There’s no way to gloss it over: the pandemic has plunged the world into a crisis of grief. It caused the deaths of over 290,000 people in the United States, including many grandparents and parents. According to a study by the United Hospital Fund, 4,200 children in New York state alone lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19 between March and July. (These were the latest available numbers on the death of the parents from Covid.)
For every family who lost a loved one this year, regardless of the cause of death, the pandemic has prevented them from properly mourning their loss. And now the holiday season has arrived, which can be a cause of grief, especially for children.
Children who lose a parent are at greater risk of permanent mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. To support a grieving child, one needs to normalize their feelings and give them tools to cope with – but talking about death can sometimes feel overwhelming. Parents and children may both be reluctant to have conversations that create difficult emotions, but it is important that parents provide opportunities to recognize their child’s feelings.
Film can be a gift in these times. Often times, a film about death can provide just enough space for productive discussion. Providing examples of the loss of others can help children feel less isolated in their own bereavement. Watching a character in a movie can make the child think about their own journey of grief and the tools they may be able to cope with.
The films below, suitable for children ages 6 and up, provide helpful ways to explore death and the emotions associated with it, as well as a chance for parents to talk about loss. Contents that could be disruptive to young children are noted.
From age 6
109 minutes; Rated PG; available on Disney +
Based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), this colorful, Oscar-winning Pixar film follows 12-year-old Miguel’s journey to the land of the dead. There he reveals family secrets and learns that the dead continue to exist in the memory of the living.
The black stallion (1979)
118 minutes; Rated G; available from Amazon.
After a young boy named Alec and a horse were washed up on a desert island by a shipwreck that killed Alec’s father, the orphaned boy and the animal soon form an inseparable bond. The couple is rescued, and Alec is determined to turn “The Black” into a racehorse with the help of an old trainer. Alec’s connection with the horse brings him comfort and helps him deal with his grief for his father.
Fly Home (1996)
107 minutes; Rated PG; available from Amazon.
After her mother dies in a car accident, 13-year-old Amy (played by a young Anna Paquin) is sent from New Zealand to Canada to live with her father. She adopts a nest of abandoned goose eggs, and when they hatch she is responsible for teaching the goslings’ survival skills – including flying south for the winter. While Amy takes on the role of mother for the goslings, she can mourn her own mother. Please note: the car accident is shown in the opening sequence of the film.
Summer 1993 (2017)
100 minutes (subtitles); available from Amazon.
After her mother dies, 6-year-old Frida has to move from Barcelona to the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin. The young girl soon struggles with grief and her place in this new family. The film is often presented from Frida’s point of view, with overheard conversations and waist-high camera angles, and is based on the director’s personal experiences with loss.
A Monster Calls (2016)
128 minutes; Rated PG-13; available from Amazon.
Conor’s mother is seriously ill and the 13-year-old struggles with anger, sadness, guilt, and expectant grief. To deal with all the overwhelming emotions, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) conjures up a monster who offers three fables and then demands one of him – it has to be his ultimate truth. MacDougall gives an authentic performance as a boy who learns to face the truth even though it is contradicting and complex. Please Note: There is some property demolition, physical bullying, and verbal abuse.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
103 minutes; Rated PG; available on HBO max.
In this feature of the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, Anna is sent by her foster mother to bring relatives at the seaside into the fresh air after an asthma attack. There she ventures into an abandoned mansion and discovers a new friend, Marnie, who may or may not be her grandmother’s ghost. Anna is then forced to grapple with feelings that she has avoided because of the loss of her family.
98 minutes (subtitles); Rated PG; available from Amazon.
The matriarch of a family in China is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but no one told her. The family gets together one last time under the guise of a grand wedding, but it really is a goodbye. The film is based on the personal story of the writer and director Lula Wang and shows profound cultural differences in attitudes towards death and grief.