Child Loss · On My Heart · Our Story

The “Inside Out” of Grief

I am not a movie critic, and this is not even an attempt at a movie review. 

And SPOILER ALERT, I’m not going to try to NOT spoil this for you.

I just want to tell you about a family who went to see a movie together and what happened in our own “inside out”.

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The characters that you see above are Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness.

They live inside Riley’s head.

As the film begins, we are welcomed into to a story about a little girl who grows up reaching childhood milestones, loving hockey, developing sweet friendships, and having a wonderful family life. She then finds herself moving across the country with her parents where everything is new and different. The film’s focus is the emotional upheaval that the move has on Riley, however, the setting of the story takes place less on the landscape of Riley’s experiences and more on the landscape of her mind.

Inside Riley’s mind we are introduced to these 5 main characters: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. They operate a switch board that is Riley’s “brain control board” so to speak. They take turns at the board giving emotion to Riley’s experiences. They capture memories in glass balls and take them to a shoot where they are deposited into short term or long term memory. We are introduced to places like Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, a Subconscious “jail”, Forgotten Memory, a colorful train that runs through the story, aptly named “The Train of Thought”, and the various Islands of her life experiences.

But as I mentioned earlier, this is not a movie review and I’m not even going to attempt to break down the whole story line.

Here’s what I want to share with you about the power of this movie.

Pixar and Disney have managed to bring two movies to the screen recently that have had a powerful effect on our family. I wrote earlier about Big Hero 6 (read here), a movie that allowed Aiden to find a voice to express his grief. And now Inside Out goes deeper to give us all language to express the incredible power and importance of human emotion.

Grief is a crazy beast. There are many days when I feel like juggling the emotional rampage is more than I can bare, not only within my own heart and mind, but in helping to carry my children through this as well.

This movie has so many layers, so much depth, but let me focus on one.

Inside Out has helped me give language to the emotions on this journey called “Grief”.

In the movie, there is a scene where Riley is distraught about all that she has lost in the move: friendships, activities that were important to her, and the security of the familiar. Sadness takes the controls, competing with Joy who is trying to help Riley remain her “happy self”. Joy tries to keep Sadness away, hating to see their girl Riley feeling so sad. At one point Sadness and Joy are both “suppressed”, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust as the primary controllers of the “brain control board”.

Joy is desperately trying to find her way back to the controls, dragging Sadness along with her; yet at the same time trying to get Sadness to cooperate with her mission to restore Joy.

Grief is like that. Joy becomes further and further removed from the control system of our minds, Sadness tries to express itself, but so many, many times Anger and Fear take the front seat.

As someone I know and love recently said, “Anger is simply a cover for Sadness. It pushes Sadness away because Sadness is more painful to feel.”

I’ve seen this battle in my life, in my husband’s life, and in my children’s lives- Anger covering up Sadness, pushing it to the background because, let’s face it, Sadness is a heavy load. I’ve wrapped my arms around a raging child and tried to help them get to the deeper root, the Sadness that is hiding behind the Anger. I’ve watched as screaming and kicking give way to a weeping and collapse.

As the movie comes to a close, Joy comes to an understanding of how important Sadness is in Riley’s life. She discovers that unless Riley is allowed to feel the sadness of this big change in her life and express it to her parents, that Joy will never be able to return. She is able to look back at Riley’s life and see moments where she had always perceived Joy as the primary emotion, when really the moment would not have been Joyful had Sadness not been expressed first.

So as Joy and Sadness return to the control board, they are united, Joy places Sadness’ hand on the board, allowing Riley to step out of a place of Anger and to express her true feelings to her parents. As Sadness is released, Joy then places her hand over Sadness’ hand, and Riley is able to experience the unique ability of the human spirit to feel both Joy and Sadness simultaneously.

And there you have the beauty and bittersweetness of grief. As the human spirit walks through Anger at pain and loss, and allows Sadness to be freely expressed, it is then that Joy can be experienced again as well, and often with that hand over hand simultaneous expression that is Sadness and Joy interwoven.

Deep within the theme of this movie is also the impact that tragedy has on our past memories. Joy keeps finding Sadness putting her hand on past memories and touching them with Sadness. She keeps trying to stop this. Sadness doesn’t understand why she is doing it. Then the realization comes that because of tragedy even some of the memories of the past are now touched with Sadness.

And so it is, the memories I have of my sweet boy have now been touched by Sadness. It changes them. It doesn’t take them away from me, it deepens them. I can recount beautiful, miraculous Joyful moments of our lives with him and feel at the same time the sting of Sadness, knowing that memories are all we have left; that there will be no new ones. The memories, though they bring a reminder of Joy, also carry the ache of Sadness.

So my friends, whatever shape your pain and grief may hold, Anger is not bad. Feel it. Acknowledge it. It’s ok. It’s not a place to stay, but at times a visitor that creeps in to the journey. But as I am learning and as I am teaching my children, never let the Anger push Sadness to the background for too long. Sadness must be felt because Love is great, and together we are learning the unique dance that Joy and Sadness share. Joy comes in waves. Sadness comes in waves. And at times one hits with more intensity that the other, and at other times they wash up against us with the same steady rhythm hand in hand.

Thank you Pixar for helping our family and many others find expression for the feelings that are part of each of our unique life journeys.

31 thoughts on “The “Inside Out” of Grief

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I recently lost my 16mths old baby boy. It has been rough, I am trying my best to keep it strong for my two older children. I cant wait to watch this movie with them

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. Please make sure you scroll through the blog. I hope that you find comfort in my words as I share my journey.

