Mary Poppins Returns Gets Grief Right

Books, Movies, and Music / Books, Movies, and Music : Eleanor Haley

On the morning that Mary Poppins floats into the Banks' life, it seems like everything is about to go to hell in a handbag—or a carpet bag, I suppose. Twenty-five years have passed since Mary Poppins first visited the Banks family in the 1964 movie. Michael Banks is now grown but still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie. Sadly, Michael's wife and the children's mother, Kate, died earlier in the year, and the whole family is grieving. 

Their visitor, Mary Poppins, gets what it means to love someone who has died, though we don't exactly know why. Is it because she has years of experience working with families who need her the most? Is it because she's experienced great loss herself? Is it because she's magic and seems to know everything? We don't know because Mary Poppins is a mystery.

This is actually something Emily Blunt, who plays her in the film Mary Poppins Returns, told CBS Sunday morning she loves about the character:

"…what I really like about her is the great mystery... She doesn't reveal her inner workings to anybody, so you have no idea who she is, where she's come from."

Whatever the source of her wisdom, she is exactly what the Banks family needs in their time of loss.

It's common for Disney to employ the dead mother trope in their movies. It's less common for them to handle grief as thoughtfully as their emotionally intelligent sibling Pixar. But Mary Poppins is "practically perfect in every way." So—tucked in amongst scenes filled with magic, imagination, and music, viewers are taught a few important lessons about grief.

Lesson #1: Deceased Loved Ones Are Always Present

Though Kate died earlier in the year, she is as present as any other character from the very first moments of the movie. The children talk about her often, making choices because that's "what mother used to do" and wondering "What would mother have done?" when things are uncertain.

Michael also appears to interact with his late wife's memory. Like many widows and widowers, he speaks to her—which we see in the song  'A Conversation'.  In it, Michael sings:

"This house is crowded now with questions
Your John's a walking questionnaire
And I could surely use a few suggestions
On how to brush our daughter's hair
When Georgie needed explanations
You always knew just what to say
And I miss our family conversations
It's silent, since you went away"

Time and again, this movie reminds us that—though those who die may be physically gone—they remain psychologically present in many ways. Grieving people often have to fight against the misconception that people move on from deceased loved ones and put them in the past.

As a grief professionals and people who are grieving loved ones, I'm grateful that this movie acknowledges and normalizes the ongoing role deceased people continue to play in the lives of their family members and friends.

Listen to 'A Conversation':

Lesson #2: Secondary Losses Can Have a Big Impact

If you're not familiar with the term 'secondary loss', take a minute to read this article on the topic.  Secondary losses are losses that are experienced as a result of the primary loss. Whenever I think of secondary losses, I think of dominos. The first domino to fall is the primary loss; all those that fall in succession are secondary losses. People are often surprised by how much grief and stress these secondary losses can cause.

The main conflict in Mary Poppins Returns is a secondary loss. When Kate was sick, Michael took out a loan on the house and—possibly due to grief-brain or possibly due to the fact that, as he stated, Kate used to handle the finances—Michael has let the loan payments slide. And now there are lawyers at the door threatening to repossess the house.

As with many secondary losses, the threat of this loss seems to be especially distressing because of how it relates to primary loss, which we learn when Michael says: "We can't lose our home. She's everywhere here."

Lesson #3: Kids Are Pretty Perceptive

Within the first 15 minutes of Mary Poppins Returns, the Banks children are trying to find a way to save the house. They seem to think it is their responsibility to fix this problem, though neither the Banks children or their father ever seem to openly share their worry or their sense of responsibility.

I almost had to laugh when, 3/4th of the way through the movie, Michael Banks tells the kids that he can't shelter them from what's going on any longer. We knew they knew. We knew they were trying to fix the problem. Why didn't he!? It's after this scene that Michael Banks realizes that, as much as he thought he was protecting the children, they were trying to protect and take care of him as well.

Naturally, parents and other caregivers want to shelter children from life's harsh realities. However, we often underestimate just how tuned in and aware kids can be to what's going on around them. As a parent, I've had plenty of experiences where I thought I was sheltering my children, only to find out later they had been relatively clued in all along. You may have had one or two of these experiences yourself.

If we aren't paying attention and we simply assume the kids are clueless, we may miss an important opportunity to share, connect and to provide important support and guidance.

