“Grief is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but can’t. All this unspent love gathers in the corners of the eyes, in the lump in the throat and in that hollow on the chest. Grief is just love that has nowhere to go.” ~ Jamie Anderson
I knew my son was watching me. We inhaled handfuls of popcorn Cold heart 2 played on the screen above. (Spoiler…)
Anna has just realized that her sister Elsa is dead, frozen at the bottom of the river. Anna must live without her.
My son turned and looked straight at me, ignoring the movie. He knew what would happen. I started to cry. This is what he expected. He patted my arm with his little hand, which was greasy with popcorn and sticky with sour gummy worms.
Anna’s body sinks, and her broken voice begins to growl a song of sadness: You’ve gone where I can’t find. There is seriousness in this grief. It drags me down.
I’m also frozen in memory of my brother Dave’s death by suicide a few months ago. Cartoon Anna and I mourned our lost brothers and sisters together.
My little son comforted me while I cried. As I think about it, it’s such a twisted scene. Can’t we just go to the movies, eat a bunch of crappy food, have a few laughs and end the night?
Neither of us wanted me to have spiral of grief in an animated film with a talking snowman and a story line about a guy who gets tangled up with his reindeer. But the movie is all about grief.
It’s about one daughter’s quest to heal an intergenerational trauma and right the wrongs of the past. It’s about another daughter who tries to learn the stories of her lost parents, and in doing so, she enters a dangerous space that also threatens her life.
I guess it’s quite predictable that this story reminds me so much of my own family.
Six months before Dave took his own life, our father died of esophageal cancer. My son, of course, saw my tears. Now he is nine. He knows that his mother lives in the mountains. He knows that his mother has a wound where her brother and father once were, and that the wound reopens from time to time. He saw me cry more than I could ever imagine.
Have you ever wondered how many children’s movies feature the death of a parent or sibling? Here are the ones that come to mind: The Lion King, Frozen, Big hero 6, Earth before time, Finding Nemo, How to train your dragon 2, Bambi, Disgusting, Vivo, Batman, the entire Star Wars franchise. This year’s Light year. You will get a picture.
Death is so common in children’s movies that a team of Canadian researchers looked at the prevalence of death in the genre and concluded that two-thirds of children’s films featured the death of an important character, while only half of the films were for adults.
The researchers also found that main characters in children’s films were two and a half times more likely to die and three times more likely to be killed than main characters in films marketed to adults.
So if my kids watched a movie a week, they would see thirty-four deaths a year – usually a parent or close family member. What’s up with that?
It’s an easy plot device. What better way to introduce a character into a scenario where he heroically redeems a terrible tragedy by going on a journey, reclaiming the throne, restoring the family name, and so on? The meaning of the film is that the main character is faced with loss. This is the quintessential hero’s journey.
I have no problem with children being exposed to death. I have had many open conversations about this with my children. When children’s films show children thriving after horrific events, there may be some psychological benefit in helping children understand that there really is life after death.
But what worries me is how the prevalence of these stories shapes our expectations of grief.
This is an important conversation, especially when more than a million Americans have died from COVID. The impact on the children was enormous. From April 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, data in Pediatrics It is estimated that more than 140,000 children under the age of 18 in the United States have lost a parent, grandparent, or grandparent in their care.
Children see death over and over again, but there is very little consideration of grief in popular culture. In most cases in the film, the hero stands with his head down near an open grave. Viewers may notice a tear or a nod to the grieving period, but the character is back in action sixty seconds later, fighting a dragon, building a robot, or saving the world.
Another alternative is that prolonged grief causes a person to become a villain. When loss isn’t quickly turned into action, it seems to turn into revenge and malice. I think about Kingpin from Spider manDr. Callaghan of Big hero 6Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) of Star WarsMagnet from X-Menamong others.
These movies are about grief, which is a disservice to us all. Our society expects the bereaved to return to action almost immediately. And if they don’t do it, promptly, on time, then the suspicion that the grief has ruined.