  3. A very accurate description of grief–waves of sadness, waves of joy. Having lost my husband suddenly, I was surprised by the rage and anger I felt (often directed towards him for leaving). However, I have come to understand that the anger is a necessary defence mechanism. It covers up the good memories for a while. It distracts you from the enormity of your loss. It gives your mind a focus.

    It is only now (after 5 years) that I am able to revisit those good memories and appreciate them without the realisation of all that I have lost overwhelming me. The anger has dissipated, and I am able to feel the sadness that tinges those memories without being swamped by it. Our minds are amazing things, and God’s grace covers all.

    Blessings on you as you travel your own grief journey. xx

  4. I lost my mom 2 months ago. My three year old and I have struggled a lot. I wept as I read this. Our memories are touched with sadness, all your words felt so very true. I see it in myself and I see it in my son. We have these rough days with temper tantrums followed by falling into each others arms crying. His little heart is hurting so much. Thanks for writing this, thanks for sharing. We haven’t seen it yet but we will.

  5. A friend of mine suggested today that we take our granddaughters to see this movie. I want to see it, but I think it will make me sad. My son passed away five years ago, and your words…
    And so it is, the memories I have of my sweet boy have now been touched by Sadness. It changes them. It doesn’t take them away from me, it deepens them. I can recount beautiful, miraculous Joyful moments of our lives with him and feel at the same time the sting of Sadness, knowing that memories are all we have left; that there will be no new ones. The memories, though they bring a reminder of Joy, also carry the ache of Sadness.
    …could be my words. Thank you for your reflections and nicely-written blog post.

  6. Beautifully said! And it was a magical movie, highly recommend it. One of Pixar’s best. (As an aside, Big Hero 6 was also awesome – but wasn’t Pixar – just Disney, if you care.)

  7. Beautiful words. I know I need to see this movie. Grief is difficult at best and because it is different for everyone, it’s hard to describe. While I haven’t lost a child, I have lost several members of my family and find that there are seeming contradictions, like the joy/sadness commingling. You expressed it very well. Thank you.

  8. I have lost both my boys. In fact, today is the 20th anniversary of the death of my older son. His brother has been gone now for 24 years, June 9. I don’t usually watch movies, but I might have to watch this one. Thanks for your words. They explain a lot to those who have never had to walk this road. I will be blogging tonight… memories are all I have…

  9. We watched the movie yesterday, on the 3-week anniversary of our 3-year-old son’s death. I also found the movie to be a brilliant way to demonstrate how these emotions work while one is processing a loss, and wrote about it last night. I am glad my friend read this and posted it to Facebook. I am so sorry for your loss. This road is hard, but we just keep walking it.

  10. I took my 6 yr. old great-nephew to see this movie. He lost his mom about 18 months ago. I saw how serious he looked & I ask if he was o.k. I didn’t know if I had done the right thing because I knew he was having some feelings about the movie. I told his grandmother about it and she said she would wait to see if he brought it up. Well today she said he told her she should see the movie. She told him I said he seemed sad about the movie and he said yes he was but that it was a really awesome movie. I was so relieved & I know he got something out of it. Thanks for making a movie that will help so many people with their grief.

  11. So good. I’m sorry for the loss your family has experienced. Grateful that this movie will open up a way for him to express himself.

  12. I’m so very sorry for your loss Talena. My son was almost 4 when he died. It’s a road I wish neither of us needed to walk.

  13. Pingback: Inside Out |
  14. Reblogged this on Translating Grief and commented:
    Anger is the flip side of Sadness. Anger we know. Anger we can do. Sadness on the other hand hurts too much. We don’t like it so we avoid it. Rumi said “the healing from the pain is in the pain”. …

  15. My children, ages 13, almost 9 and 10, want to go and see this – I’m torn so a friend shared your link towards your thoughts about the movie. You see, we lost our husband and dad in December 2014 – my son who was 8 found him in his chair in the living room – we never saw it coming – so no kisses, hugs or good-byes. He just was gone. It’s been a little over six months since I became a widow and our children became fatherless. We’re doing okay, better than I thought we would but then again we’ve been surrounded by our church, friends, family and numerous others who have come together to support us. I’m still torn as to whether to see this with my children, I worry it will bring some raw and unearthed emotions to the surface. As with all movies, we discuss the content and see how it shines or doesn’t against our faith, but I fear that even I may need to vent and there won’t be anyone there for me to do that with.

  16. Thank you for your words. I too felt this movie has created an incredible platform to discuss the necessity of different emotions. I lost my mom 8 years ago and still struggle with the waves of emotions. It’s a complex journey.

  17. I read this and know exactly what you are talking about. I lost my mom to cancer 4 years ago. My dad remarried about a year and a half ago, then he and my stepmom were killed in a motorcycle accident a few months ago. I was having a really hard handling all the grief and also couldn’t help my kids deal with it… I heard what the movie was about and decided we needed to see it. It helped tremendously and gave me a way to talk to my kids about what I was going through. About the same time I started seeing a councilor and I told her about the movie. We spent that whole session using the theme of the movie to help talk about what I was going through. Putting a visual to what I was dealing with and really realizing how my memories were changing has helped so much. Who knew a kids movie could have such an extreme impact!

  18. I saw this film when I was pregnant with my youngest. I loved how it addressed different emotions and acknowledged that dealing with a variety of emotions is ok. I like to call grief ‘heartachingly beautiful’ because while it hurts, there’s a lot of beauty in the precious memories of my youngest son (passed away in January).

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