How ‘Inside Out’ Helped Me Understand My Grief


I’m not a movie critic, and this isn’t even an attempt at a movie review. And spoiler alert: I’m not going to try to not spoil this movie for you. I just want to tell you about a family who went to see “Inside Out” together.

“Inside Out” (Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar)
A scene from “Inside Out.” (Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

The characters that you see above are Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. They live inside Riley’s head.

As the film begins, we meet Riley as a little girl who grows up reaching childhood milestones, loves hockey, develops sweet friendships and has a wonderful family life. Then she 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 in Riley’s world and more inside her head.

Inside her mind, we’re introduced to five main characters: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. They operate a switch board that acts as Riley’s “brain-control board” so to speak. They take turns at the board, providing emotions for Riley’s experiences. 

But as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t 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: “Inside Out” helped me understand my grief.

It has been 10 months since our sweet son, Mattie, passed away, and his passing has left our family feeling a barrage of emotions. 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 it as well.

In the movie, there’s 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, not wanting to see Riley feel 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.”

Grief is just like that. As Joy becomes further and further removed from the control system of our minds, Sadness tries to express itself. But often, it’s Anger and Fear who 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 covers up Sadness and pushes 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 him get to the deeper root and see Sadness hiding behind the Anger. I’ve watched as screaming and kicking gave way to weeping.

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, Joy will never be able to return.

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 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.

The same thing has happened in my life. I can recount beautiful, miraculous and joyful moments with my sweet boy, and, at the same time, feel the sting of Sadness, knowing that memories are all we have left now.

So my friends, whatever pain and grief you may hold, Anger isn’t bad. Feel it. Acknowledge it. It’s OK. But as I am learning, and as I’m teaching my children, never let Anger push Sadness to the background for too long.

Joy comes in waves. Sadness comes in waves. And at times, one is more intense than the other. But at other times, they wash up against us with the same steady rhythm hand in hand.

A version of this post originally appeared on From the Heart.

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