Ah, Disney, companion of my childhood, the reason for so many hours spent rewinding VHS tapes and learning the words to “Under the Sea” (in a terrible (and probably racist, now I come to think of it) Jamaican accent.). Trips to the cinema to watch Belle dance around a spooky old mansion with a tea set, or snuggled up with my Dad watching his favourite Jungle Book. (Fun fact, the vultures at the end of the film were meant to be voiced by the Beatles, but John Lennon said no, so the animators kept the Liverpudlian accents and changed the music style to a barbershop quartet instead. Don’t say I never teach you anything!)
We’re all a bit nostalgic when we have children of our own, and I am no exception. I was looking forward to movie nights on the sofa munching on popcorn whilst I watched Ethan’s growing delight at Robin Williams’ Genie, Dumbo’s soaring triumph over adversity, Simba’s singalong with Timon and Pumba, and the surfer dude turtles in Finding Nemo.
Well, this has yet to happen. Firstly there is the fact that Ethan seems to have off-the-charts empathy levels for characters in films and TV programmes (although read him a book with death and peril and end-of-the-world stakes and he’s totally fine – go figure.), so can’t deal with anything going wrong in a film. Even if you sit there and assure him that it will all be ok in the end.
But then we add in the additional complication that pretty much every Disney film seems to feature the death or disappearance of one, or both, parents. You think I’m exaggerating?
We have, ahem, deep breath:
The Lion King
The Good Dinosaur
Beauty and the Beast
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Lilo and Stitch
The Jungle Book
The Little Mermaid
The Sword in the Stone
The Fox and the Hound
The Princess and the Frog
Told you. It’s bonkers. Disney is messing with me.
So, what do you do? Do you decide that, as a bereaved child, bringing up a painful topic for no other reason than to introduce your son to a talking crab that you think is funny, is probably not the best parenting choice? Or do you reason that, actually, seeing his own circumstances reflected on screen (minus said talking crab) might help him normalise the situation? Or do you do what I did, and decide that really, the second choice is best for his long term mental health, but that right now you just don’t want to have to deal with tears over a 2D lion?
I’ve pushed this issue down the road for quite a long time. And that’s fine. Like I said – it’s no big deal for Ethan if Sebastian isn’t a part of his life (I really loved that movie…), it’s mainly my nostalgia at play. But more and more, when we’re trying to think of things to watch together, old and new, we are coming up against the plot device of a missing parent. It’s not going to be something I can avoid forever.
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. All stories are essentially the same: Hero, obstacle, guide, lessons learnt, things improve, things get worse, it’s all ok in the end. A dead parent is a tidy and easily explained obstacle to put in the way of your hero. I don’t really blame Disney. But I am going to have to start dealing with it.
When I step out of my initial panic mode (Argh! Crap! The dad dies, can’t watch this then! He might cry. I might cry. He’ll ask me all the really tough questions again), I need to remember that it really will be ok.
I need to remind myself that I may not have answers to all of the possible questions, and that’s ok, as long as I’m willing to listen.
I need to remind myself that, yes, he may cry, and that may be simply because the story is sad, or it may be because he feels some link to his situation, and that’s ok, good even, because dealing with hard emotions only comes with practice.
I need to remind myself that, even if I cry, he will not feel anxious or unsafe, because I’ve done all the groundwork to show him that grown-ups cry and it’s not the end of the world.
I need to remind myself that introducing hard themes through books and films is one of the best ways we can teach our children that life is tough sometimes, but that it can always get better. And that losing a parent is never the end of the story.
Today is the last day of my daily posts for Children’s Grief Awareness Week. I hope that you’ve found my musings interesting or helpful. I hope that I’ve drawn your attention to the importance of tackling the subjects of death and grief with our children, even though they make us feel awkward. I hope that you’ll follow Grief Encounter and other organisations on social media, because this is an issue that families all around the country have to deal with every day of the year. And I hope that you’ll stick around.
From all of us in the O’Brien-Day household, take care.