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Stranger Things: Jim Hopper and Grief

November 20, 2017

One of the fantastic aspects of Stranger Things is that it is one of those series that truly makes use of its characters. No character is left undeveloped. Jim Hopper is one of those characters who undergoes a very painful process throughout both seasons.

Grieving a Child

When we first meet him, Jim Hopper seems to have a drinking problem. We soon find out that he drinks to cope with the loss of his 7-year-old daughter, Sarah. The loss of a child is a deeply tragic event, and I cannot even begin to imagine how painful it must be. No research study can fully encompass the experience of any one parent after the death of a child, and I doubt that words can accurately describe such an experience. Based on the research I read, as well as individuals who have courageously shared their own stories, it is a type of grief that never ends. The death feels unnatural and out of order, and can feel unexpected even when you know it's coming, such as with cancer. Bereaved parents might experience a number of psychological changes, such as shock, depression, loss of identity, denial, despair, anger, and marital discord, as well as feelings of guilt or suicidal thoughts. It is a devastating trauma. Some parents cope by focusing on their jobs, or on their other children.

Jim deals with his feelings by drinking and taking prescription medication, though it's unclear if he takes it as prescribed, as he's seen taking a few throughout the day some days and not others. He and his wife divorced, and while she remained in the city and healed in her own way, he returned to Hawkins, presumably to get away from reminders and live a more or less "quiet" life. It seems that it's not uncommon for him to spend a night with someone else here and there, but it doesn't seem as though he becomes emotionally invested in anyone. He also doesn't seem to get good quality sleep or proper nutrition. And although he attended school in Hawkins and it may be his hometown, he doesn't seem to have close friends or family. The only person who looks after him is Florence, the secretary at the station.
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Research suggests that helping others is one way that parents cope with the death of a child. When he begins to investigate Will's disappearance, Jim also begins to experience symptoms, perhaps because the possibility that Will may be dead triggers memories or feelings related to losing his own child. The whole case sends him on an emotional ride, and at one point he decides to call his ex-wife just to let her know that even though their child died, he does not regret any of it.

After the fake Will body appears, Jim tries to reach out to Joyce, opening up about what it was like for him after losing his daughter. He initially believes that Joyce is grieving, but begins to notice suspicious activity. In continuing his search even after the "body" appears, Jim might be following his instincts as a good cop investigating suspicious activity, but he may also be acting on the hope that maybe Will is one kid he can save. As he continues to work the case, Jim re-experiences some of the trauma of his own loss, which we can see through his flashbacks when he finds Will and starts performing CPR. Being able to save Will and give Joyce the resolution that he couldn't have helps him continue to take steps toward healing.
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"We Don't Take Risks."

One of my favorite parts of the second season is the father-daughter dynamic between Jim and Eleven, even though there were aspects of it that were not pretty. Jim takes on the role of Eleven's protector, but he does so by trying to control everything that happens to her. In order to thrive, children are supposed to live in the world, not simply observe through a screen. They are supposed to to play and have new experiences. Even though Jim's intent is to keep her safe, he is actually hurting El. She is isolated, the only human contact she has is with him, and her only access to the world is through her television or the radio. Though he does not intend it, this is a form of abuse.

Research suggests that after the loss of a child, a parent may become overprotective of their other children, so Jim's actions are not that abnormal given their situation. Even though El is not his family by blood, he has accepted her as such and she has done the same with him. Jim was unable to control anything about the circumstances that took his daughter. He was helpless and powerless against the cancer, so controlling El's environment is how he feels he is doing his best to protect her. These feelings of helplessness and powerlessness are why Jim reacts so aggressively when Eleven leaves the cabin and is spotted.

This is why I thought the final scene with El against the Shadow Monster was so powerful. El is the only one who can stand up to this monster. Jim stands by to support her, but he is unable to do much to protect her from it --this huge being that makes an attempt to take over El. I can only imagine the dread Jim may have felt as he faced the possibility that the Shadow Monster would take over El and spread, and then she, too, would be lost. He nevertheless stands by to support her in any way he can.

The research suggests that in healing, some parents experience increased feelings of parental competence and strength, and growth in interpersonal relationships. Perhaps the resolution of that final battle and adopting Eleven as his own will help Jim move toward that kind of growth.


My thoughts about Jim Hopper do not end here, but the next part will be a guest post, and I'm very excited to share it with you! Please feel free to share your thoughts about this and about Jim. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters.

Resources for grieving parents:
Grieving Parents Support Network
Grieving the Loss of a Child
Bereaved Parents of the USA
CureSearch for Children's Cancer: Immediately After Death
American Childhood Cancer Organization

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2 comments on "Stranger Things: Jim Hopper and Grief"
  1. I loved reading this! Jim Hopper is one of my favorite characters on the show!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it :) He’s definitely one of my favorites too.