Are you are a fan of classic family films and children’s fairy tales? Have you noticed the majority of these films and stories focus on the plight of a vulnerable, yet ultimately triumphant child who is grieving the death of a parent?
As the Clinical Director of Children’s Programs for Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles I am ever protective of the young people we serve. I’ve often wondered whether there is cause for concern about grieving children viewing these films and listening to fairy tales with a bereaved child as the central character. Lately, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that these stories and films offer teachable moments and opportunities for growth. Children’s stories and fairy tales provide exceptional openings to start conversations with young people about life, death and grief. Additionally, they offer young viewers an opportunity, on a deeper, psychological level, to face their unconscious fears of abandonment and death and to then identify with the central character and work through the fear by the film’s end.
While the films of Disney and Pixar studios easily fit the above description, many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens which predate cinema, also focus heavily on the plight of vulnerable and ultimately triumphant parentally bereaved children. The storylines typically involve deaths by very traumatic circumstances, which are downplayed and focused on so briefly that the details most likely escape the attention of very young viewers.
Consider some of the most beloved films of all time which depict the adventures of parentally bereaved young protagonists: Bambi (mother shot by hunters), Nemo (mom was killed by a predator shark), The Lion King’s Simba (dad is killed by his uncle), and Frozen’ s Elsa and Anna (parents died at sea). This year’s Coco offers a variation on the death/triumphant survivor theme wherein the main character Miguel actually journeys to the Land of the Dead to make contact with a deceased ancestor. A similar fate befalls Disney characters who are derived from the fairy tales of the Brother Grimm including the beloved Cinderella (mom died when she was very young and after dad married the archetypal wicked step mom, he died too)and Snow White (mom dies in child birth and then dad dies too) , Arielle from Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid (mother Queen Athena is killed by pirates), Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Belle from Beauty and the Beast all have experienced an unspecified and likely traumatic type of death and are going through life without mothers.
I recently met with a family on their first visit to our Grief Support Center. The child, a maternally bereaved 5 year old girl, came to her first appointment dressed in full Elsa (of Frozen fame) regalia. When I asked her what she had in common with Elsa, she could not answer, but when I reminded her that Elsa didn’t have a mommy either and that she grew up to be a hero, the girl’s face broke into a heart melting smile. It was clear that the process of identification had happened, most likely at a sub conscious level and that the enjoyment of the character was unsullied by the harsh reality of the death sequence early in the film.
Over the years parents of grieving children have questioned whether their children should be permitted to watch these films. Most recently my attention was brought by a parent to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, in which the hero was also a survivor of early maternal death. She wondered if it would be upsetting for her 10 year old to watch the scene because the main character’s mother dies in the hospital and the boy is kept from the room. I was able to reassure her that, in most cases, the death-related content does not detract from the young viewers’ enjoyment of these films, but, in fact, children are generally more likely to engage in conversation about the film’s characters with their ‘grown-up’ than they are to talk about the death in their OWN family.
All children have an innate fear of abandonment and death, which is far scarier than the worst monster or villain in popular films such as Nightmare on Elm Street or the Wizard of Oz. But, for the parentally bereaved child, the worst thing imaginable already happened to them when their parent died. They, like their imaginary counterparts in family classics, are left with the task of survival in the absence of the parent or parents who’ve died. Young viewer’s witness their heroes grieve and “go on” after their parent’s death and all ultimately do more than merely survive, they thrive and eventually triumph over adversity. Young viewers leave the theater humming catchy tunes and feeling good about themselves because they, along with the movies central character, have faced the worst thing imaginable and have lived to talk about it! Viewers are ultimately comforted knowing that they aren’t the only ones whose parent has died.
Perhaps parents or guardians of parentally bereaved children can consider watching one of the films listed above and opening a dialogue about the similarities and differences between your child and the central character. Make sure that your children understand the important messages that they aren’t the only ones whose parent has died and that the central characters are heroes! Use this as an opportunity to instill HOPE that they too will triumph and go on to live exceptional lives, and ultimately honor their parent who died. And always remember to enjoy your special time as a family!
Lester, D., & Templer, D. (1993). Death anxiety scales: A dialogue. Omega. 26. 239-253.
Yalom I. Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books; 1980.