What Disney’s Inside Out taught me about grief and loss

I recently took my daughter, age 12, to watch Inside Out. It was a rare day that we had alone and I felt it would be a poignant film to see together.

Having researched the film (which I have to do with anything I expose my children to), I was impressed by the reviews which said the film offered a unique way of viewing how our emotions work in a way that children could relate to. I initially wanted to see the film because I thought it would give my daughter further insight into why she might feel the way she does and then have more understanding of her emotions. All this wrapped up in an entertaining Disney Pixar movie!

But I wasn’t prepared for the film to speak to me! To my grief. To make me think about Abi, too.

The film starts with a baby being born and in that baby’s mind is an emotion, Joy. When she pushes a button on the simple console (inside the baby’s mind), the baby feels joy and those moments get stored as memories in the form of glass balls. Extra special ‘core’ memories are stored in a central section of the mind.

But Joy is quickly joined by Sadness, a surprisingly lovable Eeyore-type character who can’t help pushing the button sometimes or touching things she shouldn’t. When Sadness touches a core memory, which is happy (yellow), she turns it blue, sad. This is irreversible.

There are three other emotions: Fear, Anger and Disgust. All have relatively minor and obvious roles to play.

INSIDE OUT Progression Image (3 of 7). CHARACTERS – Character creation begins with modeling, a process of translating the character's overall form into the computer. These forms are then articulated to allow them to move. If called for, hair and clothing are added. The final step, shading, involves applying textures, colors, patterns and other material properties that will add complexity. This image shows the characters fully modeled, articulated, shaded and ready to be placed in a scene. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

You watch the child grow up and the simple console becomes more complex with various buttons and levers on it. The emotions play their various roles, Anger pushes the button when a tantrum builds up for example. And they all share a turn on the button during challenging, slightly dangerous but exciting moments.

But the focus of the film is on Joy.

Joy’s aim is to keep the girl happy at all costs. She adores the girl. She runs around saving the girl from the other emotions, who all think they need to have a turn on the button. Her hardest task is keeping Sadness in check.

When the girl’s parents move her to another state and school, the upheaval is a strain on all of them. Sadness feels compelled to push the button and keeps touching core memories, turning them into forever unhappy ones.

Sadness and Joy end up lost in the girl’s mind and have to find their way back to the central control room in order to stop the other emotions from taking over.  As usual, Joy is rushing about desperately trying to protect the girl’s last few good memories whilst keeping Sadness from turning everything blue. But she becomes separated from Sadness and it’s not until she finds her and they work together that they find a way back.

Meanwhile, the girl is angry, scared and confused, thanks to the other emotions, who believe they are helping her, literally putting ideas into her head. She decides to run away from home, back to where she used to live.


©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Sadness manages to turn all but one of the core memories blue and Joy succumbs to stress and sadness too. They finally get back to the central mind just as the girl runs away. The idea to leave is removed and she changes her mind and goes home.

The last joyful core memory is of the girl’s old life back at her old home. It was that memory that she was trying to get back to, by running away. Joy plugs in the memory in an attempt to cheer the girl up and save the situation. When she arrives home to her worried parents, Sadness reaches the control and touches the memory. Joy stops her but as she does the memory becomes both yellow and blue, happy and sad. The girl cries in sorrow for missing her home but the memory stays happy because she is still with her parents. She’s able to tell her parents how she feels and they ‘grieve’ this loss together.

The emotions, particularly Sadness, are validated and listened to, empathized with. My heart swelled when I realised what the film was saying to me… that Joy had to let Sadness share some of the ‘mind space’ in order to help the girl find her joy again! That sadness is a key emotion, that happiness isn’t always the way to fulfilment; grief is a natural emotion and is necessary for many situations – not just death but also the grief related to loss.

Another way the film highlighted my grief was that I saw all the memories being built up inside the mind – a happy day at the park, cuddles with mum and dad, doing well at sports, being with friends, the occasional sad or angry memory – and as well as the memories of all my children, I thought of Abi.


Again, I questioned, what is the point of all those memories if they end with death? If there’s nothing else after our bodies stop living why do we bother having memories and emotions at all? We might as well be like animals. I know the answer of course. Abi has taken her memories with her to heaven. And what about my little Bella, my baby that didn’t even get to be born and with only a sense of love as a memory?

I have 39 years of memories in my mind – a huge mixture of good, bad, happy, sad – they make up who I am, they make up my soul, and that is what lives on. It was heartbreaking to be shown that Abi’s mind stopped making memories with us on that awful day. But the film also reconfirmed to me, and my daughter, that without sorrow there can be no joy.

It may not be an obvious blockbuster, like Frozen, but Inside Out may just be one of the most significant children’s films ever made.

8 thoughts on “What Disney’s Inside Out taught me about grief and loss

  1. I am feeling Sadness just reading this and getting an insight into how it made you feel.
    I am also feeling Anger at myself for falling asleep during the film and feeling as though I’ve missed significant chunks of it! Both my boys really enjoyed it and it obviously resonated with my younger son in particular as he’s talked about it quite a lot since. I think I need to watch it again!

  2. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this film but it appealed to me when I saw the tralier so I’ll have to watch it and see for myself. Like music, films evoke such powerful emotions in us. Big hugs, lovely X

  3. I still haven’t seen this but I’ve been impressed by the comments about the way it handles a complex subject in a way that seems to work on both an adult and a child’s level. Definitely one for us to watch with our kids (who are still avidly watching Frozen).

  4. I strongly agree with your point of views and if we all die eventually why should we remember certain things. Somethings I remember I hate remembering them. I am sorry abut your children, that must suck! I’m glad I got to watch that movie because it helped me understand a lot and it was so good!

  5. Pingback: Abigail - Celebrate Your Loved Ones, Share your faith.

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