How Stranger Things helped me cope with losing a toxic parent

When Vecna uses the face of Lucas to judge Max for all her negative thoughts she regretted having about Billy, Vecna was talking to me, too.

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When my mother passed away in 2019, both grief and relief overwhelmed me.

My mother said and did some horrific things during my childhood, but she was still my mother. In Netflix’s original sci-fi series Stranger Things, Max Mayfield (played by Sadie Sink) mourns the loss of her contemptuous step-brother, Billy Hargrove (played by Dacre Montgomery). While the shows main storyline is about a group of friends saving their small town of Hawkins from looming threats of a parallel universe called the Upside Down, Max and Billy’s subplot reflects the difficulties of grieving an abusive relative.

In the third season, when Billy is brutally killed by the Mind Flayer (an evil entity residing in the Upside Down), Max spirals into a depression after his death. When I lost my mother, I felt both grief and relief simultaneously, much like Max. Watching another person conflicted with these two feelings while processing the loss of a relative felt validating.

Billy had been verbally and physically abusive to Max. My mom, who battled with mental illness, also was verbally abusive toward me and physically abusive toward other family members. While it may seem inappropriate to feel any sense of comfort when a family member passes away, my mother, like Billy, was toxic.

The Healing Power of Music

In the most recent season of Stranger Things, Max uses music as a way to cope with the traumatic loss of her brother. Her go-to song, which became massively popular, was Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (Make a Deal with God).” The powerful lyrics in the song, that seem to translate Max’s intricate heartache, are: “And if I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get him to swap our places.” In theory, this song is meaningful to her because she wishes she had switched places with Billy and had been the one that is now gone.

I remember cleaning tables at a restaurant during the late shift after my mother passed away. It was a slow night, and I tuned out by listening to the background music coming in through the speakers. The radio in the diner was playing James Taylor’s song, “Fire and Rain.”

I rushed into the large walk-in refrigerator and bawled. The lyrics in that song that hit too close to home were, “And I always thought that I’d see you again.” When my mom was first hospitalized, the nurse said on the phone that she had pneumonia. The doctors said she was treatable, but when her illness progressed and she wasn’t getting better, that’s when they found the cancer. It all happened so fast. I reassured myself that she was going to make it until the doctors said she wouldn’t. She couldn’t talk and became unresponsive. This song became my personal demon slayer, my kryptonite to Vecna.

Saying Goodbye and Good Riddance

Another eerily relatable scene was the part when Max visits Billy’s gravesite. She’s in the middle of a dangerous mission to rid Hawkins of Vecna, a powerful monster in the Upside Down. She’s not sure if she will make it out alive, so she writes goodbye letters to everyone — including Billy.

When Max read her letter to Billy’s headstone, I understood how she was grappling with both heartbreak and solace by his absence. My mother said something wicked over the phone to me I’ll never forget: that her former roommate deserved to get cancer because she evicted her. Disgusted, I hung up the phone. I couldn’t fathom wishing such an unforgivable curse upon anyone. And that is only one instance of many times where she crossed a line, when she was completely heartless.

Max didn’t want to bury her toxic brother. I didn’t want my toxic mother to pass away, either. I wanted her to heal and become better. I wanted her to learn from her mistakes and get a second chance. I yearned for a healthy relationship with my mom, even though I never had one.

I could see my feelings mirrored in how Max shows remorse for losing Billy. She wanted her brother to have a second chance to change his ways. She wanted to swap places with him. When the Mind Flayer stabbed him to death, it was too late. Cancer, like the Mind Flayer, is a disease that is out for blood.

The Fear of Becoming A Monster

The final scene that conveyed the strange, nameless feeling of losing a toxic loved one was the moment when Vecna shape-shifted into the likeness of Max’s boyfriend, Lucas.

As Max confesses to the unspeakable thoughts that haunted her after losing Billy, Vecna (as Lucas) condemns her for the immoral contemplations about her brother. She admitted to saying a part of her didn’t want to save him and that a part of her wanted him gone.

When someone is toxic and abusive, it’s human to feel this way. Max’s vulnerability, the way she openly expressed her disdain for him, made me feel less alone. I know that feeling. When my mother called, I remembered all the times I didn’t want to pick up the phone. I didn’t want to deal with her pain pill addiction or her guilt tripping rants. Yet after she died, on my first birthday without her, I dreaded the reality. I would never receive a call from her again, even on my birthdays. Something deep within me still missed hearing her voice.

This scene soothed my inner self-loathing wounds like aloe on a sunburn. I realized I wasn’t a monster for cutting ties with my mother when she became unbearable. Replaying fictional scenarios in my head, ones where my mother was well and present, didn’t seem like a crime anymore. For once, I didn’t feel like I was isolated in my experience of grieving my toxic mother, who some may argue doesn’t deserve it.

When Vecna uses the face of Lucas to judge Max for all her negative thoughts she regretted having about Billy, Vecna was talking to me, too. The monster’s laser sharp stare of disgust, the twisted face of contempt and shame he cast on her for feeling a grain of relief, hit me hard. It was a reenactment of my worst fear, that someone would out me for not loving my mother enough. But I love her and always will love her despite the traumatic experiences I endured.

Representing Complicated Family Dynamics

Stranger Things was bold in its pursuit of achieving such a complex family dynamic. As someone who relates to Max, especially in the fourth season, it was cathartic seeing this real-life dilemma translated on screen. Max and Billy’s subplot provides a sense of comfort, as they humanized an unsettling mixture of emotions — grief juxtaposing relief.

Opposing feelings sometimes blend into one messy, complicated experience. There is no “good” in a goodbye or a good riddance.

Max reminds me it’s okay to feel two conflicting emotions at once. Grief and relief are capable of coexistence. These complicated feelings I have about my mom, like Max has for Billy, don’t make me a bad person. They just make me human.

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