Before the doctor opened her mouth, you knew this wasn’t going to be good.
And it wasn’t, although you can barely remember what happened a minute after you heard the diagnosis. All you could wrap your head around were monitors and tubes and machines and death, when what you needed was “Dear Life” by Rachel Clarke, and a reminder that it wasn’t time for that yet.
When she was a little girl, Rachel Clarke was in awe of her father, a doctor who loved music and nature and who shared his sense of curiosity with his children. As a teen, Clarke toyed with the idea of following in his footsteps, but she chose a career in television instead. And then one day, after experiencing a couple of close brushes with death, she decided to go back to school to become a doctor, specializing in palliative medicine.
“I learned that dying, up close, is not what you imagine,” she says. “It is the essence of living… that really matters…”
About death, there are two main things: unlike our ancestors, we aren’t used to it; and we can’t know what it’ll be like. These are what Clarke helps her patients and their families deal with, and while she can’t answer the latter question, she promises them that the days and hours before the end are as full of life as possible.
Sometimes, that means meeting fears head-on, and discussing death matter-of-factly. Sometimes, it’s asking questions of a patient because no one else has done so. Caring for someone who’s dying may mean literally opening a window to sunshine or birdsong, holding a hand, letting “a wife curl up in a hospital bed beside her dying husband,” or encouraging a visit from a pet or a beloved grandchild. And sometimes, a doctor just needs to remember that “There is always a spark of beauty or significance…in the life you have left,” even when the person dying is someone the doctor loves.
This year, no doubt, you’ve seen enough death to last several lifetimes, and you’re not sure you can withstand a book about it right now.
But hold on, because “Dear Life” lives up to its title.
Beautiful, thoughtful, and loving, this book is absolutely brimming with life as author Rachel Clarke describes the end-of-life care offered at the hospice where she works and some of the most memorable patients to whom she ministered care.
If that sounds like an anti-life book, well, it’s not. It’s true that people die in this book, and they do it often but Clarke’s accounts of their days prior to death are quiet and serene, with no fear, no pain, and the minimum of loose ends left. Her workplace is not a sterile, clinical home where people go to die; rather, it’s a place where people die but first, happiness sneaks in sometimes.
And for that, curiously, this book on death-and-life may be the balm your COVID-bruised mind needs now. Indeed, calm, truthful, and not too gory, “Dear Life” is good.
Another book to look for is “Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph” by David Shneer. It’s the story of a photo taken toward the end of World War II, and the emotion inside it. Part meditation, part history, this book is perfect for the historian, too.
Advice to keep a sad event from becoming even more painful
By Consumer Reports
Responsibility for the various actions can be divided among family members and close friends of the deceased.
1. Get a legal pronouncement of death. If no doctor is present, you’ll need to contact someone to do this.
If the person dies at home under hospice care, call the hospice nurse, who can declare the death and help facilitate the transport of the body.
If the person dies at home unexpectedly without hospice care, call 911. Have in hand a do-not-resuscitate document if it exists. Without one, paramedics will generally start emergency procedures and, except where permitted to pronounce death, take the person to an emergency room for a doctor to make the declaration. Keep in mind that do-not-resuscitate laws vary at the state level and if a person does not want to be resuscitated, “calling 911 is not necessary” according to the National Institute on Aging. “If the death is not unexpected, you might call the individual’s physician first,” says Lori Bishop, vice president of palliative and advanced care at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
2. Arrange for transportation of the body. If no autopsy is needed, the body can be picked up by a mortuary (by law, a mortuary must provide price info over the phone if you ask for it) or crematorium.
3. Notify the person’s doctor or the county coroner.
4. Notify close family and friends. (Ask some to contact others.)
5. Handle care of dependents and pets.
6. Call the person’s employer, if he or she was working. Request info about benefits and any pay due. Ask whether there was a life-insurance policy through the company.
