanism. (I can’t be the only one who is relieved to hear this.)

And it’s not just coping. My understanding of the material has changed, too. See for yourself with these 12 things Lord of the Rings taught me about my grief:

Sam Gamgee marvels over flowers in a still from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.New Line Cinema
It’s okay to want to be alone

That look Sam gives the flowers when he’s gardening as Bilbo’s narration discusses the simple lives of Hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring. He’s focused, then pleased, and it’s such a simple moment. Only since I’ve been grieving does it remind me that I have a green thumb that works even when/if I feel broken or incomplete. Getting back to being outside has been a wonderful part of grieving as both my parents had green thumbs too. This simple moment with Sam usually results in my working in the dirt.

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It’s okay to admit I am exhausted.

I must have heard Bilbo say the line a dozen times: “I feel thin. Sort of stretched like butter scraped over too much bread.” But the first watch after my dad’s funeral struck a chord and dissolved any guilt I felt that I was carving out 11 hours for myself to watch the extended trilogy. Because that’s exactly how I felt! And this familiarity with Bilbo was validating. I was physically exhausted, not to mention emotionally and mentally tapped. And if Bilbo did what he had to do to recharge, so could I.

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It’s okay to have no idea what’s going on.

Losing my parents was a slow but chaotic quiet. Grief can be overwhelming and exhausting. I am constantly learning how to navigate grief and leverage my fandoms in healthy ways. I’ve got to believe I’m doing it right. Because there’s no wrong way to grieve.

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It’s okay be angry.

Every time I see the Galadriel entranced at the temptation of the Ring in Lothlórien, I get a bit more strength back. Everything changed after the loss of my parents. Galadriel’s give-a-crap rage is always in the back of my mind when I am facing a tough decision: leaving a toxic job, not putting up with harassment, going to bat for family and friends, establishing my boundaries. These things are very new to me and can be scary. But every time I see (or think about) that moment, I feel a little bit of that energy. It’s empowering.

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Éowyn is my idol.

Éowyn cry-singing at her cousin’s funeral is affirming. She’s full-on ugly crying and it’s so public and raw and real and that moment continues to give me permission to let my emotions show in public (e.g. Target, the grocery store, the optometrist, gyno, and chiropractor are all places I’ve publicly cried without worrying about how it looks).

I was never like this. I’ve always been an emotional person, but never this public with my emotions. It’s very cathartic—not caring who might feel what about my public displays of grief. My grief doesn’t have a set schedule either, so being okay with crying no matter where I am saves me a lot of struggle.

Later, in the battle of Minas Tirith, Éowyn is grief-rage personified. This chapter in her story is pure recharging energy that translates into: “I don’t have time for imposter syndrome anymore.” A majority of my self-doubt has dissolved since I lost my parents. It’s very freeing.

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It’s okay not to be okay.

Théoden crying after Théodred’s funeral always punches me right in the feels. But it’s Gandalf physically turning away to let him cry that reassures me: Gandalf doesn’t try to comfort Théoden. He doesn’t hush or hug or distract Théoden. He steps away. He gives Théoden space. He lets him grieve. Now that I’ve been through it, I know enough not to try to fix a grieving friend (I used to, because I had no idea. I just wanted them to stop crying). But grief has to—and will—take its course.

While my dad was in hospice, I could not bring myself to watch Théodred’s funeral scene. I’d skip it because it made me so uncomfortable, because I knew I was going to be ugly-crying-Théoden sooner than later. But after Dad passed, I was in the thick of mourning. Only then was Théoden’s scene a comfort. It was like, “Yeah, I see you Théoden King. I feel this. I get it.” Now? I can watch it all the way through. It’s familiar. And that real-life equivalent of the previously gut-wrenching scene is behind me.

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It’s okay to feel like I’m getting pulled into a million pieces.

Sméagol telling Gollum to go away and never return may as well be a scene between me and my guilt. (Guilt over not being there when my parents died, guilt over living away from my family, guilt over not being able to prevent their illnesses, etc.) Those self-arguments were very harsh, destructive, and unhelpful until I started talking with a counselor. Before grief? This was a hilarious scene. Now? It is a sobering reminder that I have some solid ways to recognize and cope with the scary stuff.

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It’s okay to laugh.

Gimli is the comic relief, and one I feel on a molecular level. Before losing my parents, I thought that guy was hilarious. Now that I’ve been through grief? I see Gimli as hilarious and necessary. Lord of the Rings is not a light story. He handles heavy things like I do. So, I am not a jerk for making my family play Cards Against Humanity after my parents’ respective funerals. Guilt and anxiety are the jerks.

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Grief will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.

I’m destroyed during Return of the King when Frodo and Sam are half-dead in lava. Every time. But destroyed in a good way. It unclogs anything I’ve been holding back. It helps me cry and release any residual stuff that may have built up in the past days or eons. It also reminds me that some folks will be comfortable talking about grief. Again, it’s validation. I think, “Frodo felt like this! So it is normal that I feel like this sometimes too.”

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It’s okay to discover, set, and enforce new boundaries.

My grief counselor encourages me to keep track of my triggers. And the multiple gut-wrenching endings in Return of the King are rough on me. So, it is a joy to shut the movie off immediately after the people of Gondor bow to the hobbits. My grief, my choice. I have boundaries. I know that now. Maybe I’ll be able to watch the theatrical ending again someday—but it is not this day. And that’s okay.

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It’s okay to rethink my life choices.

Everything changed after my parents died. As odd as it is to admit, a majority of these changes have been good, much like Sam having the gumption to approach Rosie Cotton at the end of Return of the King! He would not have had that courage, or whatever it was, if he hadn’t been through hell and back. It’s another affirmation for me that everything changes after a loss. Everything recalibrates. Relationships, motivations, hobbies, goals. It didn’t happen immediately, or completely, but it was unavoidable. I changed. I leveled up.

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Carpe the crap out of that diem.

“Strider” may not have been able to summon the Army of the Dead, but “Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur” sure as heck could. Life without my parents is weird. At first it was painful knowing I’d never get back to normal. But now, it’s just a new normal. A year ago I wasn’t even Strider. I was Harry Goatleaf, the citizen of Bree who gets flattened by his own gate when the freaking Nazgûl tramples it. But not anymore. And even though there are days it doesn’t feel like I am okay, I am. I’ve gotten hints that I am healing. You’re reading one of them.

I don’t know how many hours I spent worrying that I was grieving wrong. But as it turns out, there are as many ways to grieve as there are nerds on this planet. So if your favorite fandoms, games, books, movies, Eldritch horror, or hobbies comfort you, lean into it. 

A few helpful grief resources:

At the time, I was too numb to understand how helpful these resources would have been. But I found a grief counselor with a site like this one. What’s Up is a mental health app that fills in the gaps between my counseling appointments, but there are others too.

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