Grief is a messy thing. One way to understand the complicated and messy feelings is to look to the stages of grief. While these stages were originally meant to understand what individuals who are dying may go through, they often apply to those left grieving when they are gone. One complaint of these stages, when applied this way, is that the final stage is acceptance and there is confusion about what that means. In my work, reaching acceptance does not mean you have forgotten that person or have moved on from the loss, but rather accepting the loss of that person and relationship and placing their memory into something that can continually power you through life in a positive way. We do not need to be weighed down emotionally from the ones we have lost, but rather lifted by the love they had for us and going forth because of the love we have for them. Disney’s movie Onward takes us through these stages in such a kind and compassionate way - here is how Onward can help us move onward from Grief.
Stage One: Denial
Ian Lightfoot seems to be struggling the most with the grief of his father’s passing. Grief affects everyone differently depending on their relationship with the person, their personality as it relates to relationships, and any trauma they may have already experienced in their life. As Ian begins the denial stage, he plays a recording of his dad talking to him in his room frequently and has a conversation with the recording. This makes his dad’s existence feel real to him as it had been before his passing. While this helps for a bit, creating a living existence of someone who has passed can have damaging effects to your ability to fully process their passing. It is likely Ian has heard this before from family, but still yearns to hear his voice so he keeps this hidden from his other family members.
Stage Two: Anger
On Ian’s sixteenth birthday their mother gives him and his brother a gift from their father. They are gifted a staff, gem, and a resurrection spell that resurrects their dad for one day. Both brothers try the spell to no avail, but when Ian tries once more, he resurrects the bottom half of their father. Angry that the spell did not work entirely Ian and his brother Barley set out to find another gem to bring their father back fully before the 24 hours is up. Ian is doing this to fulfill the list he had made of all the things he wanted to do with his dad.
You can become angry when you are grieving because our brain creates an expectation for our life, but as we all know there are unexpected things that happen and losing a loved one in almost all cases is hard to process. Especially when you remember how you thought your life would go and your brain becomes overwhelmed because the picture you had painted will now be incomplete without that person in your life.
Step Three: Bargaining
The brothers' quest leads them to a tavern to acquire a map to the phoenix gem. They begin rushing to follow the map and hit many bumps in the road. With each bump Ian becomes more desperate to get to the phoenix gem to bring his father back; he is willing to do anything to see his dad again. He has reached the bargaining stage of grief. When we reach the bargaining stage, we are desperate for something that resembles the person we have lost. We find people that act like them or look like them and convince ourselves they will make everything better. Instead of trying to find what we have lost we learn to accept that it is gone and find ways to honor that person that allow us to continue moving forward.
Step Four: Depression
Depression can be one of the hardest stages. You are realizing that bargaining is not working and that the person you love is really gone. In the movie Onward, Barley comes to this realization first and asks Ian to spend what time they have left with what they have of their father. While Ian is held back a bit in the bargaining stage, he leaves Barley to finish the quest to find the stone. Ian realizes he will not be able to do everything he wanted to with his dad from his list.
Once Barley comes back to help his brother through this quest, they find the phoenix gem in a fountain and set off a curse in the form of a dragon. While they were able to cast the next spell successfully, they only have but a few minutes with their father left. Ian chooses to fight the dragon so Barley can say goodbye. Ian conquers the dragon just as he watches Barley hug before their dad fades into the distance.
Step Five: Acceptance
Barley does not fully grasp why Ian let him say goodbye instead of himself and Ian explains simply. When he was looking at his list while he did not get to do any of these things with his father, he realized he actually did get to do these things with his brother. He finally understands that his dad’s passing created such a connection between him and his brother. Had his father been in the picture as he grew up, Ian and his brother may have not had the relationship they have now. In this idea he can find acceptance in his father’s passing and continue to build his relationship with his brother.
We are meant to experience all the stages of grief because then we can fully accept what our present situation is and be able to move forward. Onward teaches us not only the importance of acceptance but that the other stages of grief are necessary to get there.
If you are working through grieving a loved one watch Onward and please talk to a professional to help you get through this difficult time.
Maria Laquerre is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who specializes in addressing trauma with clients of all ages. Maria has practiced therapy in New Mexico since her return in 2008. Maria's current passion is supporting therapists in doing their best clinical work, which she pursues through offering supervision, consultation and trainings. Maria enjoys spending time with her family, watching Star Wars and Marvel movies, discussing the psychology of pop culture and loves a good book!