Within a Few Days After Death
7. Arrange for funeral, memorial service, and burial or cremation. Search the person’s documents to find out whether there was a prepaid burial plan. Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the mortuary. Prepare an obituary.
8. If the person was in the military or belonged to a fraternal or religious group, contact that organization. It may have burial benefits or conduct funeral services.
9. Secure the person’s home. Or ask a friend or relative to keep an eye on it, answer the phone, collect mail, throw food out, water plants, and keep minimal heat on to avoid frozen pipes if it’s winter in a colder climate.
Up to 10 Days After Death
10. Obtain the death certificate (usually from the funeral home). Get multiple copies; you’ll need them for financial institutions, government agencies, and insurers.
11. Take the will to the appropriate county or city office to have it accepted for probate. Check your state’s laws, which may require you to file the will within a set period of time.
12. If necessary, the estate’s executor should open a bank account for the deceased’s estate.
13. Contact the following:
A trust and estate attorney, to learn how to transfer assets and assist with probate issues.
Police, to have them periodically check the deceased’s house if vacant.
An accountant or a tax preparer, to find out whether an estate-tax return or final income-tax return should be filed.
The person’s investment adviser, if applicable, for information on holdings.
Banks, to find accounts and safe deposit box.
Life insurance agent, to get claim forms.
The Social Security Administration (800-772-1213; ssa.gov) and other agencies from which the deceased received benefits, such as Veterans Affairs (800-827-1000; va.gov), to stop payments and ask about applicable survivor benefits. The SSA, like the VA, recommends immediately reporting the person’s death, though in many cases the funeral home will handle this.
Agency providing pension services, to stop monthly checks and get claim forms.
Utility companies, to change or stop service, and Postal Service, to stop or forward mail. Reach out to other companies to stop recurring bills and subscriptions. If home is vacant, contact the insurer to switch to a vacant policy. If home is under a mortgage, contact the lender.
The IRS, credit-reporting agencies, and the DMV to prevent identity theft.
Social media companies, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, to memorialize or remove an account.
Know the Person’s Wishes
For an elderly friend or relative:
Know the location of the will, birth certificate, marriage and divorce certificates, Social Security information, life-insurance policies, financial documents, and keys to safe deposit box or home safe. Ask the person to create an inventory of their digital assets (such as email, social networks, and digital files) and include a plan for these assets in their will.
Ask about the person’s wishes concerning funeral arrangements, organ and brain donation, and burial or cremation.
Have the person complete an advance directive, including a living will, which specifies wanted and unwanted procedures. The person should also appoint a healthcare proxy to make medical decisions if he or she becomes incapacitated. Some who are more seriously ill might also consider a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment in addition to an advance directive.
Ask the person about end-of-life care, such as palliative and hospice care (which have key differences), and what their insurance will cover. Medicare, which covers most elderly Americans, will cover hospice care. Palliative care is growing in popularity, but “keep in mind that anyone with six months or less to live should have access to hospice,” Bishop says.
Have a do-not-resuscitate order drawn up if the person desires. That tells healthcare professionals not to perform CPR if the person’s heart or breathing stops and restarting would not result in a meaningful life.
Make sure the person gives copies of the documents to his or her doctor and a few family members or friends. Take the documents to the hospital if the person is admitted.
How many times have you had a dream that involved death? Have you ever dreamed about someone you loved dying or been visited in a dream by someone who has passed away? Though we don’t often talk about them, I’d say that death is a common dream theme—especially this year.
Dreams are, after all, a way for us to process life. And dreaming about death is often a way to process the fear of the unknown. Morbid dreams can show up when we are in the middle of a job transition, a divorce, an identity crisis, or any other kind of major shift. In 2020, we are all going through a transformation on some level. We are all connected, so on some level, we are all affected.
Generally speaking, dreaming about death is likely a sign that you are in a period of change, but here’s how to further interpret this type of dream based on the details.
If you dreamed about a loved one dying:
If you’ve ever had a dream of a loved one dying, you know how utterly upsetting they can feel. You wake up wondering if it’s a premonition, a warning of an accident—you name it. Once this panic is activated, it becomes extremely hard to be objective.
