From the March 2019 issue

Death and Disney: How Movies Help Kids Learn About Death

The death of a favorite character in a Disney or Pixar flick can actually open up conversations about the topic with children.

A graveyard depicting Disney characters that have died
Illustration by Jay Holladay

A hunter killed Bambi’s mom in the 1942 animated flick Bambi. Scar killed his brother Mufasa in 1994’s The Lion King. And in 2009, Ellie died, leaving Carl all alone in Up.

While many parents hope to shield their children from death, kids’ movies often portray death and dying.

In fact, according to a 2017 study conducted by researchers Kelly Tenzek and Bonnie Nickels, more than 80 percent of Disney and Pixar films, which are geared at young kids, had some depiction of death. Starting this month, there may be more to come with Disney’s 10 flicks releasing in 2019 – including a remake of The Lion King in July.

The study’s researchers screened 57 total films.

In some, like Bambi and Up, a character’s death isn’t shown on screen, but the moment is integral in moving the plot forward. Beyond that, though, the death of a character – especially a favorite one – can actually help prepare kids for death and be used as conversation starters between parents and children.

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“I think that for each family, engaging with the child and watching films together is a way where you both then can talk about what you saw,” Tenzek, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, says.

Dana Cohen, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the Beaumont Center for Human Development in Southfield, agrees.

“I do think that movies can help kids learn to cope with death,” she says. “I think movies are probably just one example, but I think any exposure that children can
have to death is good in preparation with what they unfortunately have to deal with in their own lives, so I think movies can definitely be a good avenue for that.”

When it comes to tackling the tough topic with your child, Cohen and Tenzek offer some dos and don’ts for parents.

Discussion dos

The goal of using films to discuss death is to help normalize the topic, Tenzek says. Early exposure is key.

“It’s important to expose kids to the concept in small doses, starting at preschool age,” Cohen adds.

It’s easier for children to deal with the topic of death in small ways, such as watching a movie or talking about the death of an insect or animal they saw on the road.

“If we can start (conversations) earlier, we have the opportunity for making memories, (having) meaningful conversations and normalizing this end-of-life conversation,” Tenzek says.

When talking about death, be honest and concrete.

“If they ask any questions, which oftentimes they do, whether it be after watching a movie or, again, hearing about somebody losing their pet, they may have questions and it’s important to answer them honestly,” Cohen says.

Answer questions in terms children can understand, and don’t shy away from using the words “death” and “dying,” either.

When talking to younger kids, put things in simple terms such as, “After you die, you don’t breathe anymore, you don’t eat anymore,” Cohen suggests.

Kids need to understand that death is permanent, she adds, not like in some movies where a character comes back to life.

Discussion don’ts

Avoid saying things like, “Grandpa died because he was old” or “She died because she was very sick.” Statements like these are big no-nos.

“You have to be careful when you say things like that because kids take things very literally,” Cohen says.

Also avoid phrases like “she went to sleep” or “he went away.” Those statements aren’t concrete enough, even for those older kids who might understand things a bit better.

Another big mistake parents make is trying to hide death from children by changing the subject when a child walks in the room, for example, or not wanting to cry in front of a child. It’s natural and normal for parents to avoid, Cohen says, but they are inadvertently doing more harm than good.

Some families and cultures have different views on talking about death, so how to handle the topic is ultimately up to the parent.

“It’s inevitable that they are going to deal with it in some way during their life,” Cohen says, “and the more we can prepare them when they are young, the better prepared they will be when they do have to deal with it.”

Looking for other ways to prepare your child for death or funerals? Metro Parent has advice on funeral etiquette for kids and a roundup of kids’ books about death to help you out.

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