Why Do All the Damn Parents Die in Disney movies?

Claire and Austin Brimley in Rock Creek Park in DC

A few weeks ago, Claire was invited to a birthday party at the movies to see “A Wrinkle in Time.”  It’s a movie about a girl who has to find her lost father.  Thoughtfully, the mother of the birthday girl texted me to see if I thought it would be a good idea for Claire to watch the movie, or if it was better to plan a separate event for our two kids.  I talked to Claire about it, and we watched the trailer together.  She was excited about the movie, and didn’t seem upset by any of it, so I let her go.

But this got me thinking.  If this movie was a trigger for Claire, then I probably can’t let her watch movies anymore.  At least not Disney movies.  Think about it – Cinderella, Snow White, Frozen, the Princess and the Frog, Finding Nemo…all with at least one dead parent.  And that’s just what I could think of off the top of my head in the two minutes it took me to write this paragraph.

It makes for a great storyline.  One or both parents die, the child has to struggle and learn important life lessons, the child triumphs.

Back in the real world, a parent dies and the child is confused and worried and whiny and maybe even joyful, all while the child is learning multiplication tables and how to hit a baseball.  Life continues as usual in many ways, just without mom or dad.

In these movies, untimely death is common.  In real life, we’re lucky that it’s not.  But now that Shawn has died, and we are trying to figure out how to make our way in the world without a husband and a father, it can make us all feel really alone.  Part of this, I think, is that I live in a neighborhood where parents are very unlikely to die or be absent for some other reason.  My kids get that our family now looks different from other people’s families.

But our family doesn’t look different from a lot of the families we see on TV.  In fact, I came home the other day and my kids were watching their favorite new show, “Fuller House.”  It is a spin-off of the original “Full House” and just as that show featured a widower raising 3 girls with the help of friends and family, this show also depicts a widow raising 3 boys (in the same house as the earlier show, no less.)  It’s a silly show, so of course my kids love it.  What I find odd about the show, which I have unfortunately watched many times, is that the widow’s husband is almost never discussed.  He is absent, his death unspoken and their grief gone as well.  Similar to the first “Full House,” the dead parent provides merely the backstory to the “crazy” set-up of unmarried adults raising children together.

Much the show doesn’t make any sense to me.  The father in the picture has presumably been dead for under a year.  And yet the mother and the kids seem untraumatized.  There is very little discussion of the teenage boy not having his dad around to learn to shave or navigate dating or anything else.  There are a ton of “hilarious” scenes in which the mom has to figure out how to parent three young boys.  But there is no grief.  It is just not there.

What are my children taking from this show?  Are they learning that when a parent is gone, they should just move on?  The dad in the show doesn’t show up in any visible family photos on the wall, or in any stories from the family.  The main drama is the “hilarity” that ensues by having different crazy adults in one house, all trying to parent together.

I get it.  Watching a normal family in a house is not that interesting.  Three women together trying to raise young kids – well, that could have it’s own little show!  But while the show has the pretext of the very difficult situation of a dead parent, it does not engage with any of the emotions that a normal family would have after the loss of their father and husband.

To be fair, most Disney movies don’t either.  Sure, there might be a 10-second shot of a child looking longingly at a photo of mom or dad (or both) but that’s about it.  Frozen, for example, does this a bit, by displaying the hurt of being separated from both the parents (through death) and the sister (through avoidance.)  But it’s still done almost totally through the time period of one song.  Grief, if it shows up at all in children’s movies and shows, is brief and contained.

Sometimes, this is true for my kids.  They move through life without the same daily grief that I have.  But it doesn’t just go away.  The other day, I was walking with Claire and totally out of the blue, she said, “I just wish Daddy was here.  I just wish it!”  We talked about how sometimes in the daily moments of life, we feel this way, and it can make us feel really sad.

And we talk about Shawn.  We talk about all the things he liked to do and the funny jokes he told.  We talk about the food he ate and we talk about the shows he watched.  We talk about him, because death shouldn’t erase him.  His death shouldn’t be a backdrop from which my children can learn resilience.  His death isn’t what defined him, and it wasn’t what should define my children.

My kids are not Disney characters or sitcom stars, and so their loss isn’t one-dimensional.  They live in the complex world where sometimes they will feel sad while they are skipping home from school or riding their bikes in the alley.  And that’s okay.   Every sad moment they have and every obstacle they face does not need a perfect resolution.

Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.

6 Replies to “Why Do All the Damn Parents Die in Disney movies?”

  1. I have made some of these same observations about Disney movies, and Fuller House. My 3 kids are absolutely obsessed with Fuller House. And if I hadn’t had 3 friends lose their spouses in the last 2 years (all my age, almost 40, one to a sudden heart attack, 2 to cancer), I may not have so aware of the absence of grief. DJ is so darn perky & upbeat! Her biggest concerns are how to juggle dating 2 guys. Sometimes I wonder if the messages in this show are what I should be letting my kiddos watch, but alas I’m trying to get the dishes done, and my husband (whom I still have, and couldn’t be more grateful for, is only home 48 hours out of the week, work has him away a lot). Anyways, how strange that Fuller House and many Disney movies do not grapple with the real complexities that accompany losing a parent. Sure, it’s heavy & depressing, not light and silly. But it’s real. Life is not a corny sitcom or Disney movie! Amy Haffner

    1. I’m so glad to hear that other people’s kids like this show too! I mean, it’s harmless overall, but I just can’t stop thinking how much I am NOT like DJ. But I think if you have to pick a show, it certainly beats a lot of other stuff out there. We’re just all trying to make it work! I still let my kids watch it. I’m still figuring out how to talk to them about how insane the show is…. Thanks for sharing, my friend!

  2. Marjorie,
    I’m glad you are appreciating the unrealistic, sometimes insensitive and even
    scary stories Disney considers Entertainment for little ones.
    I actually did a college paper ( for Psych‼️) on the subject of Disney’s stories/
    movies and how both cruel villians and loss of parents are subtle parts of most,
    if not all, stories.
    The earliest tear jerkers were Dumbo’s being taken from his Mom, and Bambi’s
    Dad nonchalantly saying his Mom was gone.
    Later it was Nemo.
    The tragedies are fast coming and fast forgotten…… after all, the movies ARE only 2
    hours long!
    Yes, we watched Disney w/ our kids & will watch w/ Grandkids.
    My conclusion was then and now that DISNEY movies = ENTERTAINMENT
    and just maybe we aren’t supposed to ” connect the dots” or second guess
    the reality…..just maybe they are meant for a popcorn & movie escape
    that usually makes us feel better‼️

    1. I think you’re right – it’s just entertainment. And yet….it’s so strange, huh? No grief anywhere. I think it’s much more intense in Fuller House, which isn’t a cartoon, but rather a series about a “real-life” family who never grieves the loss of their father. To be honest, I’d never noticed it before, and now I notice it all the time. Thanks for reading my blog!

  3. Your last two paragraphs really resonated with me Marge. Keep talking about Shawn and carrying him with you. ❤️

    1. Thanks, mama. xo

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