So the first thing I would do if I dream of someone I know dying would be to ask myself if I am afraid of losing that person. If the answer is yes, this dream may have served as a wake-up call about how much this relationship means to me.
Start there and see if your body drops the tension and you stop obsessing over that dream.
If you dreamed about yourself dying:
This can be a very scary dream or a very tranquil dream, depending on its quality. I’ve heard of people who have dreamed that they’ve died and been met by spirits, angels, ancestors, or guides and experience peace. I’ve also heard from people who dream of painful deaths that occur under scary circumstances. So it’s complex, and ultimately the only person who can decode the meaning behind this dream is you. But here is an example of how I would approach a dream like this:
Let’s say I had a dream that I died in the water, drowned when I fell into the sea. If I felt peace and calm in my dream and like my spirit was at rest, I might come to the conclusion that this dream was about a past life.
If I had the same dream but I struggled for air, felt alone and in despair, this would obviously be a bad death. In this case, I would try to remember some more details of the dream. What was the scenario that caused me to fall overboard? Was I pushed? Were large waves washing me away?
I would look for more clues about what the message could be and how this dream could be signifying a different kind of “drowning” in my own life.
If you had a nonsensical dream about death:
When we are processing many emotions at once—fear, sadness, loss, frustration, desire, longing, etc.—our dreams often become giant mashup scenarios. They don’t make much logical sense. One minute, it’s the 1980s and you’re wearing the pants you bought online last week. The next minute your ex from five years ago is there, and suddenly you see your dying fall.
When timelines are mixed, people past and present are juxtaposed, and you can’t put the dream in any logical order, that’s your psyche processing your waking life. That’s the one for the analyst’s couch or the dream books. Its message is always personal and only clear after a lot of inner reflection. If you die in this kind of dream, it’s likely pure fear of change or loss.
If you dream of someone you love dying in a similarly haphazard way, the same criteria apply. If the story is convoluted and the steps are mixed up in time and space—and especially if you wake up instantly emotional and confused—this is not a predictive dream. You might just be feeling scared to lose this person, literally or emotionally.
(I do believe that some highly intuitive peoplecan have predictive dreams, but these tend to be very matter-of-fact, detailed, and orderly. You wake up with a clear, concise flowing story, and you don’t feel emotional about it.)
If you dreamed about someone who has passed away in real life:
If the dream is confusing, has mixed-up timelines, and causes you to wake up feeling sad or confused, it’s likely you processing their loss.
If that person is happy and at peace in the dream, maybe talking to you or showing you something, and you wake up feeling calm, it could have been a visitation from them. And those are the best dreams of all.
Dreams are a common way for us to process our waking life. So most of the time dreams about death are not about literal death but the challenges and unknowns we are facing. Pay attention to the details of your death dreams and how they make you feel for further insights into their messages.
Conceived as an end-of-life option for terminally ill patients, hospices provide palliative care, medications, nursing services and counseling for those diagnosed with six months or less to live.
The number of U.S. hospices has roughly doubled in the last 20 years, as more for-profit providers vie for a share of $19.2 billion a year in Medicare spending that covers hospice care. More than 1.5 million Medicare beneficiaries now receive care from some 5,000 hospices, nearly a quarter of them in California.
While hospice has been a godsend for millions of dying Americans and their families, a Times investigation found that intense competition for new patients has spurred billing fraud and other illegal practices, including falsified diagnoses and kickbacks to unscrupulous doctors and recruiters who target prospective patients at retirement homes and other venues.
The Times also found hundreds of instances in which California hospice patients were harmed, neglected or put at serious risk, their mistreatment sometimes exacerbated by serious gaps in government oversight.
What are the benefits of hospice care?
Hospice is intended to provide comforting, compassionate care and a range of support services for terminally ill patients and their families. In addition to nursing and medical care that includes pain management, prescription drugs and supplies, patients receive spiritual and emotional support, help with personal hygiene and respite care for family caregivers.