Lesson #4: Nothing Is Gone Forever, Only Out of Place

After the youngest Banks child, Georgie, has a nightmare and wakes the entire nursery, the children tell Mary Poppins they miss their mother. Mary Poppins consoles the children with a lullaby called 'The Place Where Lost Things Go':

"So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she's always there
Watching as you grow
Find her in the place
Where the lost things go"

Listen to 'The Place Where Lost Things Go' below:

Lesson #5: We Could All Use a Mary Poppins

I can't say that the movie explicitly teaches us this lesson but, as a grief professional, it got me thinking: Mary Poppins appeared at a time when this family was overwhelmed by grief and stress. The Banks' adults, Michael and his sister Jane, were stretched too thin to provide the children with the hope, magic, and optimism that Mary Poppins was able to share with them. I don't say this to discredit the adults; they were doing more than the best they could but were understandably struggling with the situation.

Though it's unlikely that Mary Poppins will float in on an umbrella to help your grieving family, there are trained professionals out there whose purpose it is to provide grieving children and families with the type of support and hope that Mary Poppins brought to the Banks children (minus the singing penguins, unfortunately).

If you would like to find a Mary Poppins grief center or grief professional in your area:

The Moyer Foundation's Resource Center offers a great tool for locating community and online resources for children, teens, and families.

The National Alliance for Grieving Children allows you to search for resource listings by state.'s Grief Counselor Directory provides a listing of grief counselors that you can search by state.

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14 Comments on "Mary Poppins Returns Gets Grief Right"

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  1. Rosalind Walton  June 18, 2020 at 6:19 pm Reply

    My granddaughter lost her mom this past April. She hasn’t shown any signs of grief until 2 weeks ago. She’s been rude, talking back, and totally mean. I’m at my wits end. I have tried everything. We work on crafts, memory box, photo album, played games, puzzles, outdoor outing when possible and she still is unbearable. I’m in the process of being her guardian and I’m wondering if this is what I want. I’m 70 and this is the end of my years. Will this blow over! Uncertain!!

  2. Sandra Fitzgerald  February 7, 2019 at 4:15 am Reply

    The film’s handling of grief was, I thought, very well done The song The Place Where Lost Things Go has been nominated for an Academy Award and I find I am pulling for it. And not just because my late husband worked as a designer at Walt Disney Imagineering for over twenty years, retiring the year before he died so he could be home with our then twelve year old son. That son is now 28 years old, married and has purchased a house. It’s been fifteen years since Tom died. Yet, as I sat and watched Mary Poppins Returns, I was not jut reduced to tears several times – I was audibly sobbing, which I tried very hard to hide. I don’t know why, but that grief is still like a very tender, raw nerve. Beautiful film, nevertheless.

  3. Kirsty Martin  January 27, 2019 at 3:35 am Reply

    Yes – My daughter and I saw this film recently. I was struck by the authenticity of the actor’s depth of grief. I lost my dad a year ago on the 25th and I felt the pain of grief in his eyes and behaviours. The desire to shield the children from his pain. I have essentially been excluded from my own mothers grief journey and this continues to challenge me – but maybe the movie reminds us of the need to grieve in our own way – in our own grief language – of course as we loved in our own unique way – no two people love the same person in the same way – how then can we be expected to grieve in the same way. On that note – I recently returned to my father’s city of birth and of his death and I returned to where he took his last breath. I found others who could safely come with me on my intimate journey of love and loss and spirituality. It was not my family – but others stepped in. And felt honoured to participate in these loss anniversary rituals. Others told me i had to celebrate him and make it a happy time. For me it was not that. It was about knowing his death – knowing him and loving him in death – as I had done in life. And then only when I had metaphorically rolled around with it on the ground – was I ready to release it and shift. So the rituals I performed were along those lines – returning to the end – knowing it intimately and then releasing it. I was blown away and honoured that people could join me on that pilgrimage. Grief is a lot of things – it is also unexpected. thank you so much for inviting me to reflect on this.

  4. Marty  January 18, 2019 at 9:15 pm Reply

    I was really struck by the honesty of the scenes you mentioned. I became a widower at age 33 in 1990 when my wife of 11 years died a week after we were broadsided by a drunk driver. Michael’s song “A conversation” made me cry even after all these years as I remembered how lost and alone I felt then. We didn’t have any kids, so the house was very empty. Though I am remarried and 99% grief-free, there are always those 1% moments when the feelings return. We saw the movie last weekend and it happened to be the anniversary of the accident, too. Michael’s struggles to deal with the aftermath are very real in how they portray the anger and fog of doubts that things will never be ” in control” again. But to all those grieving now, things will get brighter, bit by bit over the years.

