What’s Your Grief
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Mary Poppins Returns Gets Grief Right
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 rather. For those of you who remember the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, I don’t mean George, Winifred, Jane and Michael Banks who were first visited by Mary Poppins in 1910. Twenty-five years have passed since this first visit and though Michael is still living at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, it is now with his three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie. Michael’s wife and the children’s mother, Kate, died earlier that year.
This is how we learn that 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, frankly, 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 happens to love about the character.
“…what I really like about her is the great mystery” Blunt said. “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 seems to be 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” and so, tucked in amongst scenes filled with the magic, imagination, music, and inspiration you would expect from Mary Poppins Returns, viewers are taught a few important lessons about grief.
As you might have guessed, there are spoilers ahead!
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 professional and as a human who loves someone who’s died, I’m grateful that this movie acknowledges and normalizes the ongoing role deceased loved ones continue to play in the lives of their family members and friends.
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. 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 if we simply assume the kids are clueless, we may miss an important opportunity to share and 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”
Lesson #5: We could all use a Mary Poppins
Okay, so I can’t say that the movie explicitly teaches us this lesson, but as a grief professional, it got me to 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 they 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).
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