These films help create a society in which there is no model for feelings of loss. For being slow. For the darkness of it. Especially in the lives of children.
At the time of the death of my loved ones, my children were twelve, eight and eight years old. They were gentle and sweet. And young. But also, old enough.
We talked a lot about cancer at home. Children knew science. They shared a house with my father while he went through his first round of chemotherapy. They knew it was unfortunate.
I let them know early on that this cancer would probably be the cause of my grandfather’s death. I explained the size and location of the different tumors. I let them know that our time with him would probably be two or three years.
I believe that you have to be honest with children in a way that they can understand. I didn’t want them to be afraid that their grandfather would die. I wanted to reveal to them the secret that the grandfather was going to die. No need to keep anyone in suspense.
I was with my father when he died in California. My children were at home in Minnesota. A few minutes after his death, I called them on the phone. My husband Rob sat with them and I took turns telling them. I talked to them while Rob held them.
When my brother died, Rob and I were both baby sitting. They told the younger and the older together. They were fragile and scary again. Surprised. Open eyes. We kept them.
They said little. Uncharacteristically, they didn’t ask any questions. They knew that Uncle Dave was mysteriously ill.
It was much more difficult to talk about the death of my brother with my children. They knew he struggled with alcohol. They knew the word addiction. They knew that he was lying down and being discharged from the hospital. The problem with suicide is that there is no good way to make the logic work for children.
I can only imagine the flood of questions: How much sadness is too much sadness? How much pain is too much pain? When does a cat die? When my best friend is mad at me? What makes your heart ache so much that death has become a logical step? When does a person reach that point?
Psychologically speaking, talking to my children about Dave’s death was so difficult because it threatened to dismantle their basic assumptions about the goodness, safety, and predictability of the world.
In talking to my children, I did not want their sense of goodness, justice and security to be destroyed. The world is no longer a predictable, good place when someone kind and loving experiences such darkness and ultimately a gruesome, self-inflicted death.
The world no longer makes sense without a simple, rational explanation for how it happened. I may no longer be worthy of happiness and joy if someone like Uncle Dave can’t find happiness and joy.
Everything in me is organized against my children understanding this logic. I didn’t want it to enter their minds or hearts.
But there is. It will be. They learn the full story of their quiet uncle with beautiful blue eyes. They will remember him on our sofa, and in the park, and in the kitchen, and on the lake. They learn the truth about him and how he got lost.
And there’s no getting around the reality of suicide, the reality that the truth lies beyond their mother’s careful, thoughtful, simple explanations. I can’t make it clean or easy for them to digest. It’s too dirty.
My children have been up close and personal with grief in recent years. They held human ashes in their hands. They expect me to cry during a scene in a movie where the hero loses his own brother. They know everything about cancer. They visited memorials
It’s not something I would choose for them to be at the movie theater, comforting their mom because the cartoon reminds her of her dead brother. It’s not what I ever imagined
I held their tiny baby bodies for the first time, and my heart vowed to protect them with every cell in my body. Sometimes I ask them for forgiveness in a whisper: “I’m sorry that our life turned out this way.”
There is a way to use the death of children’s movies to facilitate conversations about grief and loss.
Study 2021 Cognitive development found that animated films can provide opportunities for parent-child conversations about death because parents often watch these films with their children. However, according to the researchers, few parents take this opportunity to talk about death with their children. I encourage parents to take advantage of these teachable moments.
For my children who have seen grief up close, my only hope is that they learn the reality of grief. They see a more realistic picture than Disney shows them. They see me going to work, baking pancakes, driving a car, laughing with friends. They see me live. And they see me cry.
They also see that the duration of grief is not five minutes of screen time, but years.
When they came into my world, I had no idea that grief would be such an important lesson in their childhood. But after seeing Dave explode, along with the loss of our father, maybe grief, real grief, will be the bigger lesson I expected.
Maybe what I’m watching will one day help my children out of their own darkness. Disney introduces them to death. My job is to show them the reality of grief.