My younger daughter has been begging me for weeks to watch The Lion King. The animated version from the early ‘90s. For a couple reasons, I kept trying to put her off. First, the girl is obsessed with princesses. A common refrain in our house: If it doesn’t have a princess, I don’t want to watch it. The girl knows her heart. The last thing I wanted to do was get the movie and endure two hours of endless questions—Where is the princess? Why is there no princess? But, after several princess talks, she remained adamant. The Lion King or bust.
My second reason, and honestly, the bigger one, was that I did not enjoy the movie as a child. I know, I know! Not a popular opinion. But hear me out. The part where the father dies shook me, instilled a fear of death of a loved one that I grappled with throughout much of my childhood. I distinctly remember leaving the theatre in the middle of the movie to cry in the bathroom (with two siblings, public crying was not recommended). I told my parents after that I would never watch that movie again.
I kept that promise until tonight. We got The Lion King. Both girls, six and three, were ecstatic. We said they could watch the whole thing. (A pretty big deal in our house.) Cut to the point where the father dies. My older daughter bursts into tears. Hysterical. Did he really die? Why? Why? The boy is all alone now! Eventually, we left the room, as she was too upset to continue watching. But giving her cuddles wasn’t enough. She had questions. And what started as a fun family movie night turned into one of those parental tightrope walks where you have to balance honesty against terrifying them.
In light of the pandemic, death has become real to her. It’s no longer an imaginary concept from Disney movies where she blinks and forgets that the “bad guy” is gone. Hundreds of thousands of people have died this year. And that is scary and sad and confusing for everyone, but particularly children. They must stay home, wash their hands, wear masks, not hug their friends. While we have sheltered her from a lot of realities, COVID made it so that the topic of death was unavoidable, but tonight was the first time she voiced questions unrelated to the pandemic.
The conversation was difficult, confusing, and yet, hopeful. The most upsetting part was when she realized, You’re going to die before me, aren’t you? And then proceeded to sob about how she didn’t want me to leave her. The finality of death and what happens afterwards was harder to explain because she wanted concrete answers. Answers no one has. But towards the end, the hope came. Death serves as a reminder that we need to focus on living. Doing what we love with the people we love. Laugh. Give hugs. Tell people how we feel. Let go of grudges. Push ourselves to be better.
Yes, I made sure the conversation was cookie-cutter and easily digestible for a child, but the words were easy for me to say, because it was the lesson I took out of 2020. To enjoy the moment—catching up with a friend, basking in your child’s giggle, having a date night with your partner. I needed to stop focusing on what I didn’t have or what might happen and recognize that what I had right now was perfect enough.
While I don’t ever see myself being a huge fan of The Lion King, I love that it gave me the opportunity to have such an important conversation with my daughter. I love that she comes to me with her fears, silly stories, joy. I’m sure that won’t be the case when she’s sixteen, but instead of mourning ten years in the future, I’m going to live in the moment, and think about how lucky I am to hold her tonight. Talk to her. Kiss away her fears.