Using Disney to Explain Death

by | Feb 24, 2016 | Fatherhood & Parenting

“Orv is all gone.”

My three-year-old daughter said the words in her typical sing-song manner as we drove by Orv’s house. She was neither sad, nor happy, just straightforward. Orv had died one day earlier.

He was 95, so his passing wasn’t a surprise. In fact, the day before, my wife had stopped by his house to say her goodbyes. I had driven by and noticed an inordinate amount of cars parked around his home, and by that I mean literally around his home. They filled his driveway, were on his front and side lawn…

It was an ominous sign.

I shot my wife a text telling her she should probably stop by, which she did. The house was filled with the tears of many family and friends. Orv was bedridden.

The friendship between my wife and Orv was accidental and organic. Orv’s house sat on the corner of a busy four-way stop in town, and all summer long motorists could see him on his porch, taking in the world and smiling at anyone who tossed a wave his way.

We would pass Orv’s house both while driving and walking our dog. Over time, my wife decided to approach the man to whom she was continually raising her hand. Orv was 92 at the time, and a widower. He lived alone and loved visitors. My wife began talking to him while pregnant with our first child, eventually introducing him to both our daughter and son as the years passed.

Orv had his ups and downs; we had to visit him in a nursing home once, where he was spending several weeks recuperating from a bad fall. He lost his driver’s license after riding up on the curb and hitting a sign… not that such a minor accident stopped Orv from completing his coffee run that morning. He just climbed down out of his pickup truck, left it where it was, and walked the final block to McDonald’s.

“I figured the cops would find me if they needed me,” he explained matter-of-factly.

Even with instances like those under his belt, Orv was still independent enough to remain under his own roof. Orv was not one for the likes of a hospice.

After her deathbed visit, my wife returned home in tears. Confused, our daughter asked why Mommy was sad, and we explained as best we could that Orv was dying. Death is difficult enough for adults to come to terms with, but children just don’t get it; death is too abstract a concept.

Which is where Disney comes into play.

Disney loves death, and constantly uses it as a plot point in their films. From Big Hero 6 to Finding Nemo, and dating all the way back to the original heartbreak movie, Bambi, death is at the center of many Disney stories.

(“Mother, where are you?”)

Using scenes from our daughter’s favorite movies, the Mrs. and I were able to explain that Orv was “gone,” like Tadashi in Big Hero 6. Tadashi went into the building, and it blew up. Orv… well, he didn’t blow up, he had just reached his time. Two different ways of going, but each with the same outcome.

(We wanted to avoid saying Orv died in his sleep, or that he got sick. Children latch on to certain bits of information differently than we’d like them to, and we didn’t need our daughter fearing either illness or going to sleep. “What if I don’t wake up?” opens a whole new can of worms.)

It’s been several months, and now as we drive by Orv’s old house, a “For Rent” sign firmly placed in the front yard, my daughter still alternately states, “Orv gone” confidently, or asks, “When Orv coming back? When him is all done being dead him will be back tomorrow?”

She’s not sad, just inquisitive. We just continually point out that after he died, Tadashi wasn’t in the movie anymore. Unfortunately, that means Orv won’t return to the “movie” called life.

Disney been a helpful bridge for our discussions on death, so kudos to them for singing its melody in so many movies. When parenting gets tough, Disney creates a great starting point for what is normally a difficult conversation.

They broach the subject with such brutal honesty that when our daughter watches Finding Nemo these days, she says quite ably, “Coral is dead” after the barracuda attack.

And then she enjoys the rest of the movie, completely unaware she’s dealt with the subject more gracefully than adults ever can.

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