Most hospice patients receive care in their homes, including assisted-living settings and nursing facilities.
How do I choose a hospice?
There’s no set formula for choosing a hospice, although experts suggest discussing options with your personal physician and seeking recommendations from friends and relatives whose loved ones have had good experiences.
You should also interview any prospective hospice, asking questions about its licensing, which is required by the California Department of Public Health; whether it is certified by Medicare; when it was last inspected and whether violations were found; the range of available services; the makeup of the hospice care team and the roles of its doctors, nurses and others; and the role the hospice expects family members to play in a patient’s care plan.
Several industry and advocacy groups offer online guidance, including the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which provides a worksheet and a list of questions.
How do I know if a hospice is reliable?
There is no one place where consumers can go to make a comprehensive comparison of local hospices — a gap that patient rights advocates have long criticized.
A variety of online sources provide information about hospice care, but each has limitations. Medicare’s hospice comparison site allows consumers to search for providers by ZIP Code or name, but has scant information about quality-of-care issues and inspections.
The California Department of Public Health has a searchable tool called Cal Health Find Database, which provides users with inspection reports when serious violations are uncovered back to 2017. It also allows consumers to compare quality metrics of up to three hospices at a time, but it doesn’t provide a rating system for providers. The results of inspections by accrediting agencies are not included on the site — a significant problem for consumers in California, where more than 80% of hospices contract with accrediting agencies rather than the state to conduct certification inspections once every three years.
Another resource that is more difficult to navigate is an interactive site maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The site includes copies of complaint investigations and a look-up function that allows users to compare the number of serious violations at hospices in California and other states.
What red flags should I look for?
Be on the lookout for any hospices that have been cited in recent years with serious violations. In the language used by Medicare, these include “condition-level” deficiencies or “immediate jeopardy” situations, which are considered the most severe. Also, hospices can be cited for failing to certify that patients are terminally ill, which is an indication of possible fraud.
If you have the name of a hospice administrator, which can be found on the state public health department’s website, you can find out if that person has been excluded from receiving federal healthcare payments on a site run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.
If I’m not happy about my hospice, where do I complain?
You may also file a complaint about Medicare providers directly with the federal agency or with the California Senior Medicare Patrol, a federally funded statewide hotline to help Medicare beneficiaries prevent, detect and report fraud.
How the pandemic is changing our understanding of mortality.
By BJ Miller
This year has awakened us to the fact that we die. We’ve always known it to be true in a technical sense, but a pandemic demands that we internalize this understanding. It’s one thing to acknowledge the deaths of others, and another to accept our own. It’s not just emotionally taxing; it is difficult even to conceive. To do this means to imagine it, reckon with it and, most important, personalize it. Your life. Your death.
Covid-19’s daily death and hospitalization tallies read like ticker tape or the weather report. This week, the death toll passed 300,000 in the United States. Worldwide, it’s more than 1.6 million. The cumulative effect is shock fatigue or numbness, but instead of turning away, we need to fold death into our lives. We really have only two choices: to share life with death or to be robbed by death.
Fight, flight or freeze. This is how we animals are wired to respond to anything that threatens our existence. We haven’t evolved — morally or socially — to deal with a health care system with technological powers that verge on godly. Dying is no longer so intuitive as it once was, nor is death necessarily the great equalizer. Modern medicine can subvert nature’s course in many ways, at least for a while. But you have to have access to health care for health care to work. And eventually, whether because of this virus or something else, whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, death still comes.
What is death? I’ve thought a lot about the question, though it took me many years of practicing medicine even to realize that I needed to ask it. Like almost anyone, I figured death was a simple fact, a singular event. A noun. Obnoxious, but clearer in its borders than just about anything else. The End. In fact, no matter how many times I’ve sidled up to it, or how many words I’ve tried on, I still can’t say what it is.