  5. Deborah Glenn  January 15, 2019 at 7:02 am Reply

    I just lost my husband 2 months ago. My daughter , granddaughter and myself went to see this movie . It spoke to us. We thought we were the only ones feeling this. I was surprised at the story line. It made our day.

  6. Grieving mom  January 6, 2019 at 3:03 pm Reply

    My husband and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns- a rare date night for us. Our 30 year old daughter passed away 5 years ago. She left behind our 2 1/2 year old granddaughter. We hadn’t heard any reviews from anyone, the movie had only been out 2 days when we saw it. We had a difficult time especially when the kids reminisced about their mother, it was a sad reminder for us in what our granddaughter would miss out on. After the movie, I listened to the words to the song “The Lost Things Go” and found that to be so true when it comes to grief and loss and wanting desperately for people to never forget your loved one. In some ways I found the message in the song reassuring. I’m not sure if or when my granddaughter will see the movie. I hope and pray though that those raising her will be mindful of her feelings and answer her questions thoughtfully. Sadly, she doesn’t have memories of her mom- only those that are shared with her.

  7. Em  January 4, 2019 at 5:50 pm Reply

    My mom’s passing is coming up on a year. She loved Julie Andrews, so I may have to watch the original as well as the new one. #2 in the blog post resonated with me. It seems like I’ve had a falling out with my father after mom’s death. I’m so angry with the hurtful things he said (and his current wife) and did during my mom’s illness and after she passed. I don’t feel like I can trust him, and I’m not sure how, nor if I want to reconcile. But, it still causes me grief and stress. I think about it everyday. I think about my mom everyday. And not just passing thoughts but revisiting scenes from her short battle with cancer. Disparaging remarks about her. Inappropriate comments to me. And then when I try to speak up for myself and my mom, saying hey this is not helpful, or I’m not comfortable with this conversation, then I become the seemingly unhinged out-of-control woman who doesn’t let them state their opinion. I just can’t forgive that right now. I can’t. And I just have no interest in being in contact with him.

  8. Kristin Kramer  January 2, 2019 at 1:16 pm Reply

    I took my 10 year old daughter to see this movie last night. I lost my husband 10 years ago when I was 7 months pregnant with our daughter. While she never met her daddy, I feel she senses some kind of unknown grief to her. I found myself struggling to ho,d back the tears in a couple of parts in the movie. However, as tearful as some parts were, I absolutely loved the movie and will purchase it when it comes out on DVD. Well done Disney!

  9. Mariana Abeid-McDougall  December 31, 2018 at 12:57 pm Reply

    I didn’t read the whole article as I haven’t watched the movie yet, but wanted to say I appreciated reading this post, and it makes me want to watch the movie more.

    I also wanted to say that your contact form is currently showing up as code rather than a form. I wasn’t sure where else to give you a heads up, so I’m giving it here.

    • Eleanor Haley  January 2, 2019 at 10:56 am Reply

      Thank you for letting us know!

    • Nater me  October 29, 2019 at 2:11 pm Reply

      My griefing needs me to focus on me and get our griefs out of here!

  10. Erin  December 30, 2018 at 6:39 am Reply

    I took my son and my friend’s 7 year old daughter to see this film recently and only knew that it involved the Banks children as grown ups, I didn’t know the story lines that we were about to see. My friend passed away last year after a battle with cancer and whilst they are not going to lose their home, her father has tried incredibly hard to keep them functioning as a family unit and there are many similarities to the film. When we realised the mother had passed, I looked at the little girl sat beside me, not knowing whether to take her out or not and whilst she was fidgeting a bit, I just let her do what made her feel comfortable and she really enjoyed the film. It probably did make her think but it also does show children that they are not alone in the way that they are feeling and as she looks at the stars too each night to say goodnight to mummy, that song was perfect and brought a tear to my eye. It was a hard film to watch for personal reasons but wonderful and magical all the same.

  11. Cathy  December 29, 2018 at 6:53 pm Reply

    Just saw this last night and I felt like i was the only one in the theater crying through much of it. My departed husband was an accountant and I have also misplaced important documents because that was not my skill set. I also thought it was beautifully done! Thank you for writing about it!

  12. Pam White  December 29, 2018 at 5:12 pm Reply

    I took my 4 and 5 year old granddaughters to see it this morning. Their father died when the youngest was still I utero, but they miss not having a daddy. The oldest, especially still openly grieves her loss at times
    I was concerned about her reaction, but my concern was unfounded
    She delighted in the magic of it all!

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