Is it right to talk to children about death? And if so, how to do it? When a family member passes away, should children be kept away from mourning or helped to experience it according to their emotional and psychological capacities?

Dr. Elena Tibiletti, a clinical pedagogist from Milan, in her essay Perché si muore? Come spiegare la morte ai bambini [Why Do We Die? How to Explain Death to Children], explains:

“One of the great taboos that our culture imposes is the one on death; death has no place in our society, as it represents defeat for medicine and technology. […] Only a few decades ago, death was considered more for what it is: a natural, frequent event that is part of life and was shared with all family members, including children. It was a time of togetherness in which through the pain of loss family and friendship bonds were strengthened. Today, however, there is a tendency to recognize only one painful aspect of grief, and because of this, parents tend to protect children excessively.”

In line with this view, and holding the certainty that although a child does not have the tools of an adult, he or she has the right to mourn in ways appropriate to his or her age, I have selected for you some cartoons that deal realistically and sensitively with the subject of the death of a loved one.

Up, a 2009 animated film directed by Peter Doctor and Bob Peterson

Carl and Ellie, the protagonists of this touching feature film, sincerely and deeply love each other. Their story begins when they are just kids, eventually maturing and leading them to marriage. They spend many full and happy years together, though also marked by painful events. The two would like to have a child, but the dream fails to come true. This is the only animated film in which the very delicate topic of miscarriage and baby loss is touched upon. We witness only a few scenes, but they manage to convey all the pain a couple experiences. The couple, however, manage to overcome that pain by sticking together, looking forward together, continuing to make plans for their family.

This is the first key offered by the film to the viewer: sharing the pain of grief with loved ones.

As long as they are together, nothing can bring Carl and Ellie down, because they are united as they experience adverse or tragic events. 

The greatest tragedy, which seems insurmountable, occurs when Ellie falls ill and dies. At that moment, Carl sees the landmark of a lifetime vanish. That grief is just too great for him; he feels lost and terribly alone, not least because he has no children or grandchildren.

For a long time, the elderly man cannot find valid reasons to cope with his loss, and in a sense, he lets himself die as well.

Rebirth will come for Carl when he embarks on a fantastic journey, to Paradise Falls, a destination he and his wife have dreamed of all their lives. At the very beginning of that journey, he will have to deal with a minor inconvenience: Russell, a young boyscout who has long been “stalking” the elderly man in order to “assist” him and thus receive a badge that he believes would win him the esteem of his distracted and absent father, has secretly followed along. Initially annoyed by the young boy’s presence, the elderly man will eventually become attached to the young boy during the trip, and a special bond, like that between a grandfather and grandson, will be established between the two. Thanks to Russell, Carl will discover that in life there are always people worth standing up for and reacting to in the face of suffering.

Here is the second key takeaway: even in the worst moments of life, even when we have lost someone really important to us, there is always someone to love and to smile with again.

Big Hiro 6, 2014 animated film directed by Don Hall

San Fransokio is a fictional futuristic city, a mix between San Francisco and Tokyo.

Hiro is a highly intelligent boy genius who lives there with his older brother Tashido and his

aunt, since he is an orphan who has lost both parents.

The viewer is then immediately confronted with the sad reality: barely 13 years old, the protagonist has already experienced two serious losses. Yet, he has not lost his desire to act, to play, to discover. Unfortunately, however, he uses his great inventiveness in illegal fights between

robots in order to make easy money. His brother, who acts somewhat in his father’s stead, scolds him and encourages him to spend his energy on more useful things for society. So he invites him to apply to his university, where he is part of a group of inventors at the Institute of Technology, led by Professor Callaghan.

Hiro accepts and shows up, for the admission test with an extraordinary invention, which gives him access to the prestigious school.

Soon after, however, the laboratory catches fire and Hiro’s brother dies. It is another serious bereavement that the protagonist will have to face, and in this he will be helped by his friends (who will not leave him alone, although they respect his moments of solitude) and by Baymax, a giant soft, inflatable robot, invented by Tashido specifically for him to assist him. It will be Baymax who will explain to him how important it is, when experiencing grief, to have contact with others, physical reassurance, then hugs, and sharing feelings with those who love us.

The film skillfully shows the ideal of friendship and also, with seriousness and delicacy, shows how to deal with the pain of loss for a loved one; it helps in understanding how to overcome anger, namely by giving love and trying to be of help to others who are suffering.

Hiro will be able to overcome his grief completely when, in a heroic feat, he manages to save a professor’s daughter, whom the latter believed to be dead…

Arlo’s Journey, a 2015 animated film directed by Peter Sohn

A meteorite was supposed to hit the earth 65 million years ago, but as it changed course, it failed to reach the planet, and the dinosaurs never became extinct: instead, they evolved. This is the premise of the film, which features little Arlo, the youngest child in a family of dinosaurs. Arlo’s older sister and brother are brave and responsible, so they help their parents cultivate the fields on the farm: both have won the right to put their footprints on the silo that stores supplies for the winter, alongside those of Mom and Dad. Arlo is not yet up to the task; he is perpetually afraid of everything around him. His father, concerned about this, decides to test him and give him an assignment of responsibility: hunt down the mysterious petty thief who steals the supplies from the silo. Arlo will discover that it is a man cub, but he will not find the courage to kill it. At that point Daddy Dinosaur will accompany his son across the prehistoric landscape in search of the escaped prey, but that hunting trip will have a tragic outcome, which will begin Arlo’s long journey to become an adult and overcome his fears. Arlo will also have to deal with a serious loss in his family, which will cause him to bring out even more of his hidden strength and courage. While the film moves and saddens in some passages, in others it decisively shows how grief can be a resource for growth and how solid relationships can shield a wounded heart and help in overcoming suffering.

So, our advice is not to censor death, but to tell it through stories that can facilitate the process of working through it.

Besides, there is no point in glossing over, no point in hiding. Death is there and must be faced. “Such pain of the soul, you don’t get rid of it with medicine, therapies or vacations; such pain you suffer, simply, to the end, without attenuation, as it should be.” (Isabel Allende)

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