If we strip away the poetry and appliqué our culture uses to try to make sense of death — all the sanctity and style we impose on the wild, holy trip of a life that begins, rises and falls apart — we are left with a husk of a body. No pulse, no brain waves, no inspiration, no explanation. Death is defined by what it lacks.
According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act of 1981 (model legislation endorsed by both the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, meant to guide state laws on the question of death), you are dead if you have sustained “either irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions” or “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” — in other words, no heartbeat and no breathing, which is obvious enough, or no brain function, which requires an electroencephalogram.
These are the words we use to describe one of the most profound events in human experience. Most states have adopted them as the legal definition of death. They may be uninspired, and they surely are incomplete. Either way, a doctor or nurse needs to pronounce you dead for it to be official. Until then, you are legally alive.
If we stay focused on the body, the most concrete thing about us, it becomes difficult to say whether death exists at all.
From the time you are born, your body is turning over. Cells are dying and growing all day, every day. The life span of your red blood cells, for example, is about 115 days. At your healthiest, living is a process of dying. A vital tension holds you together until the truce is broken.
But your death is not the end of your body. The chemical bonds that held you together at the molecular level continue to break in the minutes and months after you die. Tissues oxidize and decay, like a banana ripening. The energy that once animated the body doesn’t stop: It transforms. Decay from one angle, growth from another.
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Unfettered, the decay process continues until all that was your body becomes something else, living on in others — in the grass and trees that grow from where you might come to rest, and from the critters who eat there. Your very genes, little packets of stuff, will live indefinitely as long as they found someone new to host them. Even after interment or cremation, your atoms remain intact and scatter to become other things, just as they pre-existed you and became you.
For revelation of the mysteries of an afterlife, or of the forces that kicked off this wondrous circus in the first place, we might look to religion. What is described above is plainly observable science. Yet science doesn’t do the question justice. It won’t tell us why, or what’s behind its laws. The body houses more than we can express; you are more than your body. Becoming a blade of grass is a sweetness that doesn’t compensate for all the heartache death connotes.
Of course, we’re sad and afraid of losing ourselves and people we love, but for many of us a fear of death as the Great Unknown has been overtaken by our fears of what we know — or think we know — about dying.
Nowadays, being dead sounds like a lullaby compared with the process of dying. Given a steadily awful diet of stories about breathing machines and already-disenfranchised people dying alone, we’re told to imagine the worst, before cutting to commercial. Our choices seem to be either to picture a kind of hell — that could be mom or me, breathless and alone — or to distance ourselves from the people living those stories, not just in body but in every way, to de-identify with our fellow human beings.
But this is how we make hard things harder. Maybe our fear of death has more to do with our perceptions of reality than with reality itself, and that is good news. Even if we can’t change what we’re looking at, we can change how we look at it.
We do have fuller ways of knowing. Who doubts that imagination and intuition and love hold power and capacity beyond what language can describe? You are a person with consciousness and emotions and ties. You live on in those you’ve touched, in hearts and minds. You affect people. Just remember those who’ve died before you. There’s your immortality. There, in you, they live. Maybe this force wanes over time, but it is never nothing.
And then there’s consciousness — spirit, if you like — and of this, who can say? You may have your own answer to this question, but we do not get to fall back on empiricism. Whatever this mystery is, it blurs all the lines that seem at first glance to separate death from life. And if death isn’t so concrete, or separate, maybe it isn’t so frightening.
The pandemic is a personal and global disaster, but it is also a moment to look at the big picture of life. Earlier this week I had a patient lean into her computer’s camera and whisper to me that she appreciates what the pandemic is doing for her: She has been living through the final stages of cancer for a while, only now her friends are more able to relate to her uncertainties, and that empathy is a balm. I’ve heard many, in hushed tones, say that these times are shaking them into clarity. That clarity may show up as unmitigated sorrow or discomfort, but that is honest and real, and it is itself a powerful sign of life.
