There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The pandemic has plunged the world into a crisis of grief. It has caused the deaths of more than 290,000 people in the United States, many of them grandparents and parents. In New York State alone, 4,200 children lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19 between March and July, according to a study from the United Hospital Fund. (These were the most recent figures available on parental death from Covid.)
For any family who lost a loved one this year, regardless of the cause of death, the pandemic has kept them from being able to properly mourn their loss. And now the holiday season is here, which can be a grief trigger, especially for kids.
Children who lose a parent are at higher risk for lasting mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Supporting a grieving child involves normalizing their feelings while giving them tools to cope — talking about death, however, can sometimes feel overwhelming. Parents and children may both be reluctant to have conversations that bring up difficult emotions, but it’s important for parents to provide opportunities to acknowledge their child’s feelings.
Film can be a gift in these times. Often, a movie about death can provide just enough distance for a productive discussion. Giving children examples of others’ loss can help them feel less isolated in their own bereavement; watching a character in a film can get the child thinking about their own grief journey and the tools they might use to cope.
The following films, suitable for children ages 6 and older, offer helpful ways to explore death and the accompanying emotions, while providing parents an opening to talk about loss. Content that might be disturbing to young children is noted.
109 minutes; Rated PG; available on Disney+
This colorful, Academy Award-winning Pixar film based around the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), follows 12-year-old Miguel’s journey to the Land of the Dead. While there, he unlocks 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 on Amazon.
After a young boy named Alec and a horse are washed up on a deserted island from a shipwreck that killed Alec’s father, the orphaned boy and the animal soon form an inseparable bond. The pair are rescued and Alec becomes determined to turn “The Black” into a racehorse with the help of a grizzled old trainer. Alec’s connection with the horse brings him solace, helping him deal with his grief for his father.
Fly Away Home (1996)
107 minutes; Rated PG; available on Amazon.
After her mother dies in a car crash, 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 finds herself in charge of teaching the goslings survival skills — including how to fly south for the winter. In the process of taking on the mother role for the goslings, Amy is able to grieve for her own mother. Please note: The car crash is shown in the film’s opening sequence.
Summer 1993 (2017)
100 minutes (subtitled); available on Amazon.
After her mother’s death, 6-year-old Frida must move from Barcelona to the country to live with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin. The young girl soon struggles with grief and her place in this new family. Often presented from Frida’s viewpoint, with overheard conversations and waist-high camera angles, the film is based on the director’s personal experiences with loss.
A Monster Calls (2016)
128 minutes; Rated PG-13; available on Amazon.
Conor’s mother is gravely ill, and the 13-year-old struggles with anger, sadness, guilt and anticipatory grief. To cope with all the overwhelming emotions, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) conjures a monster who offers up three fables and then demands one from him — it must be his ultimate truth. MacDougall gives an authentic performance as a boy learning to face the truth, even though it is contradictory and complex. Please note: There is some destruction of property, physical bullying and verbal abuse.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
103 minutes; Rated PG; available on HBO Max.
In this feature from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, Anna is sent by her foster mother to visit relatives at the seaside for fresh air after having an asthma attack. Once there, she ventures into an abandoned mansion and discovers a new friend, Marnie, who may or may not be the ghost of her grandmother. Anna is then forced to confront feelings she has been avoiding about the loss of her family.
The Farewell (2019)
98 minutes (subtitled); Rated PG; available on Amazon.
The matriarch of a family in China is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but no one has told her. The family comes together one last time under the guise of a large wedding, but it’s really to say goodbye. The film, based on the writer and director Lula Wang’s personal story, shows profound cultural differences in attitudes about death and grieving.