Released in 1991, My Girl was a formative movie for an entire generation of young girls. While the movie came out the year of my birth, catching on TV as a pre-teen changed my life. It was a movie about all the things I was too scared to talk about: puberty, wholesome crushes, friendship, and, most of all, death. In the movie, 11-year-old Vada (Anna Chlumsky) loses her best friend Thomas J (Macaulay Culkin) when he gets attacked by a swarm of bees (he was allergic to everything). Without fail, the scene of Thomas J's funeral makes me bawl my eyes out.
It's just not fair; Thomas J shouldn't have even been in the forest in the first place! Having lost her mother as an infant and with her dad owning a funeral home, Vada knows the permanence of death. But still, the death of her best friend (and first kiss) send her into an emotional tailspin.
Revisiting My Girl as an adult who's had to deal with the deaths of loved ones, the movie is perfect depiction of how grief doesn't make sense. Of course, this isn't the only time death has been used a plot device in a popular family movie. Family movies often feature people dying, and according to a 2014 study, characters are 2.5 times likely to die in animated children's movies than they are in movies for adults. But movies about cartoon animals can only focus so much on the post-death grieving process—something that live action family movies would be smart to take on.
I don't remember being taught about death at school, however, growing up my family very often brought it up in conversation. Perhaps it was because of my religious upbringing, and the fact that my refugee parents were always getting calls about people they knew dying, but it just wasn't a topic to shy away from. I vividly remember my mom telling me as a child in the most blasé way, "We're all going to die and there's nothing you can do about it." Another favourite of her was, "We're all going to be underground one day, and we'll be alone."
Looking back, it's obvious my mom was low-key goth but I'm grateful she was so open about truly the only thing we're guaranteed in life. Most kids weren't so lucky to death as a normal conversation subject, something I learned when my own best friend died at the age of 19. The day of her death, I was given the task of telling her other friends she had died and I continued having to tell people of her passing for months afterwards. "How's your friend?" "Oh, she died! No, no don't worry about it—it's cool!" My time with her and her death were the most formative experiences of my life but wanting to casually bring her up in conversation feels impossible (like, who knew talking about dead people killed conversations?).
I don't think anything can prepare someone for the death of a loved one or family member, but I do think we can soften the inevitable blow by talking about death before we find ourselves having to face immediate loss. And what better way than to have more people die in movies made for children?
One of the best modern examples of a realistic depiction of death geared towards children can be found in 2014's Big Hero 6. In the movie's first part, the brother of the main character, Hiro, dies while trying to save someone in a fire. It's not ambiguous either—he knows the risk of running into a building set on fire and he takes it. Throughout the movie, we watch Hiro come to grips with this new world in which his brother doesn't exist.
I watched Big Hero 6 with my five-year-old nephew in cinemas when it came out. Afterwards, we had a real discussion about death, how he will die and how his three brothers and parents will too. I understand it sounds insane to talk to a five year old about the harsh realities of life, but he actually understood it and was pretty chill about this.
Of course, I don't think kids' movies should be directed by Tarantino and have senseless deaths—but they could be the best way to really teach kids it's not a topic to shy away from. Speaking to Dr. Christine Hibbert, a psychologist who specializes in grief, I'm not so far off. "Most kids don't have to deal with tragic experience, but it normalizes it when it comes to children's films," she told me over the phone. Dr. Hibbert's own experience as well as her work have helped her understand how children learn about death and grief. As a teenager, her younger sister died and she felt unprepared for the depth of the situation. "My parents were so caught up that we all felt to the wayside," Dr. Hibbert explained. Because most children don't have to deal with tragic experiences, Hibbert believes being introduced to death early on could help teach coping skills when they do have to deal with death.
Nora McInerny Purmort is a "notable widow" and author of the memoir It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) that chronicles her experiences losing both her husband and father in the span of a few months (all while caring for her infant son). In Purmort's memoir and in her later essays, she speaks frankly about discussing her husband's life and death with her son who is now a toddler.
"People assume kids aren't ready, but life isn't just health and happiness. Kids are so much deeper than we think they are," Purmort told me over the phone. While in his later stages of brain cancer, Nora encouraged her niece and nephew to visit her husband Aaron and say goodbye. "They saw what death looks like. Most death is very slow and a different kind of horror than an explosion, and now they know that in a way they wouldn't have before."
Not only that, but both Purmort and Hibbert agree that once you experience the death of a loved one, isolation is also a factor we don't consider. "Death and grief are so isolating. I remember my grandpa dying and I wouldn't talk to my mom about it because it made her sad," Purmort told me.
When it comes to death and kids, shying away from talking about it doesn't necessarily mean they're not thinking about it or focusing on it. In my experience there's no rule book that tells you how to get through loss and grief (the feelings also never end). But if we're introduced to the complexities of all things death related at a young age, we'd all be at least slightly better off for the inevitable heartbreak. And while kid's movies that are heavily plotted around death usually feature cute sentient animals, perhaps it's time directors turn it up a notch by pulling a My Girl and killing off real live (possibly cute) humans.
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