So, again, what is death? Talking about and around it may be the best we can do, and doing so out loud is finally welcome. Facts alone won’t get you there. We’re always left with the next biggest question, one that is answerable and more useful anyway: What is death to you? When do you know you’re done? What are you living for in the meantime?
For some of us, death is reached when all other loved ones have perished, or when we can no longer think straight, or go to the bathroom by ourselves, or have some kind of sex; when we can no longer read a book, or eat pizza; when our body can no longer live without the assistance of a machine; when there is absolutely nothing left to try. Maybe the most useful answer I ever came across was the brilliant professor who instructed his daughter that death was what happened when he could no longer take in a Red Sox game.
If I had to answer the question today I would say that, for me, death is when I can no longer engage with the world around me. When I can no longer take anything in and, therefore, can no longer connect. At times, social distancing has me wondering if I’m there already, but that’s just me missing touching the people I care about. There are still ways to connect with others, including the bittersweet act of missing them. And besides, I get to touch the planet all day long.
These are helpful questions to consider as you weigh serious medical treatment options, or any time you have to choose whether to mobilize your finite energy to push, or use it to let go. Our answers may be different, but they are always actionable; they are ends around which we and our inner circles and our doctors can make critical decisions.
They also have a way of illuminating character. They are an expression of self, the self who will one day do the dying and so gets to say. What is it you hold dear? Who are you, or who do you wish to be? You can see how death is better framed by what you care about than by the absence of a pulse or a brain wave.
Beyond fear and isolation, maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks. Reveling in love is one sure way to see through and beyond yourself to the wider world, where immortality lives. A pretty brilliant system, really, showing you who you are (limited) and all that you’re a part of (vast). As a connecting force, love makes a person much more resistant to obliteration.
You might have to loosen your need to know what lies ahead. Rather than spend so much energy keeping pain at bay, you might want to suspend your judgment and let your body do what a body does. If the past, present and future come together, as we sense they must, then death is a process of becoming.
So, once more, what is death? If you’re reading this, you still have time to respond. Since there’s no known right answer, you can’t get it wrong. You can even make your life the answer to the question.
BJ Miller is a hospice and palliative medicine physician, author of “A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death,” and founder of Mettle Heath, which provides consultations for patients and caregivers navigating serious illness.
It’s been a year of loss. But even seeing the devastation of COVID-19 hasn’t made it any easier to talk about death—and specifically, the possibility of our own deaths and deaths of those we love. Of course, ignoring death doesn’t make its inevitability any less real, during this year or any other.
Life Support is a new website from the London creative studio The Liminal Space, funded by the U.K. government. It’s a resource that proclaims, “Talking about dying won’t make it happen.” And with that premise as a baseline, it lets you explore topics about death and dying from the perspectives of experts, like palliative care doctors and social workers.
The design appears nebulous at first glance, with words floating in hand-drawn bubbles, which pulsate like the rhythm of your own breathing. But looks can be deceiving. What’s really lurking inside this casual space is a sharp curriculum built to answer your lingering questions about death.
As you scroll through the interface, the site offers several potential paths of thought that are probably familiar to most of us, like, “I’m scared to have a painful death” and “I don’t know if I should talk to my child about death.” When you find a question to explore, you swipe for more. That’s when experts come in. Some of their answers appear in blocks of text. Others are actually recorded, with audio you can play back. You might think the audio is a gimmick or unnecessary panache. In fact, I found it quite affecting to hear a doctor offering her own thoughts and advice about death aloud; it creates a level of intimacy that printed words can’t quite capture.
Ten or 20 years ago, a resource like this might have been a pamphlet (and indeed, anyone who frequents hospitals knows that pamphlets are still a mainstay to educate patients on topics of all types). But Life Support makes a convincing argument for how giving someone a bit of agency—like choosing our own questions to be answered, or hearing from doctors with our own ears when we’d like to—makes the information easier to digest.
