I have three daughters, so it just so happens that we stumbled upon an obscure little animated film that my girls quite enjoyed. Frozen, I think it’s called. Ever heard of it? And, as other commentators have noted, many parents have had to have tough conversations with their little ones, who are asking, in the most heart-breakingly squeaky voices (spoiler alert!): Why did Elsa and Anna’s parents have to die?
Sniff. I’ll have to get back to you on that, girls.
It got me thinking. Parental mortality is not just a Frozen thing. It’s been thoroughly researched; it’s a Disney movie thing. Check out the death toll:
- The Lion King – Mufasa bites the dust, no lion
- Cinderella – Mother is dead, Dad follows shortly ever after
- The Little Mermaid – Mother dies, nautically
- Bambi – Deer Mother dead by redneck hunter, undoubtedly displayed taxidermically
- Finding Nemo – Mother dies, flushed down toilet if I remember correctly
- Frozen – Parents die in a cruise ship accident
- Sleeping Beauty – Mother takes the infinite slumber
It’s a blood bath! That’s not even counting the unknown whereabouts / suspicious disappearances of the parents of orphaned characters in Aladdin, Lilo and Stitch, The Jungle Book, and more. At this point, I’m like one of those obsessed detectives in a good mystery story: pinning photos to a board, drawing arrows, putting the puzzle together. These deaths are connected. Like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, I’m in my Mind Palace, synthesizing, hypothesizing, Jazzercizing, whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this.
“Holy Grief, Batman!”
And it’s not just Disney characters. Look at comic books. Superman’s parents, Spider-man’s parents and his surrogate dad Uncle Ben, Green Lantern, Wolverine. And let’s not even go down the Batman rabbit-hole. He’s the poster boy of Parental Abandonment Issues, in his case morphing into obsessive vigilantism and a preference for the company of young men in tights. Again, that’s one for Dr. Freud.
Movies are no different. Luke Skywalker has the most Evil deadbeat dad in the galaxy, his mother is dead, and his adoptive parents are also murdered, on the orders of his deadbeat dad! Then, he gets a new Father figure in creepy hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he gets killed by, guess who? Dear old dad! Abandonment issues? Check. Dr. Freud can see you at 3:00, Mr. Skywalker. Sit down in the waiting room, next to Harry Potter.
Q: But Dad, why did they have to die?
For the purposes of this post, and to answer the innocent wonderings of my oldest daughters, I am setting aside the great philosophical and ontological Questions of all time. I’m asking Thomas Aquinas and Sigmund Freud and Mother Theresa and Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama and all the others to sit on the bench, because I am approaching this as a Storyteller. I came up an answer.
A: Because these stories are about growing up. And growing up means things change.
In short, heroes and heroines need to step forward and become who they are meant to be. It’s an exercise in independence. And in myth and fiction, parents represent the safety and security of home. But, as Joseph Campbell would remind us, the Heroic Journey cannot begin until the Hero/Heroine leave (or are ripped from) the comfort of home and embark on a Quest into the Abyss. They move through the Underworld, passing Thresholds and Battling Monsters.
So, in other words, Parental Mortality is a storytelling device. A shortcut. A cliche. An easy way to force the Hero/Heroine to grow up fast. But, it’s not that easy. Because sometimes, it’s personal.
“A mother is she who can take the place of all others,but whose place no one else can take”. – Author unknown
Writing is one way that people deal with grief. It’s a cathartic thing. And those who create Heroes and Heroines infuse their own emotions into the art that they create. I have read that Walt Disney, after achieving a great deal of success with his animated films, bought his parents a home in North Hollywood. An issue with the furnace in the home led to the death of Flora Disney, due to carbon monoxide poisoning on the night of November 26, 1938. Many speculate that this may be a contributing cause for the conspicuous Maternal Abandonment, Absence and Mortality in his subsequent films. He blamed himself, and he expressed it in his art. Perhaps many of the artists who created these characters were dealing with similar feelings as they wrote.
“A dad is a son’s first hero, a daughter’s first love.” – Author unknown
My wife and I have lost all four of our parents since we were married almost nine years ago. Granted, we were adults, but it was no less jarring. Rachel has been and remains devastated, even as months become years, so deep and profound is her grief. Her dad was her foundation, her counselor, her rudder, her constant. His death was a world-shaking event for her, and she is still correcting her course. Her relationship with her mom was more complicated, but their last year together was unexpectedly and miraculously beautiful. Being the person she is, Rachel feels these losses deeply, honestly, sometime desperately. One of the reasons I love her so much is her lack of guile, her inability to pretend things are something they are not.
I’m more of an enigma, I guess. There are supposed to be five stages of grief. I seem to be stuck in the same one since losing my mom and dad. Denial. I just refuse to deal with the sadness. The loss of direction. The loss of love. The loss of unconditional love. I suck at feelings. But I’m starting to realize that a lot of the anxiety and fear I deal with on a daily basis is due to a maelstrom of emotions that I have suppressed and ignored and starved and denied. And now, they are pulling me apart at the seams from the inside.
Lately, out of necessity, my feelings have found their way into the things I have written. It’s no coincidence that I spent six months writing about the desire to speak to lost loved ones in The Conjurors. The whole story is about grief, loss, the meaning of it all, the feeling of confusion. And a major theme in my more recent work is the need to make your parents proud. My dad was my first hero. He did things that they write movies about. Guys like him inspire guys like me to write about Heroes in the first place. And like movie heroes, he had to fight inner demons as well as real life Villains. And even though I had action figures of Batman and Luke Skywalker growing up, these days, the one guy I would stand in line for hours (or, in modern parlance, buy tickets on Fandango) to see, is my dad.
My mom was just as heroic. She was the toughest woman I’ve ever met, which is why I think I was drawn to a pistol like Rachel. Mom was the one who I could talk to. Her love of Books and Music and Storytelling and Poetry are such a huge part of who I am. And she was so irrepressible, humble, sensitive and selfless. She held our family together with grace and humor. When things get really overwhelming, I wish I could wrap her tiny frame up in my arms, chin on her head, until she made it all go away.
Usually, on this blog and in life, when things are getting too serious, I crack wise. Tell a stupid joke. That’s my defense mechanism. It helps me hide from healthy emotions. Emotions that I don’t know how to deal with. But, wait. Not this time. My dad taught me courage. Not just how to stand up for what you know is right, but the courage to admit your flaws, and to try everyday to be a better man. And my mom taught me ways to channel my fears and emotions, through art and humor and human connection. Nothing can replace what we’ve lost when a parent dies. But, if we embrace our grief, we can feel what we felt when they were here. We can know them again, like children. And even ask like children…
Q: Why did my parents have to die?
*Watch for a future post where we examine how Heroic stories teach us the ways that death can be a catalyst for a fuller life.