'Inside Out' Offers Important Lessons for Grieving Children and Adults

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

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If you're wondering whether Pixar's newest movie Inside Out will make you cry, the answer is maybe. I know because I saw it a few days ago—thanks to Discount Tuesdays at the local movie theater and two very bored children (and yes, it's only week two of their summer vacation).

I'm not a particularly weepy person, save for the occasional down day, the random reminders of my deceased mother in the grocery store, when I get all the way home before realizing I picked up the wrong carry out order, and when watching an especially rousing musical number. So you see, I only cry for the best, most important reasons.

Being the tough girl that I am, I didn't think Inside Out would make me cry. I managed to hold strong for about 95% of the film, but there was this one part—I won't spoil it for you—that made me very sad. My 5-year-old noticed the tears running down my face and immediately notified her 8-year-old sister.  Obviously, they were both horrified. For the remainder of the movie, every time something even remotely sad happened, my kids would sneak looks at me, making sure I had myself under control. So yes, you too may cry in front of your children and that's okay.

I typically don't like writing about movies, but the message of Inside Out is so spot on for anyone who's experienced a loss or gone through a tough transition. So much so that I almost feel like covering this movie is in my job description. Before our adult readers dismiss what I have to say, I want you to know this movie falls among a handful of movies that transcend what you typically expect from animated movies.

On the surface, these movies are made for children with their beautiful animation and funny characters—but, on a deeper level, they really effectively tackle themes and issues around growing up (Inside Out, Toy Story); death, loss, and grief (Up, Big Hero 6); and even existential themes (Toy Story). In doing this, they often allow grown-ups to see these concepts from a younger, more innocent perspective in ways that are thought-provoking, disarming, and profound.

I'm horrible at summaries and synopses, but I want to convey to you why this movie is great for children who've experienced losses of any kind. I'll try not to include many spoilers, but proceed with caution if you want to see the movie with completely fresh eyes.

There Are Different Emotions and They Have Names

Even adults can struggle to name their emotions from time to time. In my experience, children are seldom cognizant of the ebb and flow of their feelings or the idea that they have many different emotions rattling around in their cute little brains. Inside Out is essentially told from the perspective of the main character 11-year-old Riley's emotions who are personified as the characters Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust.

Of course, humans experience a broader range of emotions than just these five. Anyone who's been through grief can attest to that. But the director and his team had to identify a few key emotional players, so they called in an expert psychologist Paul Ekman to help them hone in on their main characters. These characters represent 5 of the 7 emotions which Ekman says have universal facial signs; the two they excluded were surprise and contempt.

Despite an incomplete line-up of emotions, the movie—which depicts the emotions interacting with one another from a control center in Riley's mind—helps to frame the emotional juggling act that occurs inside our brains and how emotions can influence our perceptions, actions, and reactions.

inside out: disgust, joy, and sadness at control center

Sadness Is Not Bad

This is an actual plot line, not some abstract concept that grown-ups pick up on if they're paying attention. For the majority of Riley's life, the emotion Joy has been in the driver's seat. As she grows older and moves away from her childhood home, to the horror of all the other emotions, Sadness starts coloring some of her memories. Everyone wants Riley to be happy, even Sadness, and the emotions all believe they need to protect her from sadness and pain at all costs. So, as they always have in the past, the emotions look to Joy to save the day.

You know the type of person who is always telling you to "Be positive!" and "Look on the bright side!"? The person who is really uncomfortable with things like tears and sorrow, who believes it's personally their job to take away your pain? Well, that's Joy and, everywhere you look, she's there chasing Sadness away. But Joy isn't able to control things in the way she has in the past and, throughout the movie, Joy—along with the audience—has to learn that it's not only okay to feel sad, but sometimes it's an important and necessary part of being able to feel joy.

P.S. For those of you who've ever had someone try to comfort you in your grief by minimizing your sadness or by suggesting you find the positive, there's a scene in here you're going to love. That's all I'm going to say. Let me know what you think after you've seen it.

P.P.S. In part of the movie, both Joy and Sadness leave the control center of Riley's brain and so she can only feel Fear, Anger, and Disgust. I love that they depicted how disconnected, isolated, and confused someone can feel due to the absence of certain emotions. This could be an interesting conversational starting point for any child impacted by depression.

Memories Can Be Both Happy and Sad at the Same Time

A main crux of this movie is how emotions impact Riley's memories. Memories are represented by colored balls and the balls are colored depending on the memory. So a happy memory is yellow, a sad memory is blue, a disgusting memory is green, and so on. Throughout Riley's childhood, most of her memories appear to be happy—but then she has to move and say goodbye to her friends and her home, and many of the memories turn blue.

This is one of the movie's most poignant details for children who have experienced a death or other type of loss. One of the most difficult things about losing someone we love is that happy memories we shared with that person become colored with a tinge of sadness.Joyful memories are still happy, but they also become a little painful because the person is gone. The depiction of happy memories becoming a little blue is one that children impacted by loss may be able to relate to.

Conversely, the movie also teaches us that moments which start out a little sad can have positive value in that they lead to moments of love and support, lessons learned, and personal growth. One of the final memories Riley makes in the movie is a mix of both blue and yellow, and finally the characters were all able to see the inherent okay-ness of this.

joy from inside out

The Beginning of a Dialogue

Emotions are really tricky; they defy definition, there's no consensus on how many there even are, and they constantly change. As adults, it's difficult to remember how our emotions were felt or understood when we were children. Inside Out simplifies this concept and illustrates emotions in a way that makes it really easy for us to talk to kids about their feelings and how their feelings might influence their behavior.

Children won't always pick up on the more complex and subtle messages of a movie, so it's always helpful for adults to make the most of these teachable moments. When I asked my older daughter why someone's memories might be both happy and sad, she seemed a little unsure. I had to offer the example of my own memories of my mother—being both happy because I love her and sad because she's gone—in order for Evelyn to have a little a ha! moment.

We wrote a post a while back on making the most of teachable moments in different Disney movies. You may want to check it out.

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12 Comments on "'Inside Out' Offers Important Lessons for Grieving Children and Adults"

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  1. Karen  September 15, 2018 at 7:28 am Reply

    Hi, I just lost my husband 2 months ago and even though I have watched this movie with my 2 children before I think we will rewatch again. It has been a hard journey for us, but I think this film will help us understand our emotions a little better …thank you

  2. Lauren  June 5, 2016 at 10:23 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I lost my father to cancer last September and my two girls have struggled at different times with the loss (they were super close to my dad). My 10 year old is especially overwhelmed by the mix of emotions and is now fearful of losing her own daddy. I think we will re-watch this movie in hopes of it helping us better open up a dialogue of how to work through our emotions, how to appreciate the sad moments that allow growth later on.

  3. Dawn  November 4, 2015 at 12:03 am Reply

    I absolutely love disney Pixar movies and I sadly haven’t seen this movie yet but hope too soon I love reading all these blogs though sd this January on the 28th it will be the one year aniversary for my mom and I’ve had to already expierence valentine’s day, mother’s day, her birthday,my dad’s birthday,my younger brother’s birthday and my own birthday along with some other occasions and I’m only 14 now so I was 13 when she passed it was very sudden and it’s till very hard to handle I’ve had break downs in class before and I’m so lucky tk have some remarkable friends who are there for me

  4. Natalia  July 26, 2015 at 11:24 pm Reply

    I lost my mother suddenly in January. I had held off on seeing this movie because I was told it would be sad. My friends nine year old daughter (who was very close to my mom also) and I went to see it yesterday. I cried, she didn’t. While it was a little sad, it was a good cry. Helped put some of my emotions and feelings in perspective. Can’t wait to buy it.

  5. Carly  July 2, 2015 at 10:59 am Reply

    I recently lost a loved one, and am still learning to cope. Do you think this film would help or hinder that process?

  6. Caitriona  July 1, 2015 at 9:33 am Reply

    Thanks for alerting me to this movie. It’s on general release in Ireland at end of July. Will bring my 4 orphaned nieces to it to aid them on their grief journey. Coming up to three years as a Guardian Auntie and really appreciate the tips your website offers. Thank you.

    • Litsa  July 4, 2015 at 9:12 am Reply

      Thanks Caitriona! Please let us know what you (and they) think of the movie! I am sure it is a lot of work being a ‘Guardian Auntie’ to four children who have lost their parents. They are lucky to have someone looking for resources to help and support them in their grief!

  7. Allis  June 25, 2015 at 9:37 pm Reply

    Felt just like you during this movie. Absolutely loved it on a adult level. I didn’t think about the grief aspect as much as you did – in retrospect I am. I did however, connect to fear/anxiety and my teen son did as well. EX: Subconscious:)
    So much to gain from this movie – go see it!

  8. Nicole  June 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm Reply

    I LOVED this movie. It gave a visual explanation for the way I have felt when dealing with depression or loss. I wish it would have come out 10 years ago.

    • Eleanor  June 25, 2015 at 1:29 pm Reply


      It was great, wasn’t it?


  9. Darel Santucci  June 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm Reply

    “Inside Out” may be too much for me to handle; reason being, any film that I watch that may trigger memories of my departed loved ones, and the crying jag begins. I’m in therapy, and due to unresolved issues (my ex-girlfriend has my parents and my grandfather’s cremains locked up in a storage unit that I no longer have access to; now, I have to get the police involved)… so, no grief films for me.

    • Eleanor  June 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm Reply

      Hey Darel,

      I’m sorry that you’ve been dealing with some of these tough issues. I hope your ex-girlfriend decides to have some compassion before you have to get the police involved. If you don’t think you are up for sad movies, then why not stay away from them for a little while. They will always be there when you feel like you’re in a better place. Good luck with everything.


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