I doubt there’s any quick resource out there that will ever get people completely comfortable talking or thinking about their own mortality. Religion and the arts have already attempted to tackle this topic for millennia. But Life Support is a solid attempt to ease us into the conversation.
We are at a time when large numbers of children are experiencing loss. Here are seven movies to help them develop coping skills.
By Stacy Brick
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The pandemic has plunged the world into a crisis of grief. It has caused the deaths of more than 290,000 people in the United States, many of them grandparents and parents. In New York State alone, 4,200 children lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19 between March and July, according to a study from the United Hospital Fund. (These were the most recent figures available on parental death from Covid.)
For any family who lost a loved one this year, regardless of the cause of death, the pandemic has kept them from being able to properly mourn their loss. And now the holiday season is here, which can be a grief trigger, especially for kids.
Children who lose a parent are at higher risk for lasting mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Supporting a grieving child involves normalizing their feelings while giving them tools to cope — talking about death, however, can sometimes feel overwhelming. Parents and children may both be reluctant to have conversations that bring up difficult emotions, but it’s important for parents to provide opportunities to acknowledge their child’s feelings.
The following films, suitable for children ages 6 and older, offer helpful ways to explore death and the accompanying emotions, while providing parents an opening to talk about loss. Content that might be disturbing to young children is noted.
109 minutes; Rated PG; available on Disney+
This colorful, Academy Award-winning Pixar film based around the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), follows 12-year-old Miguel’s journey to the Land of the Dead. While there, he unlocks family secrets and learns that the dead continue to exist in the memory of the living.
The Black Stallion (1979)
118 minutes; Rated G; available on Amazon.
After a young boy named Alec and a horse are washed up on a deserted island from a shipwreck that killed Alec’s father, the orphaned boy and the animal soon form an inseparable bond. The pair are rescued and Alec becomes determined to turn “The Black” into a racehorse with the help of a grizzled old trainer. Alec’s connection with the horse brings him solace, helping him deal with his grief for his father.
Fly Away Home (1996)
107 minutes; Rated PG; available on Amazon.
After her mother dies in a car crash, 13-year-old Amy (played by a young Anna Paquin) is sent from New Zealand to Canada to live with her father. She adopts a nest of abandoned goose eggs, and when they hatch she finds herself in charge of teaching the goslings survival skills — including how to fly south for the winter. In the process of taking on the mother role for the goslings, Amy is able to grieve for her own mother. Please note: The car crash is shown in the film’s opening sequence.
Summer 1993 (2017)
100 minutes (subtitled); available on Amazon.
After her mother’s death, 6-year-old Frida must move from Barcelona to the country to live with her aunt, uncle and younger cousin. The young girl soon struggles with grief and her place in this new family. Often presented from Frida’s viewpoint, with overheard conversations and waist-high camera angles, the film is based on the director’s personal experiences with loss.
A Monster Calls (2016)
128 minutes; Rated PG-13; available on Amazon.
Conor’s mother is gravely ill, and the 13-year-old struggles with anger, sadness, guilt and anticipatory grief. To cope with all the overwhelming emotions, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) conjures a monster who offers up three fables and then demands one from him — it must be his ultimate truth. MacDougall gives an authentic performance as a boy learning to face the truth, even though it is contradictory and complex. Please note: There is some destruction of property, physical bullying and verbal abuse.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
103 minutes; Rated PG; available on HBO Max.
In this feature from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, Anna is sent by her foster mother to visit relatives at the seaside for fresh air after having an asthma attack. Once there, she ventures into an abandoned mansion and discovers a new friend, Marnie, who may or may not be the ghost of her grandmother. Anna is then forced to confront feelings she has been avoiding about the loss of her family.
The Farewell (2019)
98 minutes (subtitled); Rated PG; available on Amazon.
The matriarch of a family in China is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but no one has told her. The family comes together one last time under the guise of a large wedding, but it’s really to say goodbye. The film, based on the writer and director Lula Wang’s personal story, shows profound cultural differences in attitudes